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Dr. Charles A. Fager, 90; brought elegant touch to neurosurgery

 Dr. Fager, shown performing neurosurgery in 1964, was known for his pioneering, innovative techniques and for high-profile patients including Ted Williams.

Dr. Fager, shown performing neurosurgery in 1964, was known for his pioneering, innovative techniques and for high-profile patients including Ted Williams.

While speaking one day with a young surgeon he had hired, Dr. Charles A. Fager mentioned that he hated the sight of blood.

For reasons rooted more in surgical skills than queasiness, he saw considerably less of it than his colleagues. Precise incisions result in less blood loss, leaving a clearer operating area, and Dr. Fager was “a meticulous surgeon,” said Dr. Stephen Freidberg, who decades ago was the new hire to whom Dr. Fager disclosed his aversion.

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“His dissections were clean, with minimal bleeding, and his patients invariably did well,” said Freidberg, who succeeded Dr. Fager as chairman of neurosurgery at Lahey Clinic. “He had very few complications because he was technically so good and had such good judgment. He knew when to go on, he knew when to stop. He knew when to operate, he knew when not to operate. He had fantastically good instincts about what was good for this patient.”

Known for his pioneering, innovative techniques and for high-profile patients including Red Sox slugger Ted Williams, Dr. Fager arrived at Lahey Clinic in 1953 after a stint as an Air Force flight surgeon and stayed for the next 54 years. He was still seeing patients when he retired in 2007 at 83, though he set aside surgery as he entered his 70s.

Dr. Fager, who shared his name with a Hall of Fame racehorse whose trainer had been a patient, died in his Wellesley home last Tuesday of complications from a stroke. He was 90.

“Elegant is the word for Charlie Fager,” said Dr. John Libertino, a former chief executive of Lahey Clinic who is now chairman of the clinic’s urology department. “He was an elegant surgeon and he was also an elegant, articulate spokesman for the clinic and in neurosurgical circles.”

Dr. Fager served in several roles at Lahey Clinic. He chaired the neurosurgery department from 1963 to 1984, and also was vice chairman of the board of governors, a member of the Lahey Clinic Foundation board of trustees, and chaired the surgery division.

‘His patients invariably did well. He had very few complications because he was technically so good and had such good judgment.’

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“I tried to emulate him when I became chief of surgery, a job he had held, and when I became CEO, I tried to emulate Charlie Fager in everything I did,” Libertino said. “Dr. Fager was my role model. He was just masterful.”

The oldest of three children, Dr. Fager grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., where his father was a traveling salesman and his mother was a homemaker. The example set by an uncle, who was a general practitioner, pointed him toward medicine.

“His inspiration was his uncle, a very simple GP in New York City who never charged patients who couldn’t afford it, and none of his patients could afford it,” said Dr. Fager’s son Jeff, who is executive producer of “60 Minutes” and chairman of CBS News. “He was in a shabby little office and was poor, and my father looked up to him.”

Dr. Fager once told his son that “he skipped so many grades that it was as if he skipped childhood. He didn’t relate to his peers.” He graduated from Wagner College on Staten Island and was only 21 when he finished his medical degree at what is now SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn.

Living in a nearby building during medical school, he met Margaret Bulkley, an assistant on Wall Street whom he married in 1947.

Dr. Fager became “a terrific mentor to people like me and my generation of neurosurgeons,” Freidberg said. “We really learned neurosurgery from him.”

Nationally, Freidberg added, Dr. Fager was “a voice of reason in neurosurgery. He was always a voice for sensible, conservative neurosurgery.”

A longtime faculty member at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Fager lectured at medical schools across the country and around the world. Focusing his research on those who underwent unsuccessful spinal surgery, he published papers about avoiding of unnecessary surgery and selecting patients appropriately. He formerly served as president of the Neurosurgical Society of America, the New England Neurosurgical Society, and the Boston Society of Neurology and Psychiatry.

In 1959 and ’60, he treated Ted Williams, who was suffering from what one Globe reporter called “the town’s most publicized pain in the neck.” Within a half hour of arriving at Logan Airport in March 1959, after flying in from Scottsdale, Ariz., Williams was on the phone with Dr. Fager, who spent months treating him with traction, a plastic neck collar to alleviate pain, and neck exercises.

“The same guy in the OR who was so accomplished was the same guy we had at home,” Dr. Fager’s son Jeff said. “I can’t imagine having a better role model.”

Dr. Fager, he said, would “be in the shower every morning at 5:45 and he was first in the operating room. His operations were always scheduled at the break of day.” Despite the long hours, Jeff added, “his day always ended at the dinner table with his family.”

Dr. Fager’s son Greg died in January of kidney cancer.

In addition to his wife, Margaret, and son Jeff, Dr. Fager leaves another son, Chris of Los Angeles; a daughter, Mary Lou Hayden of Bronxville, N.Y.; a brother, Donald of New Canaan, Conn.; a sister, Jeanne Dorans of Plano, Texas; 10 grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.

A celebration of his life will be held at noon May 16 in Alumni Auditorium at Lahey Hospital and Medical Center in Burlington.

One of Dr. Fager’s patients, John Nerud, extended his fame from the operating room to horseracing tracks. A trainer who is a member of the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, Nerud sought care from Dr. Fager in the mid-1960s after suffering head and neck injuries in a fall from a pony. “I didn’t know a horse trainer from a lion tamer at that point,” Dr. Fager said at the time, according to an account Joe Meagher wrote for a New York Times blog in 2010.

By way of thanks, Nerud named a horse after his surgeon. Dr. Fager the racehorse was inducted into the Hall of Fame after becoming the only thoroughbred to finish first in four championships in a single year.

Dr. Fager the surgeon also wrote books, including one about the horse. According to Meagher, Dr. Fager said his namesake was “probably a better racehorse than I am a surgeon,” though his medical colleagues thought otherwise.

“He was a consummate surgeon,” Libertino said.

“In everybody’s life, there’s somebody who makes a difference,” Freidberg said. “If it hadn’t been for him, my life would have been very different. I’m eternally in debt to him.”

Bryan Marquard
can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.

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