Dr. C. Miller Fisher; neurologist advanced study of strokes
Dr. C. Miller Fisher, a neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital whose pioneering discoveries in the causes and treatment of strokes created the basis for modern stroke treatments and saved countless lives, had his early medical career derailed in 1941 when he was taken prisoner during World War II.
A Canadian who was a surgical lieutenant in the Navy, Dr. Fisher survived the German sinking of the HMS Voltaire off Cape Verde and spent the next three ½ years in a Nazi prison camp.
“The time in the prison camp taught me not to complain and just get on with things,’’ he said in an interview with the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame when he was inducted in 1998.
Dr. Fisher, a longtime resident of Winchester who mentored scores of neurologists as a professor at Harvard Medical School, died April 14 in St. Peter’s Nursing & Rehabilitation Center in Albany, N.Y. He was 98.
“He was the founder of modern stroke neurology,’’ said Dr. Robert Ackerman, a neurologist at Mass. General who first met Dr. Fisher in 1968 when he applied to be a resident at the hospital.
Dr. Fisher worked at Mass. General for more than 50 years.
“A half century ago, there was nothing to be done for stroke, so it was not worth knowing what was going on,’’ Dr. Fisher said in a 2003 interview in the Journal of Neuro-Ophthalmology.
Through studies of patients and examinations of cadavers, he pointed the way toward stroke treatment and prevention, illuminating the relationship between strokes and blood clots in the hearts of patients with atrial fibrillation. He also showed the relationship between stroke and narrowing of the carotid artery.
Dr. Fisher focused attention on the fleeting warning signs of stroke, which he named transient ischemic attacks. Those warning signs can include sudden weakness on one side of the body, vision problems, and slurred speech.
He began making his groundbreaking findings in the 1950s.
“One new thing after another cropped up,’’ Dr. Fisher said in the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame interview. “It was almost like firecrackers, every day, every week, every month, something new - some observation that was contributory to the welfare of patients.’’
Dr. Fisher coupled his research with an intense devotion to caring for the sick, according to his former students and colleagues. He could spend hours observing a patient, turning the bedside into his laboratory, said Dr. Louis R. Caplan, a neurologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and a Harvard Medical School professor who was one of Dr. Fisher’s students.
“What is the patient teaching us?’’ Dr. Fisher would ask, according to Caplan, who wrote about Dr. Fisher’s methods in a 1982 article for the Archives of Neurology. Among Dr. Fisher’s rules was: “The patient is always doing the best he can.’’
A founder of the Stroke Service at Mass. General, Dr. Fisher taught generations of neurologists who now run labs and clinical programs around the world, according to MGH.
“Dr. Fisher changed my life and I am forever in his debt, as is every stroke patient now treated in the world,’’ Dr. Ackerman said.
Dr. Fisher’s days often stretched past midnight at the hospital, according to his family.
“There were long stretches where we wouldn’t see him,’’ said a son, Dr. Hugh Fisher, a urologist in Albany. Another son, Dr. Peter B. Fisher of Portland, Ore., specializes in nephrology.
“He always gave the patients all the time they needed,’’ Hugh said. “Every day for him was a day to make a discovery or an original contribution. He was very meticulous as a physician.’’
Born Charles Miller Fisher in Waterloo, Ontario, Dr. Fisher was known as Miller.
When he was 11, his mother died in childbirth, at 37. His father, who was in the insurance business, remarried. Dr. Fisher became one of nine siblings, of whom he was the last survivor.
In a memoir not yet published, Dr. Fisher described himself as an indifferent young student who never took a book home until a teacher said she thought he could achieve more.
He was raised with the idea that his future would be as a doctor.
“It was implicit I would aspire to be a physician,’’ he wrote.
He graduated in 1938 from the University of Toronto medical school and joined the Royal Canadian Navy. He married his high school sweetheart, Doris Mary Stiefelmeyer, who died at age 93 in 2008 on the eve of their 69th wedding anniversary.
In the 2003 interview, Dr. Fisher recounted his wartime experiences, including nine hours spent in the Atlantic hoping for rescue after the sinking of the Voltaire.
“My wife, Doris, was expecting our first child on that very day,’’ Dr. Fisher said. “I thought perhaps she was in more trouble than I was.’’
After the war ended, he completed his neurological studies at the Montreal Neurological Institute in 1948, and was recruited to join the staff at Mass. General by Dr. Raymond Adams in 1954.
In addition to his two sons, Dr. Fisher leaves a daughter, Elizabeth of Las Cruces, N.M., and four grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. May 12 at the Winchester Unitarian Society. A celebration of his life is planned for October in Boston during the annual meeting of the American Neurological Association.
Dr. Fisher retired from Harvard Medical School in 1983.
“He had a big retirement dinner and went to work the next day,’’ his son Hugh quipped.
As he approached 90, Dr. Fisher was still going on rounds with MGH residents and looking for new discoveries, he said in the 2003 interview.
“I see puzzling cases, much more puzzling than the young people recognize,’’ he said. “I am always smarter at the end of each day.’’