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Obituary: Dr. Peter Safar / Renowned Pitt physician called 'father of CPR'

Tuesday, August 05, 2003

By Anita Srikameswaran, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Dr. Peter Safar, the internationally renowned physician-researcher often called "the Father of CPR," died of cancer Sunday evening at his Mt. Lebanon home. He was 79.

Dr. Peter Safar

From our archives:

Dr. Peter Safar: A life devoted to cheating death, March 31, 2002

A distinguished professor of resuscitation medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, Dr. Safar was the driving force behind both cardiopulmonary resuscitation and critical care medicine. He developed this country's first intensive care unit and paramedic ambulance service, and was nominated three times for the Nobel Prize in medicine.

"He was a giant in so many diverse areas that it's really amazing," said Dr. Patrick Kochanek, director of the university's Safar Center for Resuscitation Research.

Physicians discovered in May 2002 that Dr. Safar had a malignant pelvic tumor, which was treated with extensive surgery and chemotherapy. Despite the exhausting therapies, he continued to oversee work at his namesake research center until very recently. Dr. Safar reveled in his research, working at home when it became too difficult to go to his Oakland office.

"I still have time left," he said. "Why waste the late years?"

Dr. Safar was writing a book about resuscitation in the 20th century. His colleagues plan to finish it for publication.

His latest research passion was to make a reality of rescuing the brain as well as the heart and lungs from potentially fatal damage in what he dubbed cardiopulmonary-cerebral resuscitation, or CPCR.

The motivation for that work came out of the 1966 death of his 11-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, who lapsed into a coma after a severe asthma attack. The resuscitation expert could revive his daughter's heart and lungs, but not her brain.

As part of that focus, Dr. Safar worked on what he called "suspended animation for delayed resuscitation," in which body cooling techniques are employed to buy time for life-saving medical and surgical interventions.

He began developing that idea almost a decade ago with Dr. Lyn Yaffe, then in charge of combat casualty care research for the U.S. Navy. The projects are now sponsored by the U.S. Army. Many years of promising laboratory and animal experiments at the Safar Center and other research centers have paved the way for initial human trials of therapeutic hypothermia for traumatic shock.

Yaffe said those trials could begin in Pittsburgh in the next 18 months.

Dr. Safar's proteges, Kochanek and Dr. Samuel Tisherman, an associate director of the Safar center, have taken over the projects.

An early protege, Dr. Ake Grenvik, joined Dr. Safar's newly created critical care training program at Pitt in 1968. He is now a distinguished service professor of critical care medicine. The program was designated a university department about 18 months ago.

Dr. Safar's career is a list of firsts. Trained as an anesthesiologist, he pioneered the fields of critical care and intensive care. He initiated Pittsburgh's first professional ambulance service with Freedom House, staffed by formerly unemployed black people from the Hill District. He consulted on the design of the modern ambulance and delved into disaster medicine, becoming a founder of the field's professional society and medical journal.

He collaborated with the Norwegian firm Laerdal to make the first CPR training mannequin, known as Resusci Anne, now familiar to anyone who has taken a lifesaving class. The company has continued to support research and innovation at the Safar Center. Dr. Safar had a close friendship and working relationship for more than 40 years with first Asmund Laerdal and then his son, Tore.

"He was absolutely passionate about the need to involve the first link in the chain of survival, to train the masses with some very simple but efficient lifesaving techniques," said Tore Laerdal. "We share that conviction."

Dr. Safar shied away from being called the "Father of CPR," which Grenvik nevertheless feels is an accolade he very much deserved. He did not devise all the procedure's steps but did put them together into the ABCs -- maintaining a patient's Airway, Breathing and Circulation. He also demonstrated that CPR worked and pushed for its widespread use.

Modest about his own accomplishments, Dr. Safar routinely named people who played key roles in his work.

He nevertheless has received numerous awards and honorary degrees from universities around the world. Recently, the World Association for Disaster and Emergency Medicine named its highest award in his honor. In May, Dr. Safar was profiled in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Last year, his colleagues created the Safar Symposium, a series of lectures about resuscitation and other topics to lead into the long-standing Peter and Eva Safar Annual Lecture in Medical Sciences and Humanities. The tribute will continue in Pitt's version of a "Peter Safar Day," said organizer Kochanek.

"He certainly deserved it," Kochanek said.

Dr. Safar was born on April 12, 1924, in Vienna, Austria. He was conscripted into the German army during World War II, but he parlayed the onset of a skin condition into long-term hospital treatment. He thus avoided serving as a soldier, or "cannon fodder," as he would later put it. He entered medical school in 1943, when an administrator turned a blind eye to his Jewish ancestry. He graduated in 1948.

The following year, Dr. Safar came to the United States for surgical training at Yale New Haven Hospital in Connecticut. In 1950, he and his bride, Eva Kyzivat, moved from Vienna to Philadelphia for anesthesiology training. He later worked in Lima, Peru, and at Baltimore's Johns Hopkins Hospital and Baltimore City Hospital, where he did his pioneering work in CPR and, in 1958, established the country's first intensive care unit.

When Dr. Safar arrived at the University of Pittsburgh in 1961, he formed a new anesthesiology department responsible for administering anesthesia in 70,000 operations annually at five hospitals. It is now the country's largest academic anesthesiology department.

"By the time I quit as department chair in 1979, I had been indirectly or directly responsible for a million anesthesias," Dr. Safar said. He stopped treating patients a decade later, when he was 65. Also in 1979, he established the research center that was renamed in his honor in 1994, when he stepped down from its directorship.

Medicine and research weren't Dr. Safar's sole passions. He was a committed member of Physicians for Social Responsibility, the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and the local chapter of the World Federalist Association.

"The focus of his political activism was world peace, especially given his experiences with war," said his son, Philip, of Wenatchee, Wash. "He felt that a voice should be heard."

Dr. Safar's ready smile and bright eyes were paired with charm and a courtly manner. He could be a hard taskmaster, his son noted, but he was also compassionate. Kochanek remembered thinking it odd that Dr. Safar served people red wine at lab meetings, but then realized that he wanted people to relax and be creative. His interest in people and their ideas was sincere and warm.

True to his Austrian roots, Dr. Safar loved classical music and he, his wife and like-minded friends often got together to perform for each other. His family's 1919 Boesendorfer baby grand piano was shipped to him more than 50 years ago. Dr. Safar's younger son, Paul, of Eugene, Ore., became a musician.

He shared his love of outdoor activities, especially skiing, with his sons as well.

Philip Safar "got the bug," as he put it, for mountaineering as a teenager, when he and his father climbed Austria's highest peak. Dr. Safar liked to say that he strove for quality, not quantity, when it came to being with the family.

But, "for a workaholic, he did spend an awful lot of time with us," his son said. "He exposed us to a lot -- people, cultures, ideas."

His friends typically describe him with words like "elegant," "unique" and "humanist."

"He was a man who appreciated the gift of life and took full advantage of it," his son said.

Dr. Safar, whose contributions to medicine saved innumerable lives directly and indirectly, said he would want to be resuscitated if there was a reasonable chance of retaining his mental capacities.

But, as Grenvik noted, Dr. Safar also often commented: "We are but short-term visitors on Planet Earth."

In addition to his wife and sons, Dr. Safar is survived by five grandchildren. A private funeral will be held Saturday. The university is making arrangements for a memorial service.

Memorial donations can be made to the Safar Center for Resuscitation Research, Attn: Aaron Roach, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, Box 131, Scaife Hall, 3550 Terrace Street, Pittsburgh 15261.

Anita Srikameswaran can be reached at or 412-263-3858.

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