Joseph Sweeting, Prominent Physician and Teacher, Dead at 84
Joseph G. Sweeting, a nationally recognized physician who mentored two generations of young doctors during nearly five decades of teaching at Columbia University's College of Physicians & Surgeons, died Tuesday in Dobbs Ferry, NY, after a long illness. He was 84.
He is remembered by his colleagues, patients and former students alike for his kindness and his gentle bedside manner, and for his great patience and wisdom as a teacher.
"I first met Joe during my internship here, and felt immediately that with his long limbs and beard he needed only a stove-pipe hat to be our local version of Abe Lincoln," his student and colleague Dr. Thomas Jacobs said. "In every setting since then I came to appreciate the other qualities that he shared with our greatest president: His patience, intelligence, generosity of spirit, and essential peacefulness. Every patient I have shared with him makes sure I know what a warm, compassionate and sensible physician he is, and of course I agree entirely with them."
Sweeting was named president of the New York Gastroenterological Association in 1983 and was a member of the executive committee of the Department of Medicine at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. In 1997 he was among the first physicians to be honored nationally with the Distinguished Clinician Award by the American Gastroenterological Association, recognizing outstanding patient care in his specialty.
In his long and varied medical career he ministered to both the great and the forgotten, treating patients on the wards of the Kiowa Indian Hospital in Lawton, OK, in the late 1950s, and later as a physician to the Saudi royal family and to His Holiness the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa of Tibet. But he made his greatest mark as a teacher.
"It is no coincidence that you were always the first GI attending assigned to the new fellows every July," the CBS News medical correspondent and a former student, Dr. Jon LaPook, wrote in a testimonial upon Sweeting's retirement. "You are the epitome of patience – a calming, supportive teacher with a pinch of psychiatrist thrown in for good measure. A perfect blend of humility, expertise and kindness, you have generously given us your time and your wisdom over decades of dedication at Columbia."
Sweeting served as chief of service rounds at Presbyterian Hospital Medical Center and the affiliated Allen Pavilion for 20 years until his retirement in 2006.
Following his formal retirement, Sweeting became the H. William Harris Visiting Professor at a series of teaching hospitals in China and Taiwan, traveling there in 2007, 2009 and 2010 to help introduce Western-style bedside teaching methods to medical schools in that country.
A graceful and prolific writer he was the author of numerous journal articles, medical textbooks and reviews.
"When I was Editor-in-Chief of Gastrointestinal Endoscopy in 1995 I needed a book review done on the huge Bockus Gastroenterology, Fifth Edition," Dr. Charles Lighdale recalled. "The task was so prodigious I almost decided that I ought to form a committee to do the job. Then I thought that Joe Sweeting, with his deep and broad knowledge of the field, might take on this project as a special favor. He accepted in his usual courtly, gracious way, and wrote an outstanding review. I never forgot the first sentence, 'It weighs 25 lbs., has four volumes, 187 chapters, 295 contributing authors , and 3515 pages of text and references.'"
Joseph Sweeting was born in 1930, in Flushing, Queens, the son of a sea captain and his wife. He attended St. Mary's Catholic elementary school where he earned a scholarship to Regis High, a Jesuit-run institution on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, becoming the first member of his family to graduate from high school. From there he went on to the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA., before returning to New York to attend medical school at Columbia.
In 1956 he married Patricia Ann McGovern, who had grown up on the same block in Flushing and attended the same elementary school. Their first of six sons, George Vincent Sweeting, was born in 1957.
The following year, after their second son, Eric Francis, was born, Sweeting was drafted under a Korean War-era program that still applied to graduating doctors. He enlisted in the Indian Health Service with the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs in lieu of military service and was detailed to the Kiowa Indian Hospital in Oklahoma, where he moved his young family. He was later transferred to the Ft. Belknap Indian Reservation in Harlem, Montana.
He returned to NY in 1960 to complete his medical training and begin his practice at Presbyterian Hospital, moving his family back to Queens, where his third son, Paul Joseph, was born.
Sweeting was an early opponent of the Vietnam War, and became active in the early anti-war movement in the mid-1960s, attending protest marchers in New York and Washington, DC. In 1968 he became a local organizer for Sen. Eugene McCarthy's anti-war fueled campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination and later was an active supporter of Sen. George McGovern's campaign for president.
He was also active in many social causes, maintaining an association for many years with the Catholic Workers Party and other liberal Catholic groups.
At Columbia, Sweeting supported medical-student driven efforts to prod the medical center into deeper engagement with and service to the largely poor neighborhoods that surrounded it in Upper Manhattan and in the mid-1970s began doing teaching rounds at Harlem Hospital. In 1985 he was named chief of service rounds at Harlem, the same title he held at Presbyterian.
He was also an avid gardener who applied the same patient, nurturing approach to raising roses and tomatoes as he brought to the bedside. Raising six boys for many years took its toll on the backyard of his house in Dobbs Ferry, where the family had moved in 1963. But once they were all grown and had moved out he turned the yard into a peaceful, flowering oasis disturbed only occasionally by visits from his seven grandchildren.
A lover of classical music he and his wife, Patricia, regularly attended performances at New York's Lincoln Center and at Carnegie Hall. The house in Dobbs Ferry was filled with books on topics ranging from ancient history to modern philosophy.
His greatest passion, however, remained medicine and medical education.
Recalling the first day of his fellowship, another student and colleague Dr. David Markowitz wrote, "Needless to say, my co-fellows and I were all overwhelmed by what appeared to be an awesome amount of work and an awesome amount of responsibility. Joe very calmly told us what our responsibilities were, and how our time should be organized. He explained what sorts of problems we were likely to encounter, and how we could handle most of them. He let us know he would be there for us whatever problems we came across. For so many years in a row, Joe voluntarily took on the new fellows in July. We all agreed there was nobody else with the combination of skill and patience that so suited him to the job."
Sweeting is survived by his wife Patricia, his sons George, Eric, Paul, Adam, Neil and Mark, and his seven grandchildren, Kevin, Emma, Philip, Naomi, Ethan, Sarah and Colleen.