Dr. Benjamin M. Baker Jr., a retired internist, professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and master diagnostician whose career spanned much of the 20th century, died in his sleep Monday at Brightwood Retirement Community in Lutherville. He was 101.
"He was a magnificent man. He had it all," said Dr. Richard S. Ross, dean emeritus of the Hopkins School of Medicine. "He was endowed with the charm of a Virginia gentleman, the easy grace of an athlete and the intellect of a medical scientist and physician."
Dr. Baker was born and raised in Norfolk, Va. - the son of a man he called a "horse-and-buggy doctor" - and was a 12-year-old when his father put him in charge of attending to a patient passing kidney stones.
"It was my job to divert the man's attention from his pain, administer chloroform, and notify my father when enough time had passed to administer another morphine dose," Dr. Baker said in an interview last year with Johns Hopkins Magazine, noting his amazement that the task didn't kill him and the patient.
It proved to be a seminal experience that vividly demonstrated the physician's ability to alleviate suffering and at the same time created a desire in the young boy to pursue a medical career.
After graduating from Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Va., he earned his undergraduate degree in 1922 from the University of Virginia. He attended medical school there for a year before being awarded a Rhodes Scholarship and earning a degree in physiology in 1925 from Oxford University's Balliol College.
While a student at Virginia, he was a member of the track team, and in 1922 set a record for the 440-yard dash that stood until 1961.
At Oxford, Dr. Baker continued running track and in 1923 competed - and lost - in a race with Harold Abrahams, a Cambridge University student who later became an Olympian and whose exploits were the subject of the 1981 film Chariots of Fire.
"Even though it's nearly 60 years ago," Dr. Baker told The Sun in 1982, "I can still see him, clear as anything, in a track suit. Everybody talked about the fact that he was the fastest sprinter in England. He wasn't someone you'd forget."
It was a coin toss that brought Dr. Baker to medical school at Hopkins rather than Harvard University. He and a friend, also a Rhodes Scholar, had been accepted to both medical schools.
"To decide where we would go we tossed a shilling. It landed on the Hopkins option," Dr. Baker told the Johns Hopkins Magazine.
After earning his medical degree in 1927, he completed an internship and residency in internal medicine and cardiology. In 1930, he joined the practice of Dr. Louis Hammond and Dr. Charles Wainwright in a brownstone at 9 E. Chase St., next to the Belvedere Hotel. He was appointed to the medical school faculty in 1931.
A respected internist and cardiologist, he treated many celebrities and world figures, among them the Duke of Windsor, H.L. Mencken, Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, Blanche Knopf and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
"He had the tough cases in dealing with the rich and the famous, but he was just as good in dealing with the poor of East Baltimore," Dr. Ross said.
Not only was Mencken a longtime patient, he also became a close friend.
"Whenever he'd get a cold, he'd raise pluperfect hell. He'd blow his top because he couldn't work as hard," Dr. Baker said in the magazine interview.
Fitzgerald was a patient during the 1930s when he lived in Baltimore to be near his wife, Zelda, who was being treated at Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital. The writer's years in the city coincided with his deepening battle with alcoholism.
Dr. Baker arranged for a small desk to be set up in the emergency room of Johns Hopkins Hospital for Fitzgerald - looking for story ideas - to observe the daily dramas there.
"He'd get so in debt that he had to produce things, so he'd hole up in the Stafford Hotel with a goodly supply of cigarettes and gin and come out with five good short stories bound to sell for $2,500 apiece. However, when Scott was sober, he was a charming and delightful man. He looked you in the eye, was interested in you," Dr. Baker said in the interview.
During World War II, Dr. Baker served in the Army as chief of medical services for the Hopkins-staffed 18th General Hospital in the Fiji Islands. He later was transferred to Gen. Douglas MacArthur's headquarters in Manila, and promoted to chief medical consultant for the Pacific.
After the war, Dr. Baker returned to Baltimore and resumed his career and teaching. He conducted significant research in the diagnosis and evaluation of heart disease. He also pioneered the use of the ballistocardiograph and designed a national study that linked diet and heart disease.
"He embodied the gentlemanly, gracious and knowledgeable physician. He enjoyed working with young people and nourished them," said Dr. Stephen C. Achuff, a cardiologist and professor of medicine at Hopkins.
Although retired since 1967, Dr. Baker continued working as a volunteer three days a week at Hopkins' primary care center, now the Hamman-Baker Clinic, treating needy East Baltimore residents.
In his 80s, Dr. Baker changed his research focus from heart disease to colon cancer after a family member was afflicted with the disease. His work resulted in the establishment of the Bowel Tumor Working Group at Hopkins.
Until moving to the retirement community in 1996, Dr. Baker and his wife, the former Julia Clayton, lived on Brightside Road in Ruxton for many years. His wife died in 2000.
Dr. Baker, an avid golfer, was shooting his age into his 80s at the Elkridge Club, where he had organized "The Baker Open" - a weekly match that continues. He played bridge until he was 100, and remained interested in medical matters.
The past held little interest for him.
"When I asked him about writing his memoirs, he said, 'Hell, boy, I'm not interested in the past. I'm interested in the future,'" said his son William C. Baker of Baltimore, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
Dr. Baker was a communicant of the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, 5603 N. Charles St., where a memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Sept. 13.
Dr. Baker is survived by another son, Benjamin M. Baker III of Southport, Conn.; two daughters, Susan Baker Powell and Julia Baker Schnupp, both of Baltimore; nine grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.