Dr. Solbert "Sol" Permutt, a retired physiologist and teacher who helped expand the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine's division of pulmonary and critical care medicine, died of esophageal cancer May 23 at Roland Park Place. The longtime Mount Washington resident was 87.
"In terms of the lung, it is not an exaggeration to say that most of our current understanding of how blood flows through lung blood vessels and how air flows in and out of the airways can be attributed to Sol," said Dr. David B. Pearse, a Hopkins professor of medicine who lives in Ellicott City. "His work has major implications in the diagnosis and treatment of every form of human lung disease from asthma to pulmonary edema to interstitial fibrosis, and everything in between. If they gave Nobel prizes for his research, he deserved one."
Dr. Permutt worked for years in asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, acute lung injury, shock and cardiac arrest.
He was born in Birmingham, Ala. Family members said that as a child, he skipped class to read in the public library. In his last two years of high school, he lived in a fraternity house attic at the University of Alabama and tutored college students in calculus.
He attended the University of Alabama and the University of California at Berkeley. He earned a medical degree at the University of Southern California and did postdoctoral training at the University of Chicago Hospital and Montefiore Hospital in New York. In 1956, he came to Hopkins as a fellow.
After spending two years as chief of the division of cardiopulmonary physiology at the National Jewish Hospital in Denver, he returned to Hopkins in 1961 as an associate professor of environmental medicine at what is now the Bloomberg School of Public Health. According to a Hopkins biography, he remained on the faculty for nearly 50 years. He became a professor of medicine and environmental health sciences in the School of Public Health in 1965 and a professor at the School of Medicine in 1972. He retired in 2006.
"They made him retire, but he didn't. They said, 'We can't pay you anymore,' and that didn't matter," said a daughter, Nina Meade of San Diego. "He worked until eight days before he died."
At Hopkins, he became director of the respiratory division in the department of medicine. Colleagues said he inaugurated a collaborative program that integrated the treatment of patients, research and teaching. He led the opening of a new intensive-care unit and a new bronchoscopy program. He also worked with other Baltimore hospitals.
"Sol, simply put, was a genius," said Dr. Robert A. Wise, a Hopkins professor of medicine. "He could absorb large amounts of complex, seemingly disparate data and find a simple, coherent theory that ultimately would be proven correct."
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Dr. Permutt received numerous awards, including the George Wills Comstock Award from the American Lung Association in 1988 and the Edward Livingston Trudeau Medal from the American Thoracic Society in 1992.
Friends recalled his energy. He rode a bike from Mount Washington to his office at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center well into his 70s. He also wore large bow ties.
Another Hopkins colleague, Dr. Roy Brower, a professor of medicine, described Dr. Permutt as "generous, warm, loving and caring. He was our guru." Dr. Brower said he once sought his advice on a difficult end-of-life problem but instead received "an opinion that was religious. I said, 'Sol, I came to you to get rigorous thought and instead I get religion.' He said, 'Well, I am the most touchy-feely person you will ever know.'"
A bass, Dr. Permutt sang with the Baltimore Choral Arts Society and played the recorder and harmonica. Family members said he could identify classical music pieces after hearing only a few measures. He taught a course in opera at Roland Park Place. He also attended opera at theaters all over the world. He was the author of 232 scientific articles.
Services were held May 25 at Sol Levinson & Bros.
In addition to his daughter, survivors include a son, Thomas Permutt of Columbia; another daughter, Lisa Ellen Permutt of Baltimore; five grandchildren; and two great-grandsons. His wife of more than 60 years, Loretta Paul, a Bloomberg School of Public Health administrator, died in 2008.