Dr. Philip Fireman used to rent two floors of the old Holiday Inn in Wilkinsburg to house up to 60 people who volunteered to catch a cold for science.
The virus would be swabbed into their nose so that Fireman and his researchers could spend the next week studying their breathing and secretions while also making sure they stayed in the hotel.
Dr. Deborah Gentile remembers having to corral one escapee and once finding a subject’s friend hiding behind the shower curtain in a bathtub. But for the most part, the research subjects, who were paid for their time, were well behaved.
Fireman, a pediatrician who specialized in allergies, asthma and immunology, died at his home in Squirrel Hill on Jan. 13 of natural causes. He was 89.
He was born on Colwell Street in the Hill District on Feb. 28, 1932, the youngest of the four children of Anna (Caplan), who was born in Lithuania, and Nathan Fireman, a Russian native. The couple supported their family with a butcher shop and grocery.
Philip Fireman was a 1953 graduate of the University of Pittsburgh and a 1957 graduate of the University of Chicago’s medical school. Following a year’s internship at Philadelphia General Hospital, he returned to Pittsburgh to complete his residency in pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh and Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, where he spent the rest of his career splitting time between treating patients, research and teaching.
Fireman was an economic generator for the region. During his career, he garnered more than $200 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), according to his sons.
Gayle Tissue, the former executive director at Children’s Hospital, met Fireman early in her career when she was working as a research coordinator there.
He had NIH grants starting in 1965 to examine the mechanisms that lead to hypersensitivity of the immune system — work that expanded to studying how people develop allergies — and then branched into 18 years of continuous NIH grants to study colds and ear infections.
Fireman’s curriculum vitae, which runs 26 pages, lists 134 peer-reviewed journal articles from 1961 to 2003. He also published 114 articles in reviews and symposia between 1957 and 2009 and 153 abstracts from 1961 to 2003. He served as editor-in-chief of the American Journal of Rhinology from 1991 to 2003.
He was on the board of directors of the American Board of Allergy and Immunology from 1987 to 1994, serving as chairman in 1992 and co-chairman in 1990 and 1991.
Fireman served on the executive committee of the American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology from 1991 to 1999 and as the organization’s president in 1996.
At one point, Tissue said, the NIH was not well funded and turned down most of its grant applications, but Fireman figured out a work-around. He had a team who went through the rejections, looking at them for what would be funded, then submitted a new proposal tailored to the requirements.
Tissue said it was Fireman’s work, in part, that led her to start raising money through private donors because she knew the government was not funding all of the important research that needed to be done.
“He really had a presence at Children’s Hospital,” she said. “He not only cared for patients and their families. He also supervised research and a research team. He was also an educator.”
When Fireman wanted something, he was never arrogant, demanding or rude, but he pleasantly pushed for what he needed until he got it, Tissue said. And as a doctor working with patients, he had patience and optimism.
Often children would be in his exam room, struggling with their health. “Phil was a smiling face that looked right at patients and their families and he gave everyone the confidence that he was going to fix it,” Tissue said.
David May-Stein remembers the care that Fireman gave to his daughter when she was suffering from asthma.
“We struggled with finding the right doctor and the right combination of treatments,” May-Stein said. “Once we landed with Dr. Fireman, she immediately responded to the treatment plan.”
May-Stein said Fireman was up-to-date on the latest treatments, but it wasn’t just his daughter the doctor cared for. Fireman also made David and his wife, Sheila May-Stein, feel better as well.
“He helped us to not feel helpless,” David May-Stein said.
Even years after their daughter had grown, whenever the May-Steins saw Fireman in Squirrel Hill, he would ask about her.
He was also well known for training younger doctors.
Gentile, who now specializes in allergy and immunology, started working in his laboratory when she was undecided about whether to study for an MD or a Ph.D. She decided on medical school and worked with Fireman all the way through, including as a postdoctoral fellow.
In his research, he would have volunteers stay in the hotel for seven to 10 days while their symptoms were monitored.
“His work showed that people who get colds, flu or RSV get enhanced allergy inflammation,” Gentile said.
She said the best lesson he passed along, though, was through example: He really loved his family and made time to spend with them.
His son, Paul Fireman, said his father left their house in Squirrel Hill early each day and walked to Children’s Hospital in Oakland, then would walk home for dinner by 6 p.m. After dinner, he would head to his study to continue working.
He also introduced his family to skiing while he was a visiting professor at the University of Lausanne School of Medicine in Lausanne, Switzerland, from 1972-’73, then continued to take his family on ski vacations.
In addition to the articles he published, he authored the textbook “Atlas of Allergies and Clinical Immunology” which is in its third printing and was translated into Spanish.
Fireman is survived by his wife of 64 years, Marcia; four sons, Paul and his wife, Gail, of Squirrel Hill, David and his wife, Tiffany, of Washington, D.C., Dr. Lee and his wife, Karen, and Dr. Mark and his wife, AnnMarie, of Midland, Michigan; and one daughter, Randi, and her husband, Richard Seid, of Larchmont, New York. He also is survived by 12 grandchildren and a great-grandson.
A funeral service was held on Jan. 14 at the Ralph Schugar Chapel, Inc. In honor of his memory, donations can be made in his name to the JCC Center for Loving Kindness (donate.jccpgh.org/donate) and the American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology (AAAAIfoundation.org). PJC
Ann Belser is the publisher of Print, a weekly newspaper for the people who live and work in East Liberty, Homewood, Larimer, Point Breeze, Shadyside and Squirrel Hill.