Dr. John L. Pitts

Dr. John Leake Pitts, a retired pediatrician who during a long career in public health had been the acting Anne Arundel County health officer, died of cancer Wednesday at his Annapolis Roads home. He was 85.

Born in Roanoke, Va., he was the son of John Leake Pitts Sr., a pharmacist, and Mary B. Allen, a homemaker and schoolteacher. As a young man he worked the soda fountain at his father's store. After attending Roanoke College, he graduated from the the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond. He later earned a master's degree at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health.

Family members said he went though a wartime accelerated program and held a medical degree at age 20. He served as an Army medical officer in Japan from 1948 to 1950. He completed an internship and a pediatric residency at the Medical College of Virginia.

He spent the early 1950s in a fellowship in pediatric cardiology at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. He was assistant physician at the Harriet Lane Home Cardiac Clinic and worked in the infant catheterization lab. He was directed by child cardiac pioneer Dr. Helen Taussig.

"He had a great, deep faith, and he used it in his professional life," said the Rev. Bill Christianson of London, a friend and Church of England canon. "He was a quiet man who had an understated sense of humor."

In 1959, Dr. Pitts was appointed director of the Baltimore City Health Department's Bureau of Child Hygiene. A Baltimore Sun article said his office was responsible for the "protection of mothers and children ... and particularly the many families with young children who cannot afford a family physician." He was also an advocate of child day care and became the city's first director of a Health Department division focused on it.

In 1963, he became chief of maternal and child health at the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. He was frequently quoted in news articles about the benefits of a good diet and immunization against common childhood diseases. He was also an early advocate of intensive care for premature infants and worked closely with the University of Maryland neonatal clinic.

He later joined the Anne Arundel County Health Department. Its former health officer, Frances B. Phillips, recalled him as a "self-effacing man who did not like the limelight." She said that when his superior died in 1988 and Dr. Pitts was named acting health officer for the county, Dr. Pitts said in jest, "Heaven help the citizens."

She said Dr. Pitts was a compassionate physician who was the county's "leading pediatrician for very complicated childhood diseases." He worked closely with nurses in his department and listened attentively to them, she said. He also testified at hearings about the environmental dangers posed by a landfill.

He was at times called upon to work with those addicted to narcotics.

"He had a special place in his heart for people who had led difficult lives and faced hard reality," said Ms. Phillips, who is now the state's deputy health secretary for public health services.

She remembered him as a "very well-read man who was a great conversationalist." She said he remained close with his extended family and "had a sparkle in his eyes when he spoke of his nephews."

Dr. Pitts was an avid crossword puzzle solver. A nephew, David A. Vaughan of Lynchburg, Va., said his uncle had an "eclectic" library and was a fan of detectives Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes. He frequently traveled to London and New York for theater productions and was a devotee of musicals and operetta.

His family said Dr. Pitts drove an aged Mercedes. On one cold Christmas, while en route to a family gathering in Roanoke, he set the heat so high the dashboard melted. On another occasion, his back fender fell off.

A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. March 24 at St. Anne's Episcopal Church, Church Circle, Annapolis.

In addition to his nephew, survivors include a sister, Helen Pitts Vaughan of Roanoke; and another nephew, Gary M. Vaughan of Lexington, Va.