Dr. Irving Lichtenstein; Innovator in Civil Rights, Surgery


Dr. Irving Lichtenstein, renowned for revolutionizing hernia surgery and for championing civil rights and putting the Southern California American Civil Liberties Union on a sound financial footing, has died at the age of 80.

Lichtenstein died Sunday of Parkinson's disease at his home in Marina del Rey, said his daughter Leslie.

"In many ways Irv was a visionary," said Ramona Ripston, who has been executive director of the Southern California ACLU since 1972, while its staff has grown from six to 39 and its budget has increased from $200,000 to $3.2 million a year. "His vision really meant so much to the growth of this organization."

The Beverly Hills surgeon seemed an unlikely angel for the ACLU, she said. "But even if he didn't agree with every single thing the ACLU did, he felt it was important to have an organization fighting for the Bill of Rights."

Lichtenstein, a Jew who faced discrimination during his medical training, spoke of his passion for individual rights in a 1987 interview: "The strength of the world is due to the fact that most people belong to a minority. Most people are either black, or Jewish, or deaf, or belong to some form of minority. The strength of America is that very few are so 'perfect' they can be considered 'total WASP.' "

Regardless of his success in medicine, the doctor always said he was proudest of his civil rights work.

In the late 1960s Lichtenstein convinced ACLU officials that people would be more willing to donate money if they could be assured of income tax deductions. So he worked to create what became the Roger Baldwin Foundation in 1969. The nonprofit foundation continues to finance litigation and educational activities of the ACLU.

Lichtenstein also served as president of the ACLU for Beverly Hills, Bel-Air and Westwood from 1963 to 1965 and for the ACLU of Southern California in 1973. He spent several years as a board member and treasurer of the larger organization.

The doctor also became a prime fund-raiser and donor, giving a six-figure gift that launched an investment fund to guarantee support for the ACLU long into the future.

He enlisted celebrity friends to work for the ACLU. When he stepped down as founding chairman of the ACLU Foundation, for example, he passed the duties to his friend, actor Burt Lancaster, whose son he once treated.

Lichtenstein practiced what he preached about standing up for the rights of those with less clout. When Cedars-Sinai Medical Center forbade its interns to wear black armbands to protest the Vietnam War, Lichtenstein, by then a top surgeon, threatened to resign unless the order was withdrawn. He won.

He often hosted receptions for visiting civil rights leaders. When the FBI warned Lichtenstein that an assassination attempt might be made on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. during a planned reception in the Lichtenstein home, the doctor refused to cancel the event. He invited FBI agents to join the crowd--but only if dressed in tuxedos like other guests.

When he planned a reception for Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern, Lichtenstein listened carefully to complaints from Dakota Indians that McGovern was espousing positions contrary to Native American rights. That reception went on as planned, too, except that Lichtenstein spent much of it on his own front lawn, protesting with the Indians.

Born in Philadelphia, Lichtenstein studied at the University of Pennsylvania and Philadelphia's Hahnemann Medical School. He came to Beverly Hills, first as a resident at what was then Cedars of Lebanon Hospital, later as a member of the staff and editor of the staff journal. He also taught surgery at the UCLA Medical School.

In 1964, at an American Medical Assn. convention in San Francisco, Lichtenstein shocked the medical community by announcing that hernia surgery, then customarily performed under full anesthesia and followed by six to eight weeks of bed rest, could be done under local anesthetic and the patient could go home the next day.

"The patient walks away from the operating table without assistance and requires no hypodermics for pain after the surgery," he told startled colleagues. "He usually drives home and is encouraged to return to his ordinary mode of living and occupation immediately."

Lichtenstein reported that patients' major complaint was that they had trouble convincing friends that they had even had the surgery and that nobody sent them get-well cards.

His claims caused what he later described as a furor in the medical community, but his methods finally prevailed.

He wrote a textbook and, for good measure, made a movie to demonstrate his research and the success of his simplified surgery.

Eventually, the doctor founded and for many years directed the Lichtenstein Hernia Institute on Sunset Boulevard. Along with colleagues, he continued to refine hernia operations, reducing surgery to an outpatient procedure with minimal pain and recurrence of hernias.

Lichtenstein responded with great glee to 1986 statewide insurance regulations that required hernia surgery to be done on an outpatient basis, even though the policy may have been based more on a wave of cost-cutting than on medical practitioners' eagerness to reduce pain and recovery time.

Lichtenstein served as medical commissioner of the city of Los Angeles from 1973 to 1981 and as independent medical examiner for the California Division of Industrial Accidents from 1989 to 1991.

He is survived by four daughters--Nancy, Patricia, Joanne and Leslie--and four grandchildren.

Memorial services are scheduled for 11 a.m. today at Hillside Memorial Park & Mortuary.

The family has asked that any memorial donations be made to the ACLU Foundation of Southern California, 1616 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles 90026.

For the Record Los Angeles Times Monday June 19, 2000 Home Edition Metro Part B Page 4 Metro Desk 2 inches; 66 words Type of Material: Correction Lichtenstein obituary--An obituary that ran in Friday's Times on Dr. Irving Lichtenstein, pioneering surgeon and civil rights champion, incorrectly stated that he was president of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California in 1973. Lichtenstein was president of the ACLU Foundation that he had created, and Marvin Schachter was president of the ACLU of Southern California. The obituary also omitted the name of his wife, Lisa, among his survivors.
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