Profiles in Leadership

Frank Fitch—The Air Force Years

by John S. Emrich and Charles Richter
January/February 2018, pages 30–32


Frank W. Fitch, M.D., Ph.D., AAI ’61, is a professor emeritus of the Department of Pathology, former director of the Ben May Institute, and member of the Committee on Immunology at the University of Chicago. Dr. Fitch was president of The American Association of Immunologists (AAI) from 1992 to 1993 and served as an AAI councillor from 1987 to 1992. He also served as editor-in-chief of The Journal of Immunology from 1997 to 2002. From 1993 to 1994, Fitch served as president of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB). During his many years at the University of Chicago, Fitch and members of his lab made important advances in T cell immunology and organ transplantation and the use of monoclonal antibodies and T cell clones in immunology research.

In a recent interview, AAI member and past president Frank Fitch shared recollections of the military training and service that were components of his early career path in science. The following profile draws on the interview, along with an unpublished Fitch family history and Dr. Fitch’s AAI Oral History Project interview of July 18, 2012 (aai.org/ohp).


 

Among the challenges some scientists encountered along the path to a career in research was mandatory military service. For 20 years, spanning the Korean and Vietnam wars, newly minted physicians had to contend with the prospect of being drafted into the armed forces —what became known as the Doctor Draft. A number of AAI members were required to fulfill their military service away from the lab at military hospitals. Fitch was one of the many young men who managed both to fulfill their responsibility to their country and maintain a course toward a research or clinical career.

In 1952, President Harry S. Truman signed into law an act establishing the Doctor Draft, which was initially intended to bolster the ranks of military personnel during the Korean War. The Doctor Draft, however, remained in place following the war’s end in 1953 to maintain medical readiness of the armed services in the event that the Cold War became “hot.” Following their internship, doctors subject to the Doctor Draft could be inducted for two years of service in the armed forces, potentially disrupting their plans to begin clinical residency or continued education and training toward a research career.

Fitch’s father, Harold W. Fitch, was an osteopathic physician in Bushnell, Illinois, who experienced frustration that his degree did not qualify him for full medical licensure. His hope was that his son would follow in his footsteps as an osteopath but only after earning an M.D. so that he could be fully licensed. The younger Fitch, however, after winning an honorable mention in the sixth annual Westinghouse Annual Science Talent Search in high school for describing how to build a jet engine, had begun to be “seduced by science itself” and was drawn away from following a clinical path. After completing his premed course work in two years, Fitch matriculated at the University of Chicago School of Medicine in January 1950. Early in medical school, Fitch attended a pathology course taught by Robert W. Wissler (AAI ’55), who “emphasized principles over peculiarities.” Fitch decided that research would satisfy his curiosity more than a clinical career. By his last year of medical school, he was serving as a student assistant in that same class and working part time in Wissler’s laboratory.

In 1954, the Korean War was over, but the U.S. military remained in a state of heightened readiness for potential new Cold War conflicts. After earning his M.D. from the University of Chicago the previous June, the 25-year-old Fitch had completed a year-long internship emphasizing pathology at the University of Michigan. In April of 1954, he applied for and received a U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) fellowship to study pathology at the University of Chicago. Shortly after arriving in Chicago that June, however, he received a letter from the McDonough (IL) County Selective Service Board informing him that the end of his internship also brought the end of his military deferment. Fitch now faced a decision.

Waiting for his number to be drawn virtually assured being drafted as a private into the U.S. Army and potentially serving as a combat medic were war to break out. Alternatively, Fitch could apply for a commission in a branch of the military offering the potential for involvement in some research. He chose the latter and applied for, and received, a commission in the U.S. Air Force (USAF) to enter service later that year with the rank of First Lieutenant.

Fitch applied to the USAF because he believed it was the branch of the military that gave him the greatest possibility to perform pathology research, notably at bases near San Antonio, Texas. At first, prospects looked good because he was assigned a “General Medical Officer-Research” specialty code, although his lack of post-graduate training prevented him from having a pathology designation. Unfortunately, the Air Force at the time had no available opportunities for a General Medical Officer to carry out research.

Making the most of his window before reporting for military training, Fitch began his pathology research at the University of Chicago under his USPHS grant. There he spent the summer researching the effects of lethal total body radiation on hibernating ground squirrels in the Toxicology Laboratory. That autumn Fitch also arranged to enroll as a master’s student in pathology at the University of Chicago with tuition support from USPHS toward completing his degree.

Fitch was officially commissioned as a First Lieutenant Reserve (medical) on September 22, 1954, and was required to present himself for officer training to the Commander of the 382 School Group at Gunter Air Force Base (AFB) no later than January 31, 1955.

On a cold January day in 1955, Frank and Shirley Fitch packed up their third-floor walk-up apartment near the University of Chicago campus and made the three-plus-hour drive southwest to Canton, Illinois. Once there, Shirley, the car, and its belongings remained with her parents as her husband boarded a train to Montgomery, Alabama, where he would soon begin Officer Training School at Gunter AFB. From Gunter, the young doctor traveled west to Sheppard AFB in Wichita Falls, Texas, not far from the Texas-Oklahoma border, to serve the remainder of his commission as a base doctor.

Now joined by Shirley, Fitch arrived at Sheppard AFB—a large aviation training base. The hospital on the base served as a referral center for several bases in Texas and Oklahoma. As he lacked a pathology specialty designation, Fitch was considered a general doctor and assigned to departments as needed.

His first assignment was as Assistant Chief of OB-GYN, a specialty in which he had gained knowledge by way of a corresponding, two-month rotation during his internship. After a luckily uneventful week of being on call, Fitch received what would be his permanent assignment on base in the Dependents’ Clinic Dispensary, a field of medicine (pediatrics) in which he had limited practical experience.

Fortunately, a seasoned pediatrician was already assigned to the clinic when Fitch arrived. Although the pediatrician’s commission ended two months after Fitch’s arrival, Fitch “learned more about practical pediatric medicine from him than in my previous academic settings.” Soon thereafter, a newly enlisted doctor with a pediatric specialty designation arrived at the clinic.

Although Fitch was not able to perform bench research during his service as he had hoped, a number of his cases called for study far beyond that required for the average patient. One memorable case involved a four-month-old girl with a goiter caused by a very unusual thyroid abnormality. The base did not have the facilities necessary for the radioactive iodine testing that he needed, but Fitch diagnosed and treated the infant’s condition using remote labs.

Fitch spent two years in the Air Force but never once set foot in an airplane. He kept busy on base though. The base doctors often had to deal with domineering senior medical officers who would treat the reserve officers capriciously. One senior pediatrician, in the last two months of his active duty, instituted unreasonable and disruptive procedures in the clinic, demanding that all pediatric cases be referred to him. When Fitch and one of his colleagues refused to follow his rules to the letter, they were “banished” to the enlisted men’s dispensary, where they would see up to 100 patients a day.

In Wichita Falls, the Fitches lived more like civilians than career military—their home was off base, and Frank did not remain a member of the Officers Club after it was no longer required. They did, however, make friends with other military families and occasionally used base facilities. The biggest event while in Wichita Falls occurred on January 7, 1956, when their first child, Margaret, was born at the base hospital.

At the end of his service in January of 1957, Frank and Shirley packed up their car and were about to head back to Chicago when it suddenly began to snow. It was already late in the day, but the Fitches decided to set off through the snowstorm anyway and “never looked back.”

Fitch’s time in the Air Force helped convince him that he definitely wanted a career in research rather than clinical practice. Although he had to put aside research for those two years, his military commitment had come at a time when the United States was not at war, and the professional and living conditions at Sheppard AFB were decent.

Even though Fitch did not follow in his father’s footsteps and become a practicing physician, the two did find common ground. After 40 years of practice, his father retired and was elected mayor of Bushnell, serving in that capacity from 1969 to 1977. Fitch recollected, “At that time, we had a friendly competition going: who got the prize this month for getting the most money from the federal government to support our activities, his as mayor and mine as a scientist.”

During the years of the Doctor Draft, Fitch and many other AAI members managed to balance their duty to their country with the work they needed to do to launch their research careers. For some, their service was a professional setback, while, for others, it provided them with their first experiences in immunology. Fitch went on to a long and distinguished career at the University of Chicago, and to years of service to AAI as a member of Council, president, and editor-in-chief of The Journal of Immunology. Ultimately, Fitch feels that his time in the Air Force was a reasonable price to pay; he calls it “payback for my other good fortune.”

 


References

Quotes are from Frank Fitch’s AAI Oral History Project interview (www.aai.org/ohp), an unpublished Fitch family history, and a September 15, 2017, phone interview.

† For information regarding the endowed lectureship honoring Frank W. and Shirley Fitch at the University of Chicago Ben May Laboratory for Cancer Research, see https://benmay.uchicago.edu/page/fitch-lectureship.

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