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AGH neurosurgeon Dr. Peter Jannetta dies at age 84

Tony Raap
| Monday, April 11, 2016, 7:15 p.m.
Dr. Peter Jannetta received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy of Microscope Enhanced Dentistry.
Dr. Peter Jannetta received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy of Microscope Enhanced Dentistry.
Diana and Dr. Peter Jannetta at The Westmoreland Society's Twenty-Eighth Annual Dinner Meeting and Presentation of The Westmoreland Society's Gold Medal, held at Westmoreland @rt30 in Greensburg on Friday evening, December 6, 2013.
Kim Stepinsky | for the Tribune-Review
Diana and Dr. Peter Jannetta at The Westmoreland Society's Twenty-Eighth Annual Dinner Meeting and Presentation of The Westmoreland Society's Gold Medal, held at Westmoreland @rt30 in Greensburg on Friday evening, December 6, 2013.

Dr. Peter Jannetta, a world-renowned neurosurgeon who developed a groundbreaking procedure to cure a disorder that causes debilitating facial pain, died Monday, according to friends and family.

He was 84.

Jannetta of Oakland spent nearly 30 years at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine but the latter part of his career at Allegheny General Hospital. He wrote more than 400 scientific articles, abstracts and book chapters and won numerous awards for his contributions to neurosurgery.

“He was really the original renaissance man. He changed neurosurgery,” said Dr. Donald Whiting, chairman of Allegheny Health Network's Neuroscience Institute and its Department of Neurosurgery.

In the 1960s, Jannetta developed a surgical procedure for a chronic facial pain disorder known as trigeminal neuralgia.

The disorder occurs when a blood vessel presses against a nerve in the skull, said Dr. Jack Wilberger, a neurosurgeon at Allegheny General who studied under Jannetta. The procedure moves the blood vessel away from the nerve. About 90 percent of patients who undergo the operation are cured of facial pain, Wilberger said.

“He was larger than life when it comes to being a neurosurgeon,” Wilberger said. “We still have people come (to Allegheny General Hospital) because of his name. I'm fortunate enough to tell people he trained me.”

Jannetta began researching the causes of chronic facial pain during a residency at the University of California at Los Angeles. He first performed his revolutionary procedure in 1966.

Back then, there wasn't a lot that could be done for people with trigeminal neuralgia, Wilberger said. Many went through life with debilitating facial pain.

“When he came up with this idea, he was swimming against the tide,” Wilberger said. “Nobody really believed that what he found would pan out. But he was persistent and proved everybody that they were wrong.”

Jannetta was born April 5, 1932, in Philadelphia to Samuel Benjamin and Frances Alfano Jannetta. He earned a bachelor's degree and went to medical school at the University of Pennsylvania.

After finishing his residency, Jannetta became associate professor and chief of neurosurgery at the Louisiana State University School of Medicine in New Orleans. He left in 1971 to become head of neurosurgery at Pitt's School of Medicine.

In 2000, he moved to Allegheny General.

He retired from medicine a few years ago but mentored young neurosurgeons until his death.

Jannetta had a great bedside manner and a knack for making people smile, Whiting recalled.

“His patients loved him. That's what made him a great doctor. He was intelligent, and he could really relate to people,” he said.

Jannetta enjoyed playing the banjo and going to art galleries with his wife, Diana, said Judith O'Toole, a longtime friend and the Richard M. Scaife director/CEO of the Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg.

Over the years, the Jannettas donated some 130 pieces of art to the museum, many of leading contemporary artists.

“Peter was one of the most modest men despite being an incredibly distinguished neurosurgeon,” O'Toole said. “If you called him ‘doctor,' he would say, ‘Call me Peter.' … He never talked about his work. It was from other people that you learned he was doing this groundbreaking work.”

He is survived by his wife, Diana Jannetta of Oakland; his former wife, Ann Jannetta of Oakland; his daughters, Susan and Elizabeth Jannetta, both of New York City, Joanne Lenert of Dunn Loring, Va., and Carol Jannetta of Dover, Mass.; his sons, Peter T. Jannetta of Oakland and Michael Jannetta of Putnam Valley, N.Y.; his stepchildren, Robert Davant III and Hilary Rose, both of Pittsburgh; eight grandchildren; and two stepgrandchildren.

Funeral services will be private.

In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be sent to Jannetta Neuroscience Foundation Inc., 5023 Frew St., Pittsburgh PA 15213.

Tony Raap is a Tribune-Review staff writer.

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