Former Allegheny County health chief dies at 74
With his trademark crew cut and wire-rim glasses, Dr. Bruce Dixon often appeared on TV to assure residents of Allegheny County and beyond about pressing public health matters.
He spoke calmly and convincingly about flu outbreaks, infant mortality and more controversial issues such as HIV and the cleanliness of county restaurants.
“The man truly cared about the people, and he saw them as his responsibility,” said Bob Cranmer, a Brentwood resident who served as Allegheny County commissioner from 1996 to 2000 and became a close friend of Dixon's. “He was a mountain of a man from his expertise but always came across as having a Mister Rogers demeanor.”
Dixon, whose rational approach guided the Allegheny County Health Department for two decades, died unexpectedly early Wednesday, the county Medical Examiner's Office said. He was 74.
Dixon suffered from sepsis, a blood infection, after a sudden inflammation of the gallbladder, the medical examiner's office said. The Forest Hills resident died at 12:48 a.m. in UPMC Presbyterian.
“He was a remarkable public servant,” said Jim Roddey, former Allegheny County executive and county GOP chairman. “He was one of the smartest men that I've ever known. He probably knew more about public health than anyone in Pennsylvania.”
Dixon became known as a straight shooter with an informal style, despite always having a formal appearance — few people ever saw him without his standard white shirt and black tie. He always wore Hush Puppies and cuff links.
“Some people say they've seen him cut his grass in a shirt and tie,” said Guillermo Cole, the longtime public information officer at the health department. “He was one who was more likely to have a business meeting at a local café than in his office. He liked to discuss business over a cup of tea.”
Dixon emerged as the face of public health in Western Pennsylvania during some of the region's most critical health-related events — from the deadly 2003 hepatitis outbreak at a Chi-Chi's restaurant at the Beaver Valley Mall to the 2009 swine-flu outbreak that gripped the nation.
“We need to sit back, take a deep breath,” Dixon said during the height of the swine-flu outbreak. “This too shall pass. It's not the end of the world.”
Friends and colleagues reacted with surprise to word of Dixon's death because he always appeared to be in excellent shape.
“Whatever public health emergency, I can envision his face on TV, his voice on the radio, always reassuring the public,” said Dr. Lee Harrison, the health department's board chair.
Dixon was fired in March by Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald in what Dixon claimed to be a political maneuver. Dixon told the Tribune-Review this week that his termination remained in litigation.
Fitzgerald said at the time the health department needed to be reorganized and some people had complained about Dixon's leadership. After hearing about Dixon's death, Fitzgerald issued a written statement calling Dixon “the ultimate public servant.”
“While we differed in how the Health Department should move forward, the service he provided was admired and will not be forgotten soon,” Fitzgerald said.
Public health guardian
Dixon was born in 1938 and grew up in Pittsburgh's eastern suburbs, including Wilkinsburg and Braddock. He obtained a bachelor's degree in chemistry in 1961 from the University of Pittsburgh and received his medical degree from Pitt's School of Medicine in 1965. He was a captain in the Air Force medical corps from 1967-69.
Before being appointed health director in 1992, Dixon treated patients and was the administrator at the county's clinic for sexually transmitted diseases.
An advocate for public disclosure of diseases, Dixon in 2001 led an effort to create a countywide reporting system of HIV infections, more than a year before state health authorities would implement a similar program.
One of Dixon's most notable programs originated in 1999 after an outbreak of shigellosis, an intestinal illness linked to poor hand-washing. The health department created an ad campaign that used a series of posters promoting hand-washing that were strategically placed in restrooms. The posters, which spoofed literary classics such as Moby Dick and Tom Sawyer, were a hit.
“Dr. Dixon was a giant figure in Pittsburgh medicine, both at the Allegheny County Health Department and at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine,” said Dr. Donald Yealy, chair of emergency medicine at the medical school and UPMC. “He was exceptionally bright, caring and had the ability to crystallize complex thoughts into simple action plans. He helped many physicians in training be better — me included. All that while guarding the health of many, including those with HIV.”
Not immune to criticism
Dixon's position as the county's top health official forced him to deal with Pittsburgh area's notorious reputation for poor air quality. Although studies show that air quality improved over the years, critics often clashed with Dixon over permits, regulations or updates to county air quality standards.
“We didn't always agree, but in the end we always had mutual respect for each other,” said Rachel Filippini, executive director of the Group Against Smog Pollution (GASP) in Garfield. “I think what he always did was in the best interest of the residents of Allegheny County.”
In 2007, Dixon found himself under criticism when county officials released an audit showing health care cost overruns at the county jail. He was also under fire for what critics viewed as a lax inspection system for restaurants.
Dixon was unsuccessful in trying to revive a controversial letter-grading system to show how well restaurants followed food safety guidelines, meeting with stiff criticism from some restaurant owners.
Even under criticism, Dixon rarely showed his temper. He calmly dealt with serious events such as a 2002 incident when more than 1,000 brain surgery patients at UPMC Presbyterian learned that a patient died from an illness similar to mad-cow disease. Dixon was livid that anyone would think they caught mad-cow disease.
“There's a higher chance of someone being struck by lightning this evening,” he said then.
Funeral arrangements for Dixon are being handled by Wolfe Memorial Inc., 3604 Greensburg Pike, Forest Hills.
Luis Fábregas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7998 or firstname.lastname@example.org.