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George J. Peckham, pioneering neonatal doctor at CHOP, dies at 82

He created the infant intensive care unit at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and later founded and led the Division of Neonatology at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Medicine.

Dr. Peckham grew flowers and vegetables in his gardens, and liked to spend time in nature, especially with his family.
Dr. Peckham grew flowers and vegetables in his gardens, and liked to spend time in nature, especially with his family.Read moreCourtesy of the family

George J. Peckham, 82, an internationally renowned pioneering neonatal physician, lecturer, consultant, and founder of the infant intensive care unit at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, died Thursday, Oct. 7, of heart failure at his home in Villanova.

Driven to work with ailing newborns and infants by his own innate sense of nurturing, Dr. Peckham was instrumental in developing medical and ethical programs and guidelines in the 1960s and beyond that addressed issues regarding the care of premature babies, and other pediatric concerns.

“That’s one of the prices we pay for being able to save these babies,” Dr. Peckham told The Inquirer in 1989, regarding the consequences of adopting groundbreaking treatments. “It raises real ethical dilemmas.”

At CHOP in the 1960s, he created the infant ICU, one of the first of its kind anywhere, and then traveled to hospitals around the world to oversee similar units take form.

He worked internationally with Project Hope, and USAID, and consulted and lectured at medical centers and colleges in Canada, Mexico, England, Austria, France, Poland, Greece, China, the former Czechoslovakia, Slovakia, Hungary, Russia, Ukraine, and elsewhere.

He founded the division of neonatology at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Medicine, and served as its division chief from 1971 to 1990. He was also a professor of pediatrics, associate chairman of the department of pediatrics, and assistant dean of the Office of International Medical Programs at Penn.

He was on the pediatric staff at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, and Pennsylvania Hospital and served as a neonatal consultant at Bryn Mawr and Lankenau Hospitals.

Dr. Peckham helped design mobile hospitals in the Army Reserve medical department in the 1970s, establish the region’s first interhospital transport process for premature newborns, and create a comprehensive newborn resuscitation program in the 1980s.

He chaired several important task forces; edited, wrote, and contributed to dozens of academic papers; received half a dozen research grants; and belonged to many medical organizations and committees.

“His legacy as a pioneer in pediatrics, a founding father of neonatology, and philanthropist, will live on in all of our memories,” a colleague at Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine wrote in a tribute.

Dr. Peckham’s wife, Anne, said he was “an innovator, a visionary, gentle, kind, and compassionate.”

Tina Lambdin, one of his four daughters, wrote in a tribute that her father continued to nurture her even as his health declined over the last few years. “Silly me,” she said. “I thought I was helping him by giving him rides to the pharmacy. But the whole time, he was the one who was giving me the gift of his wisdom.”

Dr. Peckham was born Sept. 9, 1939, in Brooklyn. His family moved to Broomall when he was 11, and he graduated from Malvern Preparatory School in 1957. He dived into science and pre-medicine, and graduated from Manhattan College in 1961.

He got a master’s degree in biochemistry from George Washington University in 1962, and his medical degree from Georgetown University in 1966. Afterward, he completed a pediatric internship, residency, and fellowship in pediatric cardiology at CHOP.

Dr. Peckham married Virginia Cronin, and they had three daughters, Kathy, Laura, and Tina. After a divorce, he married Anne Gallagher in 1988, and they had daughter Elizabeth.

Away from work, Dr. Peckham liked to grow flowers and vegetables. “He liked to see things survive and flourish,” his wife said. Active at Christ Church Ithan in Villanova, he also liked to read, travel, hash over current events, visit the Franklin Institute with his grandchildren, and help out his neighbors just by being around.

“He was a quiet counselor to so many people,” his wife said. “He was an easy person to talk to.”

In addition to his wife, former wife, and children, Dr. Peckham is survived by six grandchildren.

Services were held Oct. 16. Interment was at Christ Church Ithan’s Garden of Remembrance.

Donations in his name may be made to Doctors Without Borders, P.O. Box 5030, Hagerstown, Md. 21741-5030.