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Lewis D. Polk; was Phila. health commissioner

The year 1976 was memorable, unfortunately, for Dr. Lewis D. Polk, who headed the Philadelphia Department of Public Health.

The year 1976 was memorable, unfortunately, for Dr. Lewis D. Polk, who headed the Philadelphia Department of Public Health.

That February, the Rizzo administration told him to close Philadelphia General Hospital, a decision that would make this the only major city in the nation without a public hospital dedicated for the indigent.

And that July, what came to be known as Legionnaires' disease struck a state convention of the American Legion at the hotel now known as the Park Hyatt Philadelphia at the Park Hyatt at the Bellevue, killing 29.

"It was," his wife, Phyllis, said yesterday, "a stressful time."

On Saturday, Dr. Polk, 80, acting commissioner of the Philadelphia Department of Public Health from 1972 to 1981 and director of the Bucks County Health Department from 1985 to 2003, died of kidney failure related to multiple myeloma at Hahnemann University Hospital. He lived in Center City.

In 1976, while researchers for the Centers for Disease Control and the state health department investigated the cause of Legionnaires' disease, Dr. Polk was the city's face and voice.

"Every doctor and scientist was pushing for a Nobel Prize" by finding the cause of the disease, "and every reporter was looking for the Pulitzer Prize," his wife said. "So they were calling every hour of the day and night."

To help calm concerns, she noted, "he went to have lunch many a day at the hotel restaurant."

Eventually, federal scientists did identify the bacteria, Legionella pneumophila, that had caused symptoms similar to pneumonia.

Perhaps Dr. Polk's most controversial job was carrying out the Rizzo administration's decision to close the Philadelphia General Hospital.

In 1972, a Hospital Survey Committee, established by the business community in the 1950s to coordinate hospital requests for construction money, recommended that the hospital be eliminated and its services dispersed.

In February 1976, city officials announced that the Philadelphia General Hospital would be closed because they lacked money to bring the deteriorated facility up to minimum state and federal hospital standards.

The decision was announced in a Sunday newspaper, only a day after Dr. Polk said he had been informed.

Doctors on staff at the hospital organized a committee to protest the decision, saying that the city was not making adequate provisions to care for patients who could not pay for medical care. Nevertheless, the hospital closed in 1977.

Dr. Polk was born in South Philadelphia on May 29, 1929, and contracted polio when he was 4. He wore a full-length brace on his right leg all his life.

He earned a bachelor's in chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania in 1949 and graduated from Penn's School of Medicine in 1953.

From 1956 to 1960, he had a pediatric practice in offices at Stenton Avenue and Washington Lane, while working part-time at a well-baby clinic for the Health Department. He earned a master's in public health from Johns Hopkins University in 1961.

"I left my practice," he later said, "because like the average pediatrician, I was limited to treating very healthy babies who were brought to me for regular checkups.

"Those who were seriously ill would be sent to specialists. I wanted more of a challenge."

He became director of the city's division of health protection in February 1964.

He was president of the American Academy of Health Administration, vice president of the American College of Preventive Medicine, trustee of the U.S. Conference of City Health Officers and president of the Pennsylvania Public Health Association.

He was an editorial board member of Clinical Pediatrics Journal, and published more than 50 articles in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the American Journal of Public Health, Public Health Records and other publications.

Besides his wife, Dr. Polk is survived by a brother, Dr. William J. Polk; two nieces; two great-nephews and a great-niece.

A funeral was set for 12:30 p.m. tomorrow at Joseph Levine & Son Memorial Chapel, 4737 Street Rd., Trevose, with burial at Roosevelt Memorial Park.