Dr. Dante Colitti ’36, an Italian-American doctor, is the subject of a chapter in Canadian historian Michael Marshall’s book Dancing Over Stone, on the history of penicillin.
A medical breakthrough that changed the world, thrust into the spotlight by one sensational Pulitzer Prize-winning story, has all the trappings and suspense of a Hollywood movie. Set in New York and read by an anxious American public during World War II, this story is actually true to the life of Dr. Dante Colitti ’36, an Italian-American doctor raised on Jerome Avenue in the Bronx, one mile from the College. Colitti is the subject of a chapter in Canadian historian Michael Marshall’s book Dancing Over Stone, published in October 2010, on the history of the medical breakthrough otherwise known as penicillin.
Colitti’s story begins in 1943, when he is a 32-year-old medical resident at Lutheran Hospital, a small 150-bed building at Convent Avenue and 145th Street in Harlem. It is a few weeks before his wedding to future wife, Lillian Hunter, and the country is in the midst of World War II. At the time, doctors faced a daunting challenge to cure illnesses. Penicillin had not yet reached the masses because the U.S. government reserved it to treat venereal disease-infected American troops fighting in Italy. Despite this situation, a Canadian Dr. Dawson, who practiced at nearby Presbyterian Hospital, had made progress with using penicillin to treat people with endocarditis, a disease caused by rheumatic fever and thought to be incurable. Word had spread in New York medical circles. Even the government knew of Dawson’s progress, an even greater feat because he had no funding. His research was eventually stopped due to government pressure, but not before Colitti learned of his success.
It was with this knowledge that Colitti helped the Malones, a young couple who came to the hospital one August day with their sick two-year-old girl, Patty. He advised them to appeal to the popular Hearst newspaper New York Journal-American for penicillin. The strategy worked. The story spread to newswires around the world and seemingly overnight, penicillin became a national phenomenon with Baby Patty as its human face. On Aug. 11, 1943, the Journal-American staged a Page 1 media blitz for Colitti, who was driven by radio car to Bristol-Myers Squibb in New Jersey and met by state troopers to be handed a little package of penicillin for Baby Patty.
In the aftermath of these events, a number of things happened. “Dr. Mom,” the every Mom who wants the best for her children, wrote to her local congressman to demand penicillin. The pharmaceutical company Pfizer quickly converted an ice factory into a penicillin plant, and by March 1944, the company was producing most penicillin. On June 6, 1944, the first major mass trial of penicillin occurred when it was dropped on D-Day beaches for Allied troops. The Hearst desk editor who ran the Baby Patty story won a Pulitzer for spot news. And for awhile, Colitti and Baby Patty were media darlings, but eventually, they both faded to obscurity.
Only to be brought back by Marshall more than 60 years later.
“Dante was an amazing man,” he says. “He lived a total hospital life. I was determined to track down Dante because he seemed to disappear from the records. It shouldn’t be this way. I thought some of the quiet reserved people should be reclaimed.”
Marshall’s research led him to discover that Colitti had four sons. His son Chris still has the three-inch-thick scrapbook of newspaper clippings about his father that his mother started back in the 1940s. Until his father’s death in 1993, the scrapbook was kept in a drawer in the family’s dining room.
“For me as his son, it was a great story to be aware of,” says Chris, who remembers being a high school student when his father showed him the scrapbook for the first time. “I knew all along growing up that he was a special person. I knew from his peers that no one had ever died on the operating table with him.”
In fact, Colitti’s prosperous career as an anesthesiologist was somewhat of a miracle. During the first eight years of his life, he suffered from tuberculosis of the spine and lived in constant pain in a sanatorium. He emerged as a hunchback with fused bones all over his body but was more determined than ever to become a doctor.
“There was so much more to know about my Dad,” Chris says. “He was given two weeks to live, and he lived for 82 years.”
Colitti earned his M.D. from Middlesex Medical College in Waltham, Mass., in 1941. He left the New York City for Westwood, Mass., where he founded Rosindale General with four partners in 1951, and worked until his retirement in 1975. In his spare time, he sculpted, painted and played hours of tennis with his sons.
“He was a doctor who really cared about taking care of people,” Chris says.