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GWU Prodigy, Doctor Habeeb Bacchus Dies

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 23, 2005; Page B07

Habeeb Bacchus, an academic prodigy who received a doctorate from George Washington University when he was 21 and had a long career as a physician and professor, died April 6 of a heart attack at a hospital near his home in Aptos, Calif. He was 76.

Dr. Bacchus spent the last 36 years of his life in California as a hospital administrator and professor of medicine, but it was his remarkable precocity and diligence that brought him early notice in Washington. He came to the city in 1945 as a 16-year-old freshman at Howard University, newly arrived from his native British Guiana (now Guyana) on the northeastern corner of South America.

Bacchus came to the District in 1945.

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He graduated from Howard in two years with a bachelor's degree in zoology. He once took three classes scheduled at the same time, attending them on alternating days, and got two A's and a B. All the while, he worked 20 hours a week at the Library of Congress.

"My optimum sleeping time," he told The Washington Post in 1950, "was five hours a night."

He began graduate studies at George Washington in October 1947 and, by the following June, had a master's in zoology. He started on his doctorate in 1948 and, in 18 months, received a PhD in physiology. For his doctorate, he wrote a dissertation, took language exams in German and French and passed four tests, each lasting eight hours, in physiology, endocrinology, biochemistry and experimental morphology.

Only 21 at the time, Dr. Bacchus was the youngest person awarded a doctorate since GWU first granted the degree in 1888. A university archivist found no record of a younger doctorate recipient since then.

Dr. Bacchus immediately entered GWU's medical school, graduating in 1954 with specialties in internal medicine and endocrinology. From 1957 to 1959, he was a clinical associate at the National Institutes of Health, where he studied endocrine and metabolic diseases and helped devise techniques for screening for cancer. He had a private practice in Washington and spent several years on the staff of Providence Hospital.

In 1969, he moved to Riverside, Calif., to take dual positions at Riverside General Hospital and on the medical faculty of Loma Linda University. In the 1970s, he developed a diagnostic test, now widely used, to measure calcium in blood.

In 1983 and 1984, he faced a trying ethical decision with the case of Elizabeth Bouvia, a 26-year-old quadriplegic woman with cerebral palsy who was a patient at his hospital. Bouvia refused food and declared a desire to starve herself to death. As the hospital's acting medical director, Dr. Bacchus ordered that she be fed intravenously.

The American Civil Liberties Union took up her cause, and the case wound through the courts as Bouvia remained in the hospital, attached to a feeding tube.

"This is an abuse of our rights," Dr. Bacchus said at the time. "Our overtures of kindness she has rejected with a smirk. I've never felt as abused in my entire professional career."

In the end, the courts rejected Bouvia's request to die, and after seven months, she was moved from the Riverside hospital to a different facility. She is still alive today.

A small, energetic man, Dr. Bacchus was especially proud of his career as a professor and often reminded his students that "doctor" derives from the Latin word for "to teach," docere.

"I'm not the greatest researcher in the world, nor even the best clinician," he said when he retired in December 1994. "But I know how to teach. I get through to people."

Dr. Bacchus was one of eight children born to Muslim Indian immigrants in the Guyanese town of Triumph Village. He graduated from high school at 14 and spent the next two years, as he told The Post in 1950, "reading and idling." He enrolled at Howard because two dentists he knew in Guyana had been trained there.

An older brother also attended George Washington, but six sisters at home did not go to school.

"It is a matter of Moslem tradition," he told The Post in 1950. "A sad thing, for they are the smartest of all."

In Washington, Dr. Bacchus was once denied entrance to a restaurant because of his dark skin, and at least one patient refused to be treated by him.

"Before I came to the United States," he later said, "I was not aware of a color barrier, so it was rather a surprise to me. Because I had previously developed my self-confidence, I knew that whatever happened, I was going to beat it."

His marriage to Joan Kinsel Bacchus ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife of 39 years, Frances Bacchus of Aptos; three children from his first marriage, Paula Roby of Riverside, Andree Scalissi of Huntington Beach, Calif., and Jeanne Weber of Salinas, Calif.; three children from his second marriage, David Bacchus of Lafayette, Calif., Michael Bacchus of Baltimore and Julie Bacchus Winters of Washington; one brother; four sisters; and nine grandchildren.

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