Correction: This obituary for Dr. Henry Feffer incorrectly described him as the “city’s only spine surgeon” until about 1980. He was for many years the only orthopedic surgeon in Washington who devoted his practice almost entirely to treating problems of the adult spine.
Henry Feffer, a prominent Washington spine surgeon whose patients included Saddam Hussein and Nikumba, a beloved National Zoo gorilla, died May 9 of congestive heart failure at his home in Bethesda. He was 93.
A professor emeritus at George Washington University’s medical school, Dr. Feffer began practicing in the District in the late 1940s and was among the first orthopedic surgeons in the country to specialize in treating back problems.
Until 1980, he was the city’s only spine surgeon, said Sam Wiesel, Dr. Feffer’s former colleague.
“If you had a complicated back problem in the Washington, D.C., metro area, you would come to Henry Feffer,” said Wiesel, now chairman of Georgetown University’s orthopedic surgery department.
Dr. Feffer was known as an expert diagnostician, a jovial, athletic man who made a habit of getting to know patients beyond their diagnoses. He treated a long list of renowned political figures, said his son David Feffer, including labor leader George Meany and former CIA directors Allen Dulles and Richard Helms.
Dr. Feffer also helped bring relief to less-well-heeled patients. He chaired the medical advisory committee for the humanitarian aid organization CARE and spent many vacations during the 1960s and ’70s training doctors in countries such as Vietnam, Algeria and Afghanistan.
He saw such volunteerism as a method of diplomacy — a way, during the Cold War, to burnish the United States’ reputation.
“The American physician must transplant himself and help these peoples to develop the most from their own medical talents with what they have,” he wrote in 1962, in a call urging other doctors to volunteer.
In April 1977, the Carter White House asked Dr. Feffer to put his diplomatic skills to use in Iraq. The president hoped to curry favor in Baghdad by responding to a request for help in treating the back problems of a senior government official.
Upon arriving in Iraq, Dr. Feffer discovered that the senior official was Baath Party leader and future Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. Then vice president, Hussein was experiencing what Dr. Feffer described in an unpublished essay as “uncomplicated back strain.”
A Soviet doctor had suggested surgery, and Hussein wanted a second opinion. Dr. Feffer and a team of doctors — including a British physician, a French rheumatologist, a Russian and a Yugoslav — saw the patient in his living room.
“He was in no obvious distress,” Dr. Feffer wrote. “No one suggested that the patient disrobe. What was obvious at once, however, was that we would not need our surgical team.”
The doctors suggested exercises and told Hussein he could expect a full recovery in four to six weeks.
Henry Leon Feffer was born Jan. 15, 1918, in New York, and received bachelor’s and medical degrees from Indiana University. He trained at the old Gallinger Municipal Hospital in Washington before going to far-flung Adak Island — part of Alaska’s Aleutian chain — as an Army doctor in 1945. His military decorations included the Army Commendation Medal.
He returned to Washington to open a private practice in the late 1940s and was an associate at Howard University’s medical school until joining the George Washington faculty in 1950.
In the mid-1950s, he was one of the first doctors to systematically test whether low-back pain could be relieved with epidural injections of hydrocortisone. Today, physicians often give such injections before resorting to surgery.
Dr. Feffer eventually closed his private practice to work full time at GWU, where his brother, James J. Feffer, was a lung-disease specialist who later became the hospital’s top medical officer. James Feffer died in 2004.
Henry Feffer became an emeritus professor in the mid-1980s and consulted on workers’ compensation issues before retiring in the early 1990s. Until three years ago, he played tennis regularly and lived in the District.
His wife of 16 years, Jean Kaplan Feffer, died in 1964. His wife of 35 years, Daisy Berkes Feffer, died in 2001.
Survivors include three children from his first marriage, David Feffer of Big Fork, Mont., Doris Yuspeh of Brussels and Dale Arroyo of Olney; two children from his second marriage, Paul Feffer of Valley Cottage, N.Y., and Katie Noonan of Fairfield, Conn.; 11 grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
Dr. Feffer’s patients were not limited to Homo sapiens. As orthopedic consultant to the National Zoo, he was called upon to treat Nikumba, a 325-pound male gorilla who had sired one of the first gorillas born in captivity.
Nikumba was a city celebrity, having arrived at the zoo as a baby in 1955. On a June day in 1963, the gorilla developed an inexplicable paralysis in his lower legs. Dr. Feffer and a neurologist examined the gorilla, diagnosed an infection and ordered a course of antibiotics — a typically conservative approach for Dr. Feffer, who recognized the risks of operating.
According to a report in the Columbus Zoo’s “Gorilla Gazette,” Nikumba was back on his feet nine weeks later. “Zoo Favorite Walks Again,” trumpeted a headline in the Washington Star.
Nikumba went on to sire three more offspring and was one of the oldest gorillas in the United States when he died in 1990.