Thomas Frederick Plaut was born in Leipzig, Germany in 1933. His family escaped Nazi Germany and arrived in the U.S. in 1935, settling in Mansfield, Ohio. He credited his Scoutmaster with helping him learn how to be an American. His family moved to Dayton, Ohio when he was 17 and he graduated from high school there. Due to a clerical error associated with the move, his transcript reported a 4.0 GPA and he was accepted to Yale University.
Although he struggled with anti-Semitism at Yale, he found a home on the cross-country team and made lifelong friends. He always said that studying history was the best preparation for being a pediatrician because he learned to piece together what was happening in a situation from synthesizing a variety of accounts (much like listening to a mother and a child describe a medical situation).
While in medical school at Columbia University, he studied tropical medicine for several months in Surinam. He wanted to be able to speak directly with the indigenous people, so he learned their language, Sranan Tongo. While in Surinam, he conversed with local people and served as interpreter on a ten-day canoe trip into the jungle. Alcoa hired him to teach engineers Sranan Tongo. While teaching this course, he learned that the local laborers were greatly underpaid. He decided to help them organize a union, which resulted in his being ordered to leave the country within 24 hours (which he did).
During his medical residency, Tom was institutionalized for several months in a psychiatric hospital. During that time he continued to live out his commitment to self-determination by starting an inmates' newsletter and agitating for patient rights. Shortly after being released, Tom met Johanna Mautner in 1962 and they married in 1963. They moved to Whitesburg, Kentucky, a tiny coal mining town in Appalachia, because he wanted to practice medicine somewhere where he could make a real difference. Tom reveled in providing medical care in Whitesburg and later wrote many stories about his time there. These and many other stories can be found on his blog, drtomsjournal.com
From 1967-1977, Tom worked in the South Bronx, following his passion for working where he was needed. At the MLK Jr. Community Health Center, one of the first community health centers in the country, Tom helped create a new model for health care delivery that included training community members to become health care workers. He wrote an essay about what it was like, as a doctor, to cede control to people with less formal training.
In 1977, Tom, Johanna and their two children moved to Amherst, Massachusetts, where Tom became a community pediatrician. Tom was known as "the jeans doctor," a charismatic and down-to-earth pediatrician who loved to clown with his patients while still providing expert care.
His waiting room was filled with handouts he wrote to help parents improve their child's health at home. Soon he found a new way to channel his enthusiasm for empowering patients and their families: asthma education. He devoted himself to this project for 30 years. Few things made him happier than realizing he could help someone improve their life through better asthma care.
Tom charted his own course, which involved writing and self-publishing several books on asthma. Much of the work he pioneered has become mainstream practice. His masterpiece, One Minute Asthma, sold over 2 million copies in English and Spanish. He took great pains to write this book at the 5th grade level so it would be accessible to as many people as possible.
Tom was always politically engaged and he and Johanna became a local force in progressive politics, frequently hosting phone banks in election season. Peace and justice issues, including military spending, women's rights, and single payer health care, were key priorities. He frequently penned pithy letters to the editor on current political events.
Outside of politics and family, Tom's key communities were the men's group of the Jewish Community of Amherst (almost 30 years) and Amandla, a social justice chorus (17 years).
When Johanna became ill in 2011, Tom shifted his focus to caring for her. It was a challenging transition, but Tom was determined to do what was best for her, no matter the discomfort it brought him. Tom frequently said he only realized late in life how much she had done to support him throughout their marriage. He wrote her love poems before she died in 2015.
The brightest spot in Tom's final years was connecting with his grandchildren, Max, Sarah and Reiko. He delighted in them and found different ways of connecting with each.
His life was truly feromic. He is survived by children Rebecca Plaut Mautner and David Mautner Plaut and their families; siblings Frank Plaut and Ruth Weinreb; sister-in-law Susan Hester; and his devoted friend and assistant, Swati Sharma.
In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the National Priorities Project, 351 Pleasant Street, Suite B #442, Northampton, MA 01060.
Funeral services will be Sunday February 3, 2019 at 2:00 pm at the Jewish Community of Amherst 742 Main St. Amherst, MA 01002. Burial will be Monday 10:00 am at the Jewish Community of Amherst Cemetery 221 Leverett Rd. Shutesbury, MA 01072
Memorial register at www.douglassfuneral.com
Published by Daily Hampshire Gazette on Jan. 31, 2019.