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Jess Weiss, 90; redesigned an epidural needle

Glancing at the chart in his hand, an anesthesiologist walked up to Shirley Weiss a few years ago when she was scheduled for cataract surgery in Florida. When he saw her last name, he became more interested in her husband.

"He came in and said, 'Weiss, Weiss . . . you're not the Jess Weiss?' And my Dad said, 'Yes, I am,' " said the couple's daughter Susan Friedman of West Roxbury. "He ran and got his box of Weiss Needles to get my Dad to autograph them."

Accustomed to receiving that kind of attention in the field of anesthesiology, Dr. Weiss was just as used to shrugging it off.

"Grandpa had a powerful intellect, but what really struck me as I became an adult was that he never flaunted it," his granddaughter, Jennifer Friedman of Watertown, said in a eulogy she prepared for his funeral Monday. "He just went about working hard with integrity and passion."

Dr. Weiss, who modified the design of an epidural needle by adding a T-shaped set of wings to make it easier for physicians to guide the needle's path, died June 28 in Holy Cross Hospital in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., after a period of declining health. He was 90 and had divided his time between Pompano Beach, Fla., and Brookline for many years.

For Dr. Weiss, "the addition of wings was crucial because it allowed him to slowly advance the needle with both hands while observing the fluid drop disappearing as the tip of the needle entered the epidural space," Drs. Michael A. Frolich and Donald Caton wrote in a 2001 article published in Anesthesia & Analgesia, a journal of the International Anesthesia Research Society.

Dr. Weiss also was instrumental in establishing the legality of his specialty's Relative Values Guide, which helps anesthesiologists decide how much to charge. Under the guide, each surgical procedure is assigned a value based on factors such as the risk of the anesthesia, surgical problems that could be encountered, the skill necessary, and the time involved.

In the 1970s, the US Justice Department filed a lawsuit alleging that cost guidelines amounted to price-fixing. Organizations for other medical specialties had ceased publishing their own cost guidelines under pressure from the government, but the American Society of Anesthesiologists decided to fight. Dr. Weiss, the group's president, testified at the trial and a federal judge in New York State ruled that the Relative Values Guide did not violate antitrust laws.

"He was very adamant that the practice of anesthesiology, especially the charging, should be ethical," said Dr. Ellison C. Pierce Jr., a close friend of Dr. Weiss.

Born in the Bronx, Jess Bernard Weiss grew up in Mount Vernon, N.Y. His father was from Russia, his mother from Austria. After high school he attended City College of New York, then went to the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, graduating in 1938.

He began his medical studies at St. Mungo's College Medical School in Scotland, but was returned home at the outset of World War II. He finished his medical degree at Middlesex University School of Medicine in Waltham.

"He met my mother here in Boston on a blind date, which was arranged by mutual friends, and it took, as they say," their daughter said, laughing. The couple celebrated their 63 d wedding anniversary last month.

Dr. Weiss served in the Navy, then became a general practitioner in Dorchester and Brighton.

"In both areas, they used to call him 'young doc,' " his daughter said, referring to her father's looks, which defied the years. "He had a full head of hair, even at 90. All his friends and cronies couldn't believe it -- he still had a widow's peak."

In the mid-1950s, Dr. Weiss served a residency in anesthesiology and changed the course of his career, though not necessarily the hours of his job. His daughter recalled being bundled into a car to accompany Dr. Weiss on rounds in Dorchester when he was a general practitioner. At the funeral Monday, his granddaughter told of similar nighttime car rides when she stayed with her grandparents as a child and he was called to the hospital as an anesthesiologist.

"I remember thinking, 'This is some crazy job he has!' It was not until I received my own spinal anesthesia last year before having my daughter Cady that I could truly appreciate the importance of those late-night rides to the hospital," she wrote in the text prepared for the eulogy.

In a lengthy career, Dr. Weiss taught at Harvard Medical School, was chief anesthesiologist at Boston Lying- In Hospital, and was vice chairman of the anesthesiology department at Brigham and Women's Hospital. In the early 1990s, he received distinguished service awards from the American Society of Anesthesiologists, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and the American Society of Regional Anesthesiology.

Along with having led the state, New England, and national anesthesiology societies, Dr. Weiss formerly served as president of the Academy of Anesthesiology.

"The thing about my Dad was that in all of his work and all of his interrelationships, he was a very ethical man, and expected everyone else to live to a certain standard of ethics," his daughter said.

He also was always a teacher -- in and out of the classroom.

"At the funeral, one of my brothers mentioned that he had what we called his 'teaching voice,' " she said with a chuckle. "We listened much more closely when he used that."

In addition to his wife, Shirley, daughter Susan, granddaughter, Jennifer, and great-granddaughter, Cady Bubeck, Dr. Weiss leaves another daughter, Barbara Friedman of Pompano Beach, Fla.; two sons, Stephen of Philadelphia and Lewis of Miami; a brother, Harold of California; and a grandson.

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