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Sterling MacDonald, at 94; was Beverly pediatrician for 33 years

Dr. Sterling MacDonald was making plans to go on the grand rounds at the University of Vermont College of Medicine. Dr. Sterling MacDonald was making plans to go on the grand rounds at the University of Vermont College of Medicine.
By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / May 16, 2010

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A medical career that stretched nearly 70 years was inspired when Sterling MacDonald was a child in Winchester, watching his infant sister die in 1921.

Jane MacDonald lived only three months after being born without bile ducts, and a year later, Dr. MacDonald himself endured the rudimentary techniques general practitioners used for minor surgery in the years after World War I.

“I was 5 or 6, old enough to appreciate what death was about,’’ he said a few years ago when his family sat him down with a tape recorder to talk about his life, just before he turned 90. “I think this was one of the reasons I was fascinated by pediatrics — that and the torture of having my tonsils out at the age of 7 on the kitchen table, by a GP who used a cone made out of newspaper and covered with a towel, which he placed on my face to administer the anesthetic.’’

Dr. MacDonald, who treated patients until three years ago and was still making plans to go on the grand rounds this month at the University of Vermont College of Medicine, died May 2 in Porter Hospital in Middlebury, Vt., of an aortic aneurysm. He was 94 and had moved to Lincoln, Vt., in 1982 after spending 33 years as a pediatrician in Beverly.

“He could tell you things with a historical perspective that other people just don’t have,’’ said Dr. John D. Roberts, a professor of internal medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University, who became friends with Dr. MacDonald after treating his wife years ago. “He was a guy who was practicing medicine literally before penicillin was around.’’

Having graduated from Cornell Medical School in 1941, Dr. MacDonald employed an almost-forgotten approach to pediatrics that he didn’t discard when the business of medicine evolved.

“A way of practicing medicine is gone forever,’’ said his daughter Amy of Falmouth, Maine. “Some people commented after his death that ‘He came to our house in the middle of the night.’ No one does that any more.’’

“He was a face-to-face person,’’ said his son, Alex, who lived a couple of miles from his father in Lincoln. “He hated cellphones and the idea of people communicating only by e-mail; he liked visiting and talking. He was a throwback to that old generation and that old way of doing things. It’s too bad, because when you lose someone like that, you lose the perspective that maybe we’re not on the right track with our modern ways.’’

A few other things didn’t change in Dr. MacDonald’s life, among them a frugality forged in the Great Depression and irrepressible energy that belied the passing of years.

“Luckily still in practice at the same location and able to do tennis, swimming, and enough travel,’’ he wrote in 2001 for the 65th anniversary report of his Harvard class, when he was 86. “Bless us, we happy few.’’

Alexander Sterling MacDonald, who went by his middle name, was born in Winchester in 1915. His family had servants and went on vacations to North Shore destinations such as Rockport and Gloucester, then farther north to lakes in Maine and Nova Scotia when he was a child. The Depression made the MacDonalds look closer to home, and a summer job in Yarmouthport sparked his longtime interest in buying and selling antiques.

While at Harvard, where he studied French and graduated in 1936, he took a summer job on a cruise ship, ostensibly to accompany a pair of singers. When he couldn’t sight read their music as well as he thought, he was assigned to start playing piano at 11 p.m. after the jazz orchestra finished, entertaining guests well past midnight.

“The ship was very swell,’’ he said in the oral history. “We had French line chefs, and we ate as though we were at the Ritz. I never saw such food in my life!’’

Certainly he wasn’t keen to pay for food like that, attributing his frugality to his family’s sudden change of fortune.

“That’s why I am tight with a nickel,’’ he said. “After you live through a Depression and a couple of wars, you get to be tight with a nickel and you scrape the butter off the paper so you don’t waste any.’’

During recent years in Vermont, he was known for driving cars until they stopped running, and he only quit heating with wood after a hip injury a few years ago.

Dr. MacDonald served in the Navy during World War II and for years after in the Naval Reserves. His first marriage, to Joan Miller, ended in divorce.

In 1947, he married Mary Wright and they had four children after settling in Beverly, where his frugality was evident even when he decided to take up sailing.

“True to form, rather than go out and buy a sailboat, he waited until one washed ashore after a hurricane, a little turnabout,’’ his daughter said, adding that when he joined an area yacht club, “I remember him telling me with delight how he filled out the line on the application form that said, ‘length of yacht,’ and he put, ‘10 feet.’ ’’

“To me, he was very charming, sharp, and sometimes quite honest, I guess is the word,’’ said Dr. Will Cochran of Weston, a physician and friend. “That’s the kind of person Sterling was. He’d tell you what he thought.’’

Dr. MacDonald, his daughter said, “really was a doctor to the core. I can’t tell you how much of my childhood was spent sitting in a car waiting outside as he did a house call. You never drove anywhere with him without having to make a stop.’’

“He was fascinated by medicine,’’ Roberts said. “I mean that as a distinction from being fascinated by science. What interested him in science was what could help people be better off. Sterling really cared about people. He was a doctor, and he wanted to use scientific information so that doctors could do a better job of taking care of people.’’

When Dr. MacDonald was in his 90s, Roberts said, the two were still discussing articles in the latest New England Journal of Medicine.

After Dr. MacDonald died, his children found the May schedule of the grand rounds for the University of Vermont College of Medicine.

“He circled three he planned to attend,’’ his son said. “To me, that’s astounding. He never retired, in my view. It didn’t seem like he was anywhere near the end of his life. It seemed like he had too many plans, too many goals he wanted to accomplish.’’

In addition to his son and daughter, Dr. MacDonald leaves two other daughters, Susan Pitaro of the Magnolia section of Gloucester, and Gene of Maseru, Lesotho; 11 grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.

A service has been held.

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