Obituary: Peter Jannetta / World-renowned neurosurgeon from Allegheny General Hospital, has died

April 5, 1932 – April 11, 2016

He was one of the greatest neurosurgeons of his time based on the innovative surgical brain procedure he developed to eliminate facial spasms and the facial pain caused by trigeminal neuralgia.

That procedure known as microvascular decompression guided the field of brain neurosurgery for decades with various applications, resulting in major awards for his work.

Peter J. Jannetta, a former University of Pittsburgh neurosurgeon who joined Allegheny General Hospital in 2000 to establish the Jannetta Cranial Nerve Center, still was publishing research papers and teaching in AGH’s neuroscience residency program when he died Monday at the hospital after a fall.

The 84-year-old neurosurgeon had homes in Oakland and the Ligonier area.

“He was truly a Renaissance man from day one,” said Donald Whiting, chairman of the Allegheny Health Network’s Neuroscience Institute. “He was one of the true fathers of modern neurosurgery, and he’ll be missed. He had the insight and knowledge you can’t get from books.”

AHN described him as one of the world’s pre-eminent neurosurgical pioneers based on “one of the most important modern-day breakthroughs in the field of neurological disease.”

Albert Rhoton, former chairman of the department of neurosurgery at the University of Florida, described Dr. Jannetta as the innovator who “helped to cure generations of patients with the most devastating, agonizing pain that one can experience. He is the godfather to almost every neurosurgeon in the world.”

Dr. Jannetta, a native of Philadelphia, graduated in 1953 from the University of Pennsylvania, where he swam and played lacrosse and football, and then from its Perelman School of Medicine in 1957, where he completed his general surgical residency in 1963.

While completing his neurosurgical residency at UCLA in 1966, he treated a patient for facial spasms with novel surgery through the base of the brain to move a blood vessel pressing against the facial or trigeminal nerve, thus halting the spasms and pain that can affect facial muscles, the eyes and ears.

“It was revolutionary and became the standard treatment for a number of conditions,” Dr. Whiting said. While serving as chief of neurosurgery at Louisiana State University’s New Orleans Medical School, he was appointed as Pitt’s chairman of neurosurgery in 1971, where he advanced his surgical procedures and published benchmark articles that were among more than 400 he wrote during his career.

Jack Wilberger, chairman of AGH’s department of neurosurgery who studied under Dr. Jannetta, described him as “one of the great neurosurgeons of our time,” adding that “without Peter, the revolution of microvascular surgery of the brain would not have proceeded as quickly and successfully as it did.”

Dr. Jannetta also was an accomplished teacher with numerous students from his residency programs who went on to head the nation’s top neurosurgery programs.

For his work, he received, among others, the Olivecrona Award from the Karolinski Institute in Sweden, the Zulch Prize for Medical Research from the Max Planck Society for the Advancement of Science and the World Federation of Neurosurgical Societies’ Distinguished Medal of Honor. In 2007, his career was celebrated at a local event featuring poet laureate Maya Angelou as keynote speaker.

Away from the hospital, Dr. Jannetta played Dixieland music on the banjo and was an avid art collector, recently donating major works to the Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg.

He is survived by his wife, Diana Jannetta; his first wife, Ann Jannetta; four daughters, Susan Jannetta of New York City, Joanne Lenert of Dunn Loring, Va., Carol Jannetta of Dover, Mass., and Elizabeth Jannetta of New York City; two sons, Peter T. Jannetta of Oakland and Michael Jannetta of Putnam Valley, N.Y.; one stepson, Robert Davant III of Washington’s Landing; and one stepdaughter, Hilary Rose of Ross; eight grandchildren and two step-grandchildren. Funeral services will be private. The family requests donations to the Jannetta Neuroscience Foundation Inc., 5023 Frew St., Pittsburgh, PA 15213.

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