Letter to the Editor: A public health man for all seasons

News  /  Opinion

Dr. John Muth

Editor’s note: Letters to the Editor have not been edited nor fact-checked. 

The Pikes Peak Region hosted—and recently lost—a remarkable physician who served as lead public health officer during the last two decades of the 20th Century.  Dr. Muth, who died on January 10, joined the Indian Health Service in mid-Sixties Tuba City Arizona, moving to Anchorage Alaska in 1968 as the only public health obstetrician in the state—on call 24/7 for nearly five years.  Early in that tenure he wore three hats at the Alaska Native Medical Center: Medical Director, Chief Administrator, and Head of Obstetrics.  His family relocated to Colorado Springs when Dr. Muth was given charge of the El Paso County Health Department in August 1980; he retired in mid-1999.  A self-effacing person (who dressed the part) he had a powerful, and likely indelible, impact on our public health landscape.

Recall that this period was replete with public health challenges— from the discovery of AIDS about 8 months after his arrival, to the dangers of cigarette smoking that had been delineated by Surgeon General Terry in 1964, and largely ignored or deliberately obscured.

With characteristic patience, self-deprecation, and gentle persuasion, Dr. Muth provided focused leadership for the community’s smoking cessation programs.  They say that charity begins at home: among his first changes as health department director was to ban smoking everywhere that employees met the public, confining smoking to a single (and out of the way) room.  He also championed clean air by pushing for oxygenated fuels at the pump, and auto emissions requirements—which helped reduce the brown cloud and helped clear our view of the beautiful mountains once again.  Dr. Muth was also an important part of a coalition of citizens advocating and deliberating gun safety, working unobtrusively behind the scenes.   He was the inspiration behind both the video and programming of the “Kids and Guns Toying with Death” education efforts, bringing both sides of the gun issue together, helping them reach consensus on prevention efforts.

Given the polemics surrounding AIDS—homosexuality and drug abuse—he helped organize the annual ethics conferences hosted by the local Osteopathic Foundation in the 1990s.  Sympathetic to the plight of vulnerable and marginalized populations, such as homeless persons, drug addicts, the mentally ill, and prostitutes, he was especially supportive of the establishment and maintenance of our local soup kitchen and free medical clinics like Community Health Centers.

He was a marvelous boss, loved and respected by his staff.  He knew every one of his numerous employees by first name, no matter how modest their work station.  His management style was to be positive and supportive, encouraging everyone to be the best they could be.  He critiqued rather than criticized, offering suggestions that reflected his wisdom and incisive intelligence.  Importantly, his passions extended to his family, to whom he was completely devoted.

Dr. Muth allocated time to solicit support for his public health endeavors from the local Medical Society, the Colorado and American Public Health Associations, as well as the Association of Colorado Public Health Officers.  His goal was to garner support for his own endeavors and to export his revolution to the rest of Colorado.

Energetic and time-management savvy, he nevertheless was in the running for messiest desk in the region; he lost only because he was out of town at the time of the selection!

Dr. Muth never sought the limelight, preferring to have others be recognized for their contributions to the public health opus.  Hence, the moniker Phantom of the Opus.  Here was a man who earned the trust (during especially difficult times) of both the lay and medical communities, not to mention that of marginalized subgroups.  He was a gentle soul, brilliant, kind, ethical, and caring.  In a word, a giant.  Farewell, John and thank you for having been you.


John Potterat

Colorado Springs

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