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In Memoriam: Richard J. Bing, 101

In Memoriam: Richard J. Bing, 101
Richard J. Bing, pictured in 1970, explains the operation of a medical device used to determine the quality of blood flow in the heart.

Richard John Bing, an accomplished cardiologist, composer and author, died Nov. 8 at the age of 101.

A longtime professor of medicine at USC who worked well into the 10th century of his life, Bing donated his original musical scores to the university in April 2000. Those manuscripts now comprise the Richard J. Bing Collection of Music Scores, housed in the USC Libraries’ Special Collections.

Described in a recent Los Angeles Times profile by columnist Steve Lopez as a “Renaissance man,” Bing wrote more than 500 peer-reviewed scientific papers and more than 300 musical compositions, as well as five books of fiction. His 100th birthday was the subject of Para Fuera, a short film that was an official selection of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Bing was born in Nuremberg, Germany on Oct. 12, 1909. He received his medical training in Bavaria and was close to completing his studies in 1933 when he learned that Nazi leader Adolf Hitler had been appointed chancellor.

“From that moment on, I had only one wish: to get out of Germany as fast as possible,” he wrote in 1990. “Of necessity I had to hold out until I had finished my studies in Munich and completed a year of internship. Only then I was able to obtain a license in Germany, which would then enable me to repeat a licensing examination elsewhere.”

He earned his M.D. from the University of Munich in 1934 and immediately fled Germany for neighboring Switzerland. Concerned that other nations’ medical professions would reject his German degree, Bing earned a second M.D. from the University of Bern before moving to Denmark to work as a fellow at the Carlsberg Biological Institute in Copenhagen.

In Copenhagen, he met the Nobel Prize-winning surgeon Alexis Carrel and famed aviator Charles Lindbergh, who were visiting to demonstrate a perfusion pump designed to keep organs alive outside the body. Carrel and Lindbergh recruited Bing to the Rockefeller Institute in New York to study their technique. With Carrel’s help, Bing remained in the United States and eventually earned American citizenship.

Bing was a pioneering cardiologist. He is perhaps best known for his work on congenital heart disease with doctors Alfred Blalock and Helen Taussig at Johns Hopkins University in the 1940s. Using heart catheters, Bing helped identify the various distinct malformations of the heart, allowing physicians to then diagnose and treat the problem. Through one of those malformations, the Taussig-Bing syndrome, his name is known to medical students around the world.

In 1946, Bing invented a new field of study within cardiac physiology. While performing a cardiac catheterization, “I found that the catheter slipped several times inadvertently into … the coronary sinus. When the blood was withdrawn, it was much blacker than that obtained from the right ventricle,” Bing wrote in Cardiology: The Evolution of the Science and the Art (Rutgers University Press, 1999).

The coronary sinus drains the heart muscle, and Bing realized that by analyzing the deoxygenated blood in the sinus, he could learn about the heart’s chemical and energy requirements and consumption and how the heart’s metabolism is affected by disease. Following his discovery, Bing studied the heart metabolism of hundreds of patients – both diseased and healthy – and became known to his peers as the “father of cardiac metabolism.”

In 1969, dual appointments as a professor at USC’s School of Medicine and as director of experimental cardiology at the Huntington Medical Research Institutes brought him to California, where he taught and performed research until his retirement in 2007. Bing was also, from 1984 until his death, a research associate in chemistry at the California Institute of Technology.

Although medicine was his career, music was a lifelong passion for Bing.

His mother was known for her talent in singing Bach’s cantatas, and Bing nearly followed her into a musical career.

As a child, he learned the piano and organ, but his greatest interest was in composition. He wrote his first piece at the age of 8. For a time, he pursued his musical talents at the Conservatory of Music in Nuremberg and later at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt. His medical studies eventually became too demanding, however, and forced him to give up his formal musical training.

Nevertheless, his love for music persisted, and in the 1960s Bing began to compose again in earnest. He sent a recording of one of his works to German composer Carl Orff, who liked the piece so much that he invited Bing to Germany, and the two became friends.

Bing’s works have been performed around the world, including a special 1993 performance of his two-hour “Missa” (chanted Mass) at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna.

Just weeks before his death, a group of musicians from the Los Angeles Philharmonic helped Bing celebrate his 101st birthday with a special concert in his La Canada Flintridge home.

“Medical research and music have in common the drive to create,” he said in the documentary Para Fuera. “The desire to create is really a desire to see something that has been invisible and you try to make visible.”

Researchers can access the Richard J. Bing Collection of Music Scores at the USC Libraries’ Special Collections, housed in Doheny Memorial Library.

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In Memoriam: Richard J. Bing, 101

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