From World Class Neurosurgeon to Award Winning World Class Car Collector

Fred Simeone MD

By: Dr. Paul Langevin

The opportunity to accompany his father to work, surely led a boy growing up in Kensington Pennsylvania  to become a world class neurosurgeon with a world class car collection. “Dad was a real old time GP and I would go with him to make rounds, which in those days was a string of house calls. People didn’t have much back then so Dad would only charge each patient a dollar or two. He cared about people and he cared about his patients, he knew them; knew their families. We all lived in the same neighborhood.  Collecting those kinds of fees, we never had much money either but when we finished with rounds, Dad and I would go and visit junk yards and look at the old cars. That’s how I got my eye for them, for what was good and what was average, from my father.”

Dr. Simeone Father’s Patient Ledger

That attention to detail he learned from his father, both for patients and for cars, probably led Fred Simeone to become the foremost neurosurgeon in the country according to many of his peers and perhaps the leading car collector in the world according to EFG International, sponsor of the International Historic Motoring Awards  Association in London.

Dr. Simeone

“Even in those days, Thomas Edison High was a pretty rough place” Simeone recalls. “The kids were strong, tough. They had to be.  I was fortunate to go to college when most kids didn’t. Indeed Edison had the greatest number of kids killed in Vietnam of any high school in the country. I earned a scholarship to Temple and stayed on there for medical school (that’s where my dad went). I left Philadelphia for a neurosurgery residency at the Mayo Clinic. When my father became ill I moved back to Philadelphia to be closer to Mom and finished residency at the University of Pennsylvania. I accepted my first faculty appointment at Harvard and started developing a research effort there in neurovascular disease. Then a few years into it, the head of neurosurgery at Pennsylvania Hospital was recruited to be the Chairman of Neurosurgery at Penn. He invited me to assume his position as head of neurosurgery at Pennsylvania Hospital.  So I returned to Philly. I had three objectives when I arrived, to expand the practice so we could train the most skilled neurosurgeons, to develop a research program in cerebral vascular disease and publish a teaching literature that was lacking at the time.”

That was in 1969 and before long, Simeone was performing nearly 1,000 neurosurgical procedures per year, training a future generation of talented protégés in the process and writing prolifically. “Sometime later a significant change occurred in ophthalmology. New techniques in eye surgery  made procedures that had always required admission possible on outpatients. Insurance companies soon refused admission for most ophthalmological procedures. I became aware that the census at Wills Eye Hospital, a world renowned center for eye surgery, had declined to a point where the hospital could not sustain itself as an inpatient facility. There was discussion of razing the building to create a parking lot. If that happened, Philadelphia would lose an inpatient hospital building while Wills moved to outpatient facilities. Well it turned out that the Wills Eye Foundation had been very well managed for many years and were willing to convert the eye hospital into a center of excellence for neurosurgery that still maintained its prominence for eye care. All they needed to sustain the hospital were neurosurgical patients and specialized equipment to care for them.”

Over the next two years, Simeone worked diligently to bring the very best neurosurgeons to Philadelphia.  Simeone told me that the Wills Eye Foundation had the reserves to obtain a gamma knife, a conformal radiation machine, interventional radiology suites, and the ability to equip a neurosurgical ICU as well as state of the art operating rooms. In addition they were positioned to conduct first class research. Simeone guided this conversion into a neurological center with Pennsylvania Hospital administration as an extension of their neurosurgical program which would require neurosurgical residents. Training in a world class facility like the one he was developing would provide neurosurgeons in training with experience hard to find elsewhere. He assumed those resident physicians would come from the University of Pennsylvania Medical School.

Simeone was quite mistaken however and to his surprise the University of Pennsylvania was not interested.  Simeone then proceeded in a way that most academicians would never have even considered. He knew the city of Philadelphia needed and deserved a center dedicated to neurosurgery. He knew it was important to preserve a tertiary eye care center in Philadelphia. It was then that Simeone decided to integrate the facility into the Jefferson Medical system. That would require him to leave the Penn system, a decision that would never be remotely considered by most medical school faculty. He was able to negotiate the purchase of the Wills Eye Hospital by Jefferson giving them and the people of Philadelphia a modern neurological center. Simeone left Penn and became the Chief of Neurosurgery at Jefferson Medical College where he remained until 2004. He then returned to Pennsylvania Hospital, his first home, finally retiring from there in 2008.

Dr. Simeone Operating

What I found most amazing about Fred Simeone was that while he was accomplishing all of this, he was raising a daughter as a single parent and able to write over 100 publications on neurosurgery.  “We found a farm in Fairmount Park so she would have a place to ride”, he told me. “I took her to school almost every day. He remembered dropping her off so early she would have to wait outside for school to open because he had to be in the OR. “She never complained, it gave us more time together.” She loved to ride and I loved helping her become quite an accomplished equestrian. She won several prestigious awards and I was pretty involved in all of that. It was something we did together.” After getting a graduate degree at the University of Pennsylvania she became an environmentalist and now heads up the energy center of Pennsylvania’s largest environmental nonprofit.  She now resides in Philadelphia and the two remain very close.

Simeone told me that despite his efforts, he still didn’t consider himself the father to her that his father was to him. I suspect his daughter would disagree. It was clear in our discussion that despite the demands of his surgical career and his administrative positions, he was careful to never lose sight of his responsibility as a parent. Indeed he was so cognizant of that responsibility, that his love of antique cars was satisfied late at night after the demands of his patients were met and his daughter’s needs were attended to. Then it was time to pursue the passion he inherited from his father. Much like going to the junk yard with his dad after work Simeone would rummage through car magazines and eventually the internet, looking for prize cars, cars with a history; cars with a unique character.

“When my father died, I inherited $8,000 and four cars. We never had much money, Dad was a man dedicated to the care of his patients not a lifestyle. We didn’t need much to restore them if we did the work ourselves. Because of that skill, I was able to purchase cars of particular interest and rebuild them.”

Over the next 40 years Simeone would collect some 60 automobiles amassing one of the greatest car collections in the world. In 2004 he decided to share his collection with the public and donated the entire collection to the Simeone Foundation including the four cars he inherited from his father.  The collection is spectacularly displayed in a museum in South Philadelphia. Indeed the collection is so impressive the International Historic Motoring Awards Association voted his collection the best in the world this past December 2011.

There once was a time in this country, not so very long ago, when physicians trained their children in the medical arts through example, much in the way of an apprenticeship. Though this time honored way has of necessity given way to more formal medical education, the old ways had their merit. In the old days physicians were more in tune with their patients, living in their community; knowing them and their families.  Physicians trained in that era had a dedication and commitment to those they cared for that has become increasingly rare in modern, complicated, harried medical practice. Fred Simeone grew up in that era, “making the rounds” as his father called them, a general practitioner who kept a single ledger in which he recorded the visit, the service and the fee charged, which ranged from pro bono to as much as two dollars.

Jay Leno Visits Simeone Foundation Automotive Museum

Fred Simeone learned many things from his dad, service and dedication among them. Philadelphia has benefited from his work, his commitment to the city and to the people who live there.  Oddly his museum is visited by more people from outside the country than from the area, mostly those with more than a casual interest in cars who know when they come that the collection is there.

This author can’t help but wonder what the city will loose by not doing more to incorporate a 30 million dollar antique auto collection, voted the best in the world, in its promotion of the city to those considering a visit here. Like many things, this contribution of Fred Simeone seems under appreciated.

For More Information Visit:

Simeone Museum
6825-31 Norwitch Drive
Philadelphia, Pa., 19153
(215) 365-7233
Fax: (215) 365-8230

Tues – Fri 10AM – 6PM
Sat – Sun 10AM – 4PM
Closed Mondays