Ivo Pitanguy, Plastic Surgeon to the Stars and a Celebrity Himself, Dies at 93

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Ivo Pitanguy, Plastic Surgeon to the Stars and a Celebrity Himself, Dies at 93

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Dr. Ivo Pitanguy, a pioneering Brazilian plastic surgeon who performed face lifts, tummy tucks and other procedures on the rich, famous and royal, becoming rich, famous and celebrated in his own right, died on Saturday at his home in Rio de Janeiro. He was 93.

He had been suffering for some time from kidney problems and died of heart failure during a dialysis treatment, said Dr. Antonio Paulo Pitanguy, a physician and Dr. Pitanguy’s grandson.

On the day before his death, Dr. Pitanguy, seated in a wheelchair, carried the Olympic torch in Rio during a relay to light the flame for the opening ceremony of the Games.

Before reality television shows like “Extreme Makeover” turned vanity medicine into entertainment, before glossy magazines and blogs began opining on the surgically altered looks of celebrities, and decades before Botox came into use as a verb, Dr. Pitanguy established himself as one of the world’s most famous plastic surgeons. He attained that status as much through his marketing savvy as through his surgical skills.

The beach culture of Rio, where watching beautiful bodies is a kind of spectator sport, helped burnish his legend. The Brazilian press chronicled the movements of his yachts, the celebrities who arrived by helicopter at his private island outside Rio, his dinner engagements, his charity appearances and his pro bono surgical work.

Dr. Pitanguy endeared himself to Brazilians in 1961 when he operated on victims, among them many children, of a fire that had broken out in a circus tent in the city of Niterói, near Rio. He was one of the few Brazilian doctors at the time with advanced training in reconstructing the skin of people who had been severely burned.

Dr. Pitanguy described the event as transformative. Treating skin burns, he said, showed him that operations that altered a person’s appearance were not trivial pursuits; they could be curative remedies for the psyche as well as for the body.

“I learned from him the value of doing something for someone else through plastic surgery,” Dr. Bárbara Machado, a plastic surgeon who worked for 15 years as the chief of medicine at Dr. Pitanguy’s private clinic, said in a phone interview. “It is not vanity — it is more like wellness.”

Dr. Pitanguy helped develop techniques that have become standard in plastic surgery, among them breast reduction operations and tummy tucks with scars low enough to hide under a bikini bottom.

“As you know, Brazilians wear very small swimsuits,” Dr. Renato Saltz, a Brazilian-born plastic surgeon in Salt Lake City who occasionally visited Dr. Pitanguy at his clinic in Rio, said in an interview. “It’s very important where you hide the scars.”

Doctors from all over the world went to Rio to watch Dr. Pitanguy operate, and to train with him.

Over the years, scores of actresses and actors, politicians, royals, nobles and business executives were rumored to have traveled to Dr. Pitanguy’s clinic to have, as many of them would say, “a little work” done. But Dr. Pitanguy refused to confirm their identities to the press. He did not nip and tell.

By catering to boldface names, Dr. Pitanguy became one himself. In 2008, New York magazine referred to him as “the king of plastic surgery.” Der Spiegel, the German newsmagazine, once called him the “Michelangelo of the scalpel.” A cover story in The New York Times Magazine in 1980 bore the headline “Doctor Vanity: The Jet Set’s Man in Rio.”

In the 20th century, perhaps only two Brazilians — Pelé, the soccer star, and Carmen Miranda, the actress and singer with the signature fruit-laden hats — were better known internationally than Dr. Pitanguy. In certain society and celebrity circles in the 1970s and ’80s, the phrase “vacation in Brazil” became a synonym for a restorative visit to his plastic surgery clinic.

Ivo Hélcio Jardim de Campos Pitanguy was born on July 5, 1923, in Belo Horizonte, the capital of Minas Gerais, one of Brazil’s largest states. As one of five children growing up in that mountainous region, he developed an early interest in nature. As a child, he liked to carry a boa constrictor around his neck, according to a biography on his clinic’s website.

He became interested in medicine under the tutelage of his father, Dr. Antônio de Campos Pitanguy, a general surgeon. He attended medical school at an early age and then trained as a general surgeon in Rio.

To gain expertise in plastic surgery, a specialty that was not available in Brazil in the 1940s, he studied in the United States, France and Britain. He trained in Paris with Dr. Marc Iselin, an expert in reconstructive hand surgery, and in London with Dr. Harold Gillies and Dr. Archibald McIndoe, pioneers of plastic surgery. He also worked at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.

When Dr. Pitanguy returned to Brazil, plastic surgery was still in its infancy. So he worked first in trauma surgery and hand surgery, eventually becoming the chairman of the plastic surgery department at Santa Casa da Misericordia, a public hospital in Rio, in the 1950s.

There, he started a special wing to provide plastic and reconstructive surgery, including grafts for skin burns, to low-income patients while it served as a training center for young surgeons. Dr. Pitanguy taught them his methods for face lifts, liposuction and other procedures, like a breast reduction and contouring surgery called the Arie-Pitanguy technique, which were provided to patients at nominal costs.

Many of the cosmetic surgeons operating in Brazil today trained in one way or another with Dr. Pitanguy, as residents, fellows or surgical observers, Dr. Saltz said.

Dr. Pitanguy opened the Ivo Pitanguy Clinic, a private practice, in 1963. The success of his practice enabled him to indulge his passion for sports and his interest in art.

An avid tennis player, swimmer and scuba diver, Dr. Pitanguy bought his island, Ilha dos Porcos, in the 1970s and turned it into a nature reserve. A black belt in karate, he liked to practice the sport in a Japanese pagoda on the grounds of his home in Rio. He was a former president of Rio’s museum of modern art and had built a modern art collection of his own, including works by Salvador Dalí.

Dr. Pitanguy is survived by his wife of more than 60 years, Marilu Nascimento; four children, Ivo, Gisela, Helcius and Bernardo; and five grandchildren, including Dr. Antonio Paulo Pitanguy, who is a second-year resident in plastic surgery.

If cosmetic surgery is no longer a secret weapon among society’s elite but a treatment sought after and openly discussed by members of the general public, Dr. Pitanguy, as one of its first popularizers, deserves much of the credit.

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