Fred Figa, Who Helped Expose a Drug’s Risks, Is Lifeless at 65

This obituary is part of a series about people who died from the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.

In late 1983, a member of the Neonatal Department at Fairfax Hospital in Falls Church, Virginia, had a question for Fred Figa, a young pharmacist who was part of the hospital department that researched the safety of new drugs.

A pharmaceutical company unveiled a new vitamin E injection that is marketed under the brand name E-Ferol as a nutritional supplement for premature babies. It seemed harmless enough. Should you buy it?

Mr Figa phoned violently and found that the injection had indeed not been verified by the Food and Drug Administration. No, he replied. Wait a moment. Then he alerted federal investigators.

His diligence would save the lives of innumerable babies.

Mr Figa and investigators had encountered a deadly product safety crisis and scandal. Officials backed by Mr. Figa’s persistent research later found that the FDA had failed to take protective measures regarding the side effects of E-Ferol in light-weight newborns – side effects that resulted in the death of 38 infants from organ failure in hospitals in the area led the country.

Mr. Figa became a star witness in Congressional hearings that forced e-Ferol distributor O’Neal, Jones & Feldman Pharmaceuticals to withdraw him from the market in mid-1984.

“He wouldn’t let go of it. He was the kind of person who would follow something to the nth degree, ”said his wife Janice Russell Figa, who was pregnant when Mr. Figa started calling hospitals across the country to map the pattern of problems.

Mr. Figa, who served for decades as an internal legal advisor to the compliance departments of pharmaceutical companies, died on February 16 in a Morristown, New Jersey hospital near his home in Randolph. He was 65 years old. The cause was complications from the coronavirus, his family said.

Together with his wife, two daughters, Elise and Stefanie, survive; a son, Paul; three sisters, Perla Kimball, Felicia Pehrson and Heidi Wolf; and a brother, Romek.

Updated

March 12, 2021, 1:23 p.m. ET

Solomon Fred Figa was born on October 20, 1955 in Portland, Maine, to Jewish refugees who fled the Holocaust: Paul Figa, who started a leather shoe store specializing in moccasins, and Karola (Holzman) Figa, a seamstress. Fred was one of six children.

He graduated from Northeastern University in Boston in 1979 with a Bachelor of Science degree in pharmacy.

Uncovering the problems with E-Ferol, he attended night classes at the law school at George Mason University in Washington and worked part-time for the FDA, which helped him with his investigation. (He graduated from law school in 1986.)

Mr Figa never sought the limelight. At first he refused to testify or speak to reporters, confused that just paying attention to the details of his work – an emphasis learned from tooling and sewing leather in his father’s business – would attract attention.

He was always on the lookout for lurking dangers. His daughter Elise said in a telephone interview that as a teenager she appeared in a community production of “Peter Pan” as Liza, the maid. This role required that she simulate the flight with the wires suspended.

Her father asked to inspect the machine. The director obliges, then Mr. Figa said they were a couple of pirates in the choir for a short time.

“He went to the costume place and got a fake earring and a removable tattoo with a large scar on his cheek and he just had the best time,” Ms. Figa said.

“So he’d be a pirate for about a month every weekend, then he’d go to work as a pharmaceutical lawyer on Monday.”

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