American Surgical Association Transactions

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1921 - 2019

Bjorn Thorbjarnarson, M.D., 1921 - 2019

Dr. Bjorn Thorbjarnarson was born on July 9, 1921 in Iceland, where he completed his primary, secondary, and undergraduate medical education. Upon graduation from University of Iceland Medical School in 1947, he realized that there were no good opportunities for surgical training in Europe after World War II. As a result, he considered other options. Dr. Thorbjarnarson's brother's father-in-law was at one point a patient of Dr. Frank Glenn, then Chairman of The New York Hospital, and thus he decided to apply for an internship at NYH. After six months of correspondence, without providing any letters of recommendation or undergoing any interviews, he was invited to train at The New York Hospital - Cornell Medical Center.

Dr. Thorbjarnarson graduated from residency in 1954 and remained at The New York Hospital - Cornell Medical Center for his entire professional life with the exception of two years (1956-58) when he was drafted into the Navy and stationed in Chelsea, Massachusetts as a Lieutenant Commander and General Surgeon. After serving in the Navy, he returned to The New York Hospital - Cornell Medical Center as Assistant Professor of Surgery (1958-63), Associate Professor of Clinical Surgery (1963-1972), Professor of Surgery (1972-1991). In 1974, he was called upon to serve as Interim Chairman of the Department of Surgery after Dr. Paul Ebert left Cornell to become Chairman of the Department of Surgery at University of California San Francisco and before G. Tom Shires assumed the Chairmanship in 1975. Dr. Thorbjarnarson is best remembered for being an excellent technical surgeon. Residents operating with him always felt comfortable and confident because they knew he could handle anything that happened in the operating room. His movements were smooth and directed, "like a porpoise in water", with no wasted motions.

Beyond having extraordinary technical skill, Dr. Thorbjarnarson was also an experienced translational and clinical researcher. Perhaps one of his most notable contributions to science was the development and description of a baboon cholecystopexy model whereby the gallbladder fundus was tacked up to the anterior abdominal wall to allow easier sampling of bile. This allowed subsequent studies of bile composition in relation to fasting, feeding, pregnancy, and contraceptive steroids, among other experimental models. Yet, his bibliography was not limited to bile homeostasis and included papers covering a wide range of topics such as thrombophlebitis, abdominal trauma, cancer of the gallbladder, Crohn's disease, achalasia, and intussusception.

Dr. Thorbjarnarson retired at the age of 70 to Florida with his wife, Margaret Stewart, whom he married in 1955. Together they had four children.