American Surgical Association Transactions

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1925 - 2018

Frank C. Spencer, M.D., 1925-2018

It is my honor to review the life and prodigious contributions of a great friend and mentor too many of us, Dr. Frank Cole Spencer. Frank Cole Spencer was born on a farm on the outskirts of Haskell, Texas and he grew up during the early years of the great depression. One of Dr. Spencer's often-quoted sayings was, "I thank the good Lord for giving me a good brain, access to good education, and teachers who truly wanted me to succeed". His parents were clearly devoted to his receiving a good education, even though it was in a two-room schoolhouse. His role model early on was his grandfather, a country doctor. A high school science teacher sparked his curiosity and instilled the passion that would last his entire career. Dr. Spencer graduated from high school first in his class, then went on to North Texas State University, a teacher's college in Denton, Texas. Once again, his "good brain" led to his graduation after 28 months, again at the top of his class. Influenced by his grandfather, Dr. Spencer applied to medical schools. He was rejected by the medical schools in Texas because he was too young, but was able to enter Vanderbilt School of Medicine, in Nashville, Tennessee, at the age of 17. Initially he wanted to be a psychiatrist, but under the influence of Barney Brooks and others, he chose the field of surgery. Once again, he graduated at the top of his class, a member of the Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Medical Society. He then joined the internship class under the new chair of surgery at John Hopkins Hospital, Dr. Alfred Blalock. At Hopkins, Dr. Spencer began pioneering work in the new field of cardiac surgery and was mentored by Dr. Bill Longmire. Dr. Spencer followed Dr. Longmire to UCLA. After a short period of time, he left UCLA to serve in the United States Navy Medical Corp and was assigned to Easy Med Company near Panmunjom, Korea. In the early phases of the Korean War, soldiers who had extremity injuries particularly of the blood vessels, underwent arterial ligation. This was the treatment of choice carried over from World War II, and resulted frequently in gangrene and amputation. Because of Dr. Spencer's work in the laboratory of Drs. Muller and Jim Maloney, he had perfected the art of arterial reconstruction. Even before receiving official permission, he began to perform the repair of arterial injuries. Over the next 9 months and over 150 repairs, Dr. Spencer showed a success rate of almost 90%. Instead of a threatened court martial, Dr. Spencer was given the Legion of Merit Award, which led to national recognition.

Dr. Spencer returned to complete his surgical residency under Dr. Blalock at Johns Hopkins. He then remained on the surgical staff at Hopkins as a Markle Scholar and along with Henry Bahnson, launched an open-heart surgery program. He developed a reputation as a gifted teacher and innovative technical surgeon.

Dr. Spencer was then recruited to the brand new medical school in Lexington, Kentucky, by Dr. Ben Eiseman. Over the next several years, he had an enormously successful academic career and made numerous contributions to aortic and valvular surgery. He also was a pioneer in coronary artery bypass. In 1966, he was named the George D. Stewart Professor and Chairman of the Department of Surgery at New York University, where he served with distinction for 32 years. Even after stepping down as Chairman, Dr. Spencer remained a driving force at his beloved NYU, serving on many committees and being an important fundraiser.

Dr. Spencer was known for making major contributions to the field of cardiac surgery; however, he was an important educator in the broader field of general surgery. He was well known for his textbooks, Surgery of the Chest and Principles of Surgery.

His leadership and contributions to the field were recognized by his election as president of many organizations. He served as President of the Society of Clinical Surgery (1974-1975), the American Association for Thoracic Surgery (1982-1983), the American College of Surgeons (1990-1991), and the American Surgical Association (1997-1998).

In his presidential address to the American College of Surgeons, he emphasized the most important premise of his career; "do what is best for the patient". His clinical rounds were legendary for their attention to detail as well as the clear, focused, logical, scientific, problem solving. He was a passionate leader in patient safety, long before many recognized its importance. Although I never had the experience of operating with Dr. Spencer, I am told by those that did he was a master surgeon, focusing on technical detail and compulsively writing observations in his journal.

I would relate two insightful vignettes of Dr. Spencer that shed light on his character. The first was my very first meeting of the Society of Clinical Surgery as a young member and Dr. Spencer, the past president, welcoming me to the organization by saying I should just address him as "Frank". I remember responding, "Sure, Dr. Spencer, I am happy to address you by any title you wish!"

The second vignette demonstrates his impact in providing mentorship and career advice to generations of surgeons. I had just accepted my current position almost 22 years ago, and Dr. Spencer, at The American College of Surgeons meeting, invited me to his hotel room where he proceeded to write out what were the most important criteria for a successful career as a department chair. He emphasized the primary importance of clinical excellence, the excitement of intellectual productivity, and the prioritization of teaching whenever the opportunity arose. His advice reflected his humble background and his practical common sense. I still have the paper written in his hand and advising me to maintain an open door; assign problems, not solutions; compose an advisory group of trusted colleagues; and ask others what they would like to do, before making decisions.

Among all of his most important contributions to our field, he may be best remembered for his pride in witnessing the achievements of his many students and faculty who have gone on to very successful academic surgical careers. Dr. Spencer's impact has spanned many decades. Indeed, his career was emblematic of an era of extraordinary scientific discovery, rapid advances in surgical procedures and much improved outcomes for surgical patients. He never lost sight of the importance of doing what is best for the patient. Finally, his considerate but rigorous teaching style influenced generations of surgeons and led to significant contributions in vascular, cardiac and general surgery. In every profession, we are blessed by individuals who make the rest of us better. Dr. Spencer dedicated his career toward making our profession, and all of us who practice in the field, better. Without doubt, he was a preeminent innovator, teacher, mentor, and role model. Additionally, he was the consummate gentleman, never forgetting his humble roots. He will be missed by all, but remembered daily by all that he taught us.