American Surgical Association Transactions

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1930 - 2020

G. Melville Williams,  M.D., 1930-2020

George Melville Williams, MD, known affectionately as “Mel” to his colleagues and friends, who established and modernized transplant surgery and vascular surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital over his 41-year tenure as a surgeon, researcher, and educator, died August 26, 2020, of complications of novel coronavirus disease-19 infection in Stuart, Florida. He was 89. Dr. Williams was born in Soochow, China, and as a youth lived on the campus of Soochow University, where his father was a professor of sociology and religion. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Oberlin College, Phi Beta Kappa, in 1953 and his medical degree from Harvard Medical School, AOA, in 1957. After completing a surgical internship and two years of a surgical residency at Massachusetts General Hospital, he served as a surgeon in the US Army, stationed in Tehran, Iran, from 1960 to 1962. He then returned to Massachusetts General to complete his residency in surgery. At the Massachusetts General Hospital, he became interested in vascular surgery under the guidance of Robert Linton, MD, but he was most intrigued by the scienti?c frontier of the new ?eld of organ transplantation. To prepare for a career in transplantation, he spent a year at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Melbourne, Australia where he studied with Gus Nossal and the 1960 joint Nobel Prize Winners Sir Macfarlane Burnet and Sir Peter Medawar, both pioneers in the ?eld of immune tolerance. He then joined the team at the center of the transplantation revolution at the Medical College of Virginia (now Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center) under Dr. David Hume. During this time, he made seminal contributions to the ?eld, ?rst to describe and then study antibody-mediated rejection and chronic rejection. This groundbreaking research was published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Dr. Williams’ insight into the shortage of organs for transplantation motivated him to form the United Organ Sharing Network in 1977. He modeled the national strategy on a system of procurement he had helped to create for the southeastern United States, creating a matching system that maximized the opportunity for patients nationwide, and he served as the ?rst president of United Organ Sharing Network in 1977. For his lifetime contributions to the ?eld of transplantation, he received the American Society of Transplant Surgeons Pioneer Award in June, 2020.

He was recruited to Johns Hopkins in 1969 to become Director of the combined Transplant/Vascular Surgery Division at Johns Hopkins which he lead until 1995, when separate Transplant and Vascular Divisions were established, and he retired from transplantation surgery to lead the new Division of Vascular Surgery until 2002. In the ?rst years, he led the development of a kidney transplant program at Hopkins, and subsequently the establishment of a liver transplant and pancreas transplant program. He led the team that performed the ?rst liver transplant at Johns Hopkins Hospital. His contributions to vascular surgery were equally momentous. Dr. Williams was revered as a master surgeon, inventing novel approaches to aortic aneurysm repair, such as the retroperitoneal approach for aortic exposure and aortic aneurysm repair, which he re?ned and popularized; and organ preservation strategies for the most complex vascular reconstructions. His techniques and treatment protocols remain in use to this day for the betterment of patients worldwide. Dr. Williams was honored as the inaugural recipient of the Bertram M. Bernheim Professor of Vascular Surgery at the Johns Hopkins Hospital. He retired from active surgery in 2010 after 41 years at Hopkins. After retirement, however, he continued to contribute to laboratory investigation in transplantation with Professor Zhaoli Sun, and was faculty director for the Surgical Physician Assistant Program. Indeed, Mel would bene?t personally from his research in transplantation, receiving a kidney donated from his wife Linda. While in “retirement” in Florida, Mel obtained a medical license from the Florida Board of Medicine so that he could serve as a volunteer primary care physician at a charity clinic, and he devoted time to serve the medical needs of the indigent.

Dr. Williams’s contributions to American surgery as a clinician and surgical technician of unparalleled excellence, scientist, and educator are remarkable, and his unique qualities of leadership across multiple surgical specialties is re?ected in his having served as President of the American Society of Transplant Surgeons, the Halsted Society, and as a founding member and President of the Southern Association for Vascular Surgery. In 2008, he was awarded the Rudolf Matas Lifetime Achievement Award from the Southern Association for Vascular Surgery.

Dr. Williams trained generations of surgeons at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in the art and science of transplant and vascular surgery. His humble demeanor, prodigious skill, and affable manner are cherished by all who knew him and live on as his legacy. Mel is survived by Linda, his wife of nearly 25 years; and by his four children, Curtis, Steve, Lucy, Elizabeth; two stepchildren, Kristin and Amy; and 12 grandchildren, and is also survived by Lee, his ?rst wife and mother of their children.