American Surgical Association Transactions

Search Transactions

1930 - 2019

JOHN P. DELANEY, M.D., 1930-2019

Jack Delaney, a wonderful friend and outstanding surgical colleague, died peacefully surrounded by his family on November 20, 2019. He was a man of integrity, humility, loyalty and humor who valued and respected those who worked for and with him. He treated everyone the same, regardless of their station in life.

Jack was born on October 1, 1930, in St. Paul, Minnesota. He attended local Catholic schools through his high school graduation, in 1948, from St. Thomas Academy. After earning his BS degree in 1951 from the University of Notre Dame, he returned home to attend medical school at the University of Minnesota, obtaining his MD degree in 1955. Jack interned at Santa Clara County Hospital in San Jose, California and then served at the U.S. Army Hospital in nearby Fort Ord until 1959. He then pursued surgical and research training under Dr. Owen H. Wangensteen (the legendary chairman of the University of Minnesota Department of Surgery from 1930 to 1967). In 1966, after completing his chief resident year and earning his PhD in physiology and surgery, Jack joined the University of Minnesota faculty. He advanced in academic rank to be a full professor of surgery in 1980. Jack's lifelong contributions to the University of Minnesota, its medical school, and the entire community were acknowledged in 2007 when he received the prestigious Harold S. Diehl Award. In 2011, the Department of Surgery honored him as its Surgical Alumnus of the Year.

Jack was the epitome of the "triple threat" surgeon, excelling in clinical care, research, and education. Patients loved Jack: he took time to listen to their concerns, to clarify their symptoms, and to understand their expectations. When cure was not possible, he focused on alleviating their pain and helping them manage their final days. Not surprisingly, he developed a busy clinical practice, concentrating on breast cancer and endocrine surgery. Jack always attributed his success to his team of nurses, technicians, and support staff. After his death, Jack's family received a note from one of his long-term breast clinic nurses that summarizes a common sentiment: "What was really special was that he demonstrated an impeccable gracious and appreciative spirit to his nurses" and other team members.

For more than 50 years, the Delaney research laboratory offered numerous students, residents and early career surgeons, including many from foreign countries, an opportunity to come to the University of Minnesota. His investigative focus was on what he called "practical matters," by which he meant issues arising from questions and frustrations that he himself encountered with his own patients. His research led him to be an early proponent of a more conservative surgical approach for treating women with many types of breast cancer—an approach now widely accepted. Jack was especially passionate about using his laboratory as a stepping-stone for trainees and young surgeons from foreign countries to pursue their dream of a surgical career. He understood that rigorous training coupled with hard work in a mentored environment would unlock new ideas that would improve the health of people across the world. Most notably, he fostered development of multiple Mexican surgeons, some of whom joined our faculty or other centers in the United States and some of whom returned home to practice. Jack was justifiably proud that each is now using skills acquired in the Delaney laboratory to contribute to healthcare.

Jack was also a highly effective educator and mentor who set high standards. He made each of us better. When our performance was deficient, he was never rude or demeaning; instead, he would use such times as teaching opportunities. Also of note was Jack's decades-long devotion to our nationally prominent continuing education course for surgeons. Launched in 1937 during the Wangensteen era, the course took place over several days every summer, for more than half a century, on the University of Minnesota campus. When Dr. John S. Najarian was named the successor to Wangensteen as chairman of the Department in 1967, he turned to Jack to plan and co-host the annual course and to edit its proceedings so they could be published annually in book form. The intent was to provide surgeons an up to date "home study" resource. The impact of these annual publications for over two decades is hard to imagine in today's world of instant access to current information but for its time, it was truly a unique and highly valued resource.

He savored every major achievement of his colleagues. I vividly remember how excited Jack was when I was named the inaugural holder of the John P. Delaney Chair in Clinical Surgical Oncology in 1998. We immediately got together to celebrate. Jack also loved to welcome and encourage new recruits. The second (and current) holder of the Delaney Chair is Dr. Eric Jensen, a surgical oncologist, who shared this memory with me. "Jack Delaney had a tremendous impact on me. When I arrived here as a new staff member knowing almost no one, Jack spotted me in the faculty lunchroom. He could have sat with any of the other faculty, but instead, he purposefully sat with me. He asked how I was doing, and he actually cared about the answer! As a young faculty member, that simple gesture from such an accomplished man, had a lasting impact on me. It was obvious that he really believed in supporting the young people around him. I am honored to hold the Delaney Chair, and I will be certain that it is used to support young faculty in a way that would make him proud."

Jack rarely missed the Department of Surgery's grand rounds, even in his retirement years. Even before deciding on his own professional specialty, he appreciated the importance of grand rounds in fostering what he called "intellectual ferment"; as he once wrote, "As a medical student at the University, I had developed an interest in surgery partly because of the entertainment value of the Saturday rounds. During the early 1950s, there was on the staff a collection of forceful, articulate, uninhibited individuals. The debates often took on an emotional tone, which only added to the entertainment of the back row spectators who relished the combat occurring in the front. A free expression of views was tolerated, indeed encouraged. Though strongly expressed, positions were not always entirely based on data or entirely consistent with reality" (quoted in "The Minnesota Surgical Residency Program," The Cutting Edge, University of Minnesota Department of Surgery newsletter, April 1990, p. 6). In recent decades, Jack was especially admired by his faculty peers for his unique way of cutting to the chase: he would simply, quietly ask a single, critical question at the end of an often long, meandering, confusing, and contentious discussion of a case. In recognition of his unique informal role at grand rounds over the course of his career, the Department of Surgery is in the process of officially naming our conference room after him.

Despite his many accomplishments and busy professional life, Jack remained humble and grounded. He was a good and decent person first and foremost. He always resisted putting people down, or saying one thing and doing another. Jack loved to laugh and (almost always) found the humor in any situation. His obituary (published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune on November 24, 2019) included this particularly poignant sentence: "On the final day of his life, Jack only requested that one line be included in his obituary." That one line, which says it all, was this: "I received numerous awards, tributes and accolades, but my most treasured document was my wedding license to Mary (Puddy) Dolan in 1960." Puddy and their 6 children, 19 grandchildren, and 4 great-grandchildren survive him. Jack Delaney was a model of how the world benefits from honest, gentle, and kind individuals. His example will be sorely missed.