American Surgical Association Transactions

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1931 - 2017

Keith A. Kelly, M.D., 1931-2017

Last fall, our House of Surgery lost one of its esteemed surgical scientists Dr. Keith Kelly after a 6 year battle with a horrible disease. Most all will remember Dr. Kelly as a quiet, serious, thoughtful, unassuming surgical scientist, educator, and focused "classically trained" academic gastrointestinal surgeon.

After finishing his surgery residency training at the University of Washington under Dr Henry Harkens and a fellowship in Amsterdam studying bile physiology, Dr. Kelly accepted a post- doctoral research position in physiology at the Mayo Clinic under the mentorship of Dr Charles Code whom many consider the modern father of GI Physiology in the US. This experience changed Dr. Kelly's professional life thereafter, because he continued his career as a Surgical Scientist studying both the physiology and pathophysiology of many operations we perform and how they not only help to ameliorate certain disorders but also how they change our physiology. Dr. Kelly's seminal work on the control of gastric motility and the role of vagal innervation, a topic of tremendous interest in the era of duodenal ulcer disease, described the differences in gastric emptying of liquids and solids; this work was especially of interest and importance because of the use of certain types of vagotomy to decrease acid production. During the middle of his career, he became interested in chronic ulcerative colitis and was one of the first surgeons to perform and study the physiology of the continence-preserving Koch pouch and later the ileal pouch-poch anal anastomosis operations that have helped so many patients with ulcerative colitis. Thorough his NIH funding, his study of the physiology of these GI operations as well as several bariatric operations in the early 1980s were a hallmark of this true Surgical Scientist with his theme of "study what we do as surgeons to improve the treatment of our patients".

Dr. Kelly remained at the Mayo Clinic for his entire career where he supervised an estimated 80 postdoctoral and research fellows, many of whom have gone on to be leaders in American surgery as well as numerous surgery residents. While at Mayo Clinic, Dr. Kelly served as the Chair of Surgery both at the Rochester Mayo campus as well as the Arizona Mayo campus when the Arizona campus started its surgery residency. As a show of his recognition and importance, he received the Distinguished Educator and Distinguished Alumnus awards, the highest most prestigious (and competitive) awards that Mayo Clinic bestows very selectively on its staff. In addition, Dr. Kelly was recognized internationally by multiple honorary fellowships not only in Europe but also in Asia where he was recognized as a bit of a "Japanophile".

But Dr. Kelly was more than just a celebrated surgeon and scientist. He was fiercely loyal to and supportive of his "students" often at his own expense, and his "mentees" were fiercely loyal to him. He taught so many of us not only how to do research, but also how to write a scientific paper, how to give a presentation, and also the importance of academic citizenship in our careers as an academic surgeon, an important and valued consideration in our esteemed American Surgical Association.

One personal story will show his character. After spending 2 years in his laboratory from 1978-1980, just before leaving to return to finish my residency at Johns Hopkins Hospital, I met with Dr. Kelly and said "Dr. Kelly you have had such an influence on my professional life that I really want to give you something but I don't know what to give you". His response was "Mike, there is nothing that you can give me, but I want you to give to your students and mentees the same type of training, education, consideration, and opportunities that I have given you - that is our Surgical heritage". Nothing speaks more for this wonderful man's legacy than this prophetic truth. Though we all miss him, his heritage lives on hopefully in all of us in the American Surgical Association.