KEITH W. ASHCRAFT, M.D.
1935 - 2019
Longtime member of the American Surgical Association, Keith W. Ashcraft, died July 29, 2019 at the age of 83. Keith was born September 1, 1935, in Hillsboro, Kansas, where his family published and edited the Hillsboro (KS) Star newspaper. He attended Kansas State College 1953-1954, then enlisted for two years in the Army and finished his pre-med degree at the University of Kansas. He was immediately accepted to the University of Kansas School of Medicine, where he met his mentor, lifelong colleague and close friend, Dr. Thomas Holder. On August 17, 1957, he married Connie Marie Sayer, a decision he was always quick to point out as the best of his life. Seven years of general and pediatric surgical residencies at KU were capped by a year and half at The Hospital for Sick Children, London, England (1970-1971) where he was named Locum Tenens Consultant in Thoracic Surgery (not a Registrar), a rare honor. He ultimately was triple boarded in Thoracic, General, and Urologic Surgery with the ABS special competence in Pediatric Surgery designation in 1975, and re-certified twice more. After completing his training he was recruited to the University of Texas (Galveston) as Assistant Professor in the Departments of Surgery and Pediatrics but returned to Kansas City when Dr. Holder asked him to be his partner and to serve on the active medical staff at Children's Mercy Hospital where all of their professional services were initially donated.
Initially Drs. Holder and Ashcraft operated at multiple private hospitals in Kansas City but ultimately felt strongly that the future of excellence in complex pediatric surgery would be best served by consolidating surgical skills, anesthesia excellence, and ICU care at one center, Children's Mercy Hospital. Serving as Chief of Urologic Surgery until 1993 when Dr. Holder retired, Dr. Ashcraft became Chief of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery. He became Surgeon-in-Chief in 1994, serving until his retirement in 1999. He served as President of the Medical Staff, Children's Mercy Hospital from 1995-1997 as a culmination of numerous leadership roles and which, along with Dr. Holder and others, very intentionally, worked to develop Children's Mercy Hospital as the Academic Pediatric Medical Center of excellence serving the mid-continent and its 6.1 million population while partnering with multiple University Medical Centers to provide pediatric specialty quaternary care and residency training programs. He was a member and leader in all the important societies and organizations pertinent to his field including: American Pediatric Surgical Association (numerous committee chairmanships, Board of Governors and ultimately President 1996-1997); American Academy of Pediatrics (Chairman Surgical Section, 1988-1989); American Medical Association, American College of Surgeons, Society of Genitourinary Reconstructive Surgeons, among others. Dr. Ashcraft authored or co-authored more than 110 peer reviewed journal articles, an Atlas of Pediatric Surgery, co-edited four editions of the classic and the important textbook: Pediatric Surgery and two additional pediatric surgical texts. He was a frequent visiting professor and invited lecturer nationally and internationally. Keith was known in the field as a true triple threat possessing clinical excellence, technical virtuosity, excellence in training residents and a rationale and inspiring administrative leader. Their textbook became a gold standard, a must-read, and was known simply as "Holder-Ashcraft" to years of medical students, surgical and pediatrics trainees, and pediatric specialists. W.B. Saunders, the publisher of the iconic "The Surgery of Infancy and Childhood", by Dr. Robert Gross, wanted a follow-on edition but Gross demurred as did C. Everett Koop, so they approached Dr. Holder who agreed but with the stipulation that he and Keith Ashcraft would be co-editors. Tom subsequently readily describes Keith's prowess as an editor (he even knew the symbols of copy editing due to his parents' business) and his effective editing of even the most famous of contributors that led to the textbook's fame for consistency of style, organization and readability that made it the pre-boards must read for generations of trainees. It is now in its 7th edition. While recognized as one of the "Greats" in American Surgery, Keith was modest and archetypically led by example. Two examples: Mondays and Tuesdays were designated for cardiac cases; Keith would often give the Fellow those nights off and he would personally stay in hospital to oversee the postoperative care; in between cases, he would first dictate his Operative Record, and then assist in turning the OR rooms over to expedite the next case. He recognized early that a key to OR efficiency was to get cases started on time by being present and active as the surgeon leader. It was a powerful but typical for him, non-verbal message to trainees and surgical team members.
Keith Ashcraft was an admired leading citizen and pillar of the Kansas City community. He served and led numerous philanthropic boards and campaigns for the arts and the disadvantaged specially to benefit children. Early in his career, after saving a cyanotic baby with Tetralogy of Fallot with a systemic-pulmonary shunt, he arranged for John Kirklin to perform the definitive repair while he and Connie adopted the boy into their family. Keith is survived by his wife of more than 60 years, Connie, four children and seven grandchildren. In retirement, Keith became an accomplished and prolific painter of watercolors. He was especially ardent in generating philanthropic support for the Pediatric Cardiac Surgery Division's clinical and research initiatives of his personally chosen and recruited new leadership that ultimately provided the platform for the Children's Mercy Heart Center. A skilled surgeon, valued colleague, surgical scholar, mentor to multiple generations of Pediatric Surgeons, and venerated by his lovely family and friends, he will be missed, but his legacy will live on through the impacts of his principled life.
RICHARD A. HOPKINS, M.D.