MILTON T. EDGERTON, M.D.
1921 - 2018
Milton T. Edgerton, M.D. died May 17, 2018 at the age of 96. Much can be said about his life and contributions: “He was always present at the most important developments in Plastic Surgery, and participated fundamentally in the development of Plastic Surgery as a specialty. He participated in the implementation of a variety of remarkable operations which led to the development of modern Plastic Surgery and its important role in universities. He fostered academic credibility for the specialty by incorporating fundamental research capabilities and conferences within the specialty. Although he was a visionary leader at Johns Hopkins for 25 years, and the University of Virginia for 18, his remarkable contributions have been consistently undervalued.”(1)
Milton Edgerton graduated from Emory University in 1941 with a B.A. in Chemistry, and attended Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, graduating in 1944. He interned at Barnes Hospital in St. Louis. In 1945 he joined the military, and was a Captain at Valley Forge General Hospital from 1945-1947.
The experience reconstructing war injuries would solidify his life’s profession. The comradery among those surgeons assigned to the Valley Forge Hospital for reconstructive operations was legendary, and it was at Valley Forge where the idea to form Plastic Surgery specialty services in the medical schools of the nation was initiated.
Dr. Edgerton completed his surgery and plastic surgery training at Johns Hopkins in 1951 (Dr. Blalock had offered him the first ever plastic surgery training position at Hopkins in 1949). He initially served under William Longmire, a talented leader of the reconstructive surgery service, who left Hopkins midway thru Edgerton’s training to chair the General Surgery Department at UCLA. Edgerton finished his training under Edward Hanrahan, whose health was failing from tuberculosis. Blalock offered Edgerton the chance to succeed Hanrahan following the completion of his training, and he became chief of the division and assistant professor in 1951, associate professor in 1953, and professor in 1962.
His CV lists 4 books and over 400 publications, which span the entire spectrum of plastic and reconstructive surgery including hand, craniofacial, aesthetic, transgender surgery, pediatric plastic surgery , head and neck surgery and reconstruction, thyroid surgery, maxillofacial trauma, burns, breast reconstruction, and pelvic reconstruction. His incredibly broad practice included congenital malformation surgery, hemangiomas and their treatment with surgery and Dr. Ugs, and lymphedema surgery where he advocated staged subcutaneous excision rather than the more radical Charles procedure. He was passionate about the immediate reconstruction of head and neck cancer, which he helped pioneer. He was intensely interested in the new field of craniofacial surgery, followed the pioneering work of Paul Tessier in France, and early established Johns Hopkins as a center for craniofacial surgery. One of his more famous hypertelorbitism correction patients, Debbie Fox, was so grateful she later founded a society to assist others in their struggle with craniofacial malformations.
He early convinced Raymond Curtis, M.D. to oversee hand surgery at Hopkins. Dr. Curtis continued to attend until his retirement but he also founded and chaired the world renowned Hand Center at the Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore. (Remotely, J.M.T. Finney MD, the first President of the American College of Surgeons, was chief of surgery at Union. John Staige Davis, MD also practiced there, pioneering reconstructive plastic surgery, and in fact wrote the first U.S. text.)
Dr. Edgerton’s trainees would chair many important plastic surgery training programs in the country, (36) emphasizing the importance and impact of the training they received.
Edgerton was ahead of his time in sponsoring Transgender Surgery and created a unique multidisciplinary clinic, perhaps the first university to offer these services in the U.S. He would continue this work at the University of Virginia after 1970. Within the first two years of its Hopkins existence, 8 other centers asked Edgerton for consultative assistance in initiating their programs. The Hopkins clinic was closed for a period after his departure, then re-opened in 2017, attributing Edgerton’s visionary founding of these services to being a ‘surgeon ahead of his time’(1).
His career included the office of Governor, the American College of Surgeons. When the Surgical Forum was begun in 1949, he immediately recognized its importance, and helped Joseph Murray, M.D. create the Plastic Surgery section in 1951. His fundamental belief in the importance of research led to the founding of the Plastic Surgery Research Council in 1955 in Baltimore, and the organization would become the most important Research organization in Plastic Surgery over the next half century.
He was President of the American Association of Plastic Surgeons, the premier academic organization in Plastic Surgery, and was a Board member and examiner for the American Board of Plastic Surgery. He was a founding member of a number of organizations: the Society of Head and Neck Surgeons, the Plastic Surgery Research Council, The Academic Advisory Council for Plastic Surgery (program directors), and the Society for Biomaterials. He helped establish the transplantation society, and was closely associated there with Joseph Murray and Peter Medawar- both of whom would win Nobel Prizes.
Dr. Edgerton was “remarkably prescient (1) in perceiving the clinical divergence between General Surgery and Plastic Surgery. He early foresaw the necessity of independent surgical subspecialty departments, and was increasingly concerned about numerous issues associated with divisional status in Surgery. He felt the changing scope and narrowing focus of General Surgery training required a new definition of the training model for Plastic Surgery, and he strongly felt Departmental Status was essential to the survival of the specialty.” Such frustrations ultimately led to his departure from Johns Hopkins to the University of Virginia in 1970, where departmental status was granted in 1971.
His death was precipitated by multiple myeloma and metastatic melanoma, according to the funeral announcement. His wife’s death had preceded his by 9 years in 2010. He is survived by four children: (Bradford Edgerton (a plastic surgeon), William Edgerton, Sandy Edgerton Bissell, and Diane Edgerton Miller) 11 grandchildren and 9 great grandchildren.
In 2011, 41 years after his departure from Johns Hopkins, the Milton T. Edgerton Professorship was established for the first Chairman of the Department of Plastic Surgery at Johns Hopkins. The gift was given by Milton Edgerton, his daughter Diane Edgerton Miller and their family in recognition of what her father had accomplished in his remarkable surgical, administrative and research careers.
PAUL N. MANSON, M.D.
1. Coon, D., Sacks, J. Manson, P., Landford, W. Lee, W.P. A., Milton Edgerton and Johns Hopkins-1941-1970:Building the Foundations of Modern Plastic Surgery, J. Craniofacial Surgery 30:282-283, 2019