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David Coston Sabiston, Jr, MD

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Dr. David C. Sabiston, Jr., died on January 26th, 2009 after a long illness. Echoes of these words will always live in the hearts and minds of those of us he trained at Duke University. Born in 1924 in Eastern North Carolina’s Onslow County, he rose to become one of the most respected and powerful leaders in modern surgery. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of North Carolina (BS) and Alpha Omega Alpha from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine (MD). In 1953 he completed his surgical residency there under the tutelage of Dr. Alfred Blalock. Through Dr. Sabiston’s admiration for him many of Dr. Blalock’s principles later became transferred to the Duke surgical residents. Subsequently, as a Captain in the United States Army, he spent two years with Dr. Donald Gregg at the Walter Reed Army Research Center, studying coronary artery physiology. Here, his life-long interest in basic research, coronary physiology, and revascularization was spawned. Thereafter, he returned to Johns Hopkins as an Assistant Professor and was selected to be a prestigious Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator. In 1961 he spent a year at Oxford University and the Radcliffe Infirmary as a Fulbright Research Scholar. There, Dr. Sabiston studied the patho-physiology and effects of pulmonary embolism under Mr. Phillip Allison, the then Nuffield Professor of Surgery. He also worked with Sir Howard Florey, who had shared the Nobel Prize in 1945 for purification of penicillin. On returning to Johns Hopkins, Dr. Sabiston had a meteoric rise to become a Professor of Surgery. Upon Dr. Blalock’s death in 1964, there was much uncertainty regarding the future of surgical leadership at Johns Hopkins. As Blalock had been such a strong Chairman of Surgery, it was evident that a “non-Hopkins” candidate would be selected. Dr. William Anlyan, a surgeon and then the new Dean of the Duke University School of Medicine, saw the perfect opportunity and attracted the 39-year-old academician to become Chairman of the Department of Surgery there. Dr. Sabiston chaired this Department for the next 32 years, and during which he became a major leader in international surgical education. 

His tenure at Duke became history and what is known as the Sabiston Heritage of Excellence in Surgical Education. Many of us fondly called it a “Decade with Dave”. He considered his family, medical students and residents the most important parts of his life and won many awards for teaching at Duke. He was one of few to receive the “Golden Apple” from Duke medical students four times. Over those years he trained 154 chief residents of which 95 became cardiothoracic surgeons and 59 finished in general surgery. Of these, 103 took academic positions with 41 becoming either division chiefs or department chairmen. Many others entered private practice with a strong advantage over their colleagues. These benefits in clinical skills, patient care abilities, and way of life has been attributed to the standards that Dr. Sabiston set for both his faculty and residents during those years. Dr. Sabiston did not want to hear a qualitative evaluation of the patient, … a resounding “numbers please” often emanated on rounds with him.

Dr Sabiston gave more than 200 lectures worldwide and was a visiting professor at over 160 medical centers. He was the author of more than 300 scientific papers and was the Editor of the Annals of Surgery for 30 years and wrote the textbook standards for medical student, resident, and postgraduate education in surgery. His SURGERY OF THE CHEST, co-edited with Dr. Frank Spencer, his longtime friend from residency days, and BIOLOGIC BASIS OF MODERN SURGICAL PRACTICE went through many editions and still populate libraries, offices, and operating room lounges for quick but comprehensive reference. Dr. Sabiston was president of nearly every major surgical society in the United States including the American College of Surgeons, the American Surgical Association, The American Association for Thoracic Surgery, the Southern Surgical Association, the Society of University Surgeons, and the Society of Clinical Chairmen.  He also was made an honorary member of 154 foreign surgical societies including the Royal College of Surgeons of England, an honor that he shared with Dr. Blalock. He was elected to the Institute of Medicine as a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

Although Dr. Sabiston was a very tough taskmaster, his focus was always on excellence only to be attained by hard work, attention to detail, and basic knowledge.  These were the basic tenets of our residency, and he often spoke of Osler’s Masterword in medicine “WORK.”  He expected more from residents and got more. His dedication to educating residents and medical students was evident daily from ward rounds, Saturday conferences, as well as case and research presentations, or what we called “bear shows,” for visiting professors. Everything had to be done just right! However, there is not a surgeon among us that does not thank Dr. and Mrs. Sabiston for those years at Duke. A David Sabiston will not come along for a long time. The times have changed and training has changed as well – but the facts remain that the principles and teachings that Dr. Sabiston espoused in his travels, at Duke, and in his writings …. should remain today as guidelines for future cardiothoracic surgeons. He would tell us now to embrace a new energy for bringing the best and brightest into our fold and to become dedicate to our future surgeons who are now in residencies and medical school. He will be missed! His leadership and legacy are why the Duke Residents just called him privately “the Man.”

W. Randolph Chitwood, Jr, MD
Department of Cardiovascular Sciences
Brody School of Medicine
East Carolina University
Greenville, NC USA

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