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Profiles in Giving

Habif Professorship to Honor a Revered Alumnus

By Peter Wortsman

David V. Habif’39
David V. Habif’39
The intellectual and human legacy of the late David V. Habif’39, a renowned and beloved surgeon who spent his entire professional career at P&S and Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, lives on in the surgeons he helped train and the patients he helped heal. Now that legacy also will be linked in perpetuity to an endowed professorship established in his name, thanks to a generous gift by the Milstein family, who knew Dr. Habif as physician and friend.

Seymour Milstein summed up the sentiment behind the gift as a “tribute to the memory of a remarkable clinician, scientist, and teacher.” The named chair, he hopes, will “ensure the continuation of this model of excellence” by a worthy successor. Dr. David Kinne, a former student of Dr. Habif’s and now chief of breast surgery, has been named as the first Habif Professor.

A Legend in Every Sphere He Touched

“David Habif is a legend,” recalled his old colleague and friend, Dr. Sadek Hilal, professor of radiology. “The more you look around,” he adds, “the more you find that this man has given so much to so many people. In addition to having been daring and masterful in the OR, he was unbelievably great at the human side of medicine too.” Dr. Hilal cites a professional associate Dr. Habif treated for advanced breast cancer, one of countless grateful patients, who thrived for many years after surgery “thanks to his gentle and meticulous care.”

Dr. Habif took his sole leave from the institution he dearly loved during World War II to serve the country he loved no less. Accompanying the Second General Hospital to Europe, he subsequently volunteered for the U.S. Army 101st Airborne Division in the wake of the Normandy Invasion. He was flown by glider behind enemy lines, serving in Bastogne, where he volunteered to stay with the wounded and was captured by the Germans. Even in captivity, his time was well spent. The enemy had the good sense to recognize his skills and put him in charge of a hospital for American and other Allied prisoners.

Returning to Columbia to pursue his surgical residency, he joined the faculty and rapidly rose in the ranks. He was named Morris and Rose Milstein Professor of Surgery in 1972, a position he held until his death in 1992.

As a surgeon he was known for his daring, never shying away from high-risk procedures that demanded inordinate skill and stamina, including cases in which cancer had spread to other parts of the body. With patience and a sure hand he would track down the diseased tissue and remove it.

The author or co-author of close to 100 peer-reviewed papers, he also produced instructional films on breast disease and on surgical techniques he developed. In research, Dr. Habif made significant contributions in the areas of radiation oncology and chemotherapy as well as the effects of intravenous feeding during surgery.

Dr. Habif was equally active as a quiet force for good behind the scenes at the medical center, guiding the gratitude of generous patients, helping to bring in the financial resources to establish two endowed professorships, an NMR facility, an anesthesia laboratory, and a new hospital building.

In 1989, the Alumni Association named him Honorary Alumni Day Chairman, and in 1991 he received the Distinguished Service Award, the school’s highest honor.

While no memorial can make up for his loss, the David V. Habif Professorship will perpetuate the kind of surgery he practiced and the kind of care he gave, enabling future patients and students to continue to benefit from his example.

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