This series, Faculty Remembered, features profiles of former faculty members at P&S. The author of the series is a 1951 P&S graduate and former professor of medicine. He is now special lecturer in medicine and writer-in-residence at P&S.

GEORGE HUMPHREYS CHAIRED COLUMBIA’S DEPARTMENT OF Surgery for 23 years, from 1946 to 1969. Thoracic surgery, his particular forte, was only a decade old in 1946 when he became chairman, and penicillin was just starting to become available in quantity.

To manage an academic surgical department in a metropolis for two decades requires stamina. Knowing that Dr. Humphreys came from a privileged background and a Harvard education, one might guess that those two advantages smoothed the path to high status. Rather, it may not be impertinent to suggest that his extraordinarily strong character was more powerfully influenced by early misfortune. When he was 3, his mother, ill for a long time, committed suicide. Young George was raised by nurses. His father remarried; soon a half-brother was born and the household contained two families. He felt left out and became a loner. Prompted by a strong attraction to the natural world, he studied animals seriously, especially butterflies and various mammals; on the latter, through the practice of taxidermy, he demonstrated his exceptional manual skill. Later, friends said he could do anything with his hands. He was sent to St. George’s, a church school in Newport—which he hated. At Harvard he chose diversions requiring individual rather than group effort: theatrical set design and cross-country running. As at college, he was a top student at Harvard Medical School, graduating in 1929.

Next, he took a year’s assistantship at the Pathologic Institute in Munich. The next year, 1930, he started his two-year surgical internship at Presbyterian, followed by three years there as surgical fellow (surgical resident in today’s terminology). Then, in the next decade he engaged in the private practice of surgery in Manhattan. Simultaneously, he held clinical and teaching appointments at four or more of New York City’s public hospitals, including Seaside in Staten Island and City Hospital on Ward’s Island, gaining a broad and intense exposure to the diseases of the poor and disadvantaged, including pulmonary tuberculosis. During the late 1930s, like all junior attendings, he did humble journeyman tasks in Vanderbilt Clinic and the outpatient department of Babies Hospital. With all this, he managed to develop his expertise in the new fields of thoracic and cardiac surgery. Toward the end of the 1930s he became the first surgeon in the city to ligate a patent ductus arteriosus. Further, he did pioneering work in chest surgery, especially on the treatment of esophageal atresia in infants and very small children.

After 16 years of this standard penal servitude—actually a short time in those days—Columbia appointed Dr. Humphreys the Valentine Mott Professor of Surgery and chairman of the department, and Presbyterian Hospital made him director of its surgical service, posts he held until his official retirement in 1969.

As a forward-looking surgeon in the new field of thoracic surgery, Dr. Humphreys was in a good position to attract good people to help him bring the surgery department up to date. Under Humphreys’ predecessor, A.O. Whipple, the department had many excellences, but needed diversification, a more eclectic policy in recruiting new surgeons, and development of subspecialties. In the mid-1940s the department had the reputation of being a collection of “gentleman-surgeons.” Dr. Humphreys changed all that. John Lockwood was taken on as professor of surgical research. H.T. Randall joined the group to lay stress on the mineral and water metabolism of surgical patients. For greater strength in more general metabolic fields, John Kinney was recruited; in time, he developed a surgical metabolism unit in the hospital. A spectacular acquisition proved to be Arthur Voorhees who, with Arthur Blakemore and Fred Jaretzki, developed Vinyon ‘N’ Cloth, a porous plastic fabric that, rolled into tubes, can be used to bridge arterial defects. This invention has revolutionized cardiovascular surgery; the cloth is rapidly endothelialized in the body. Blakemore made further contributions in the difficult surgery of arterial aneurysms and, of greater success, the portal hypertension associated with cirrhosis of the liver.

On the clinical side, the department had many superior abdominal surgeons. Cushman Haagensen and David Habif and others were famous for skilled breast surgery. William Barclay Parsons and Lawrence Sloan were expert in the surgical treatment of thyroid disease, and the late Carl Feind added a parathyroid expertise to the arsenal of neck surgery. Plastic surgery flourished under Jerome Webster. Humphreys supported, fostered, and, if there was need, advised all of these, and many more besides. Dr. Humphreys’ efforts in thoracic and cardiac surgery laid the groundwork for the dramatic advances made in those fields by his successors, Drs. Keith Reemtsma and Eric Rose.

In later years, when Humphreys was asked what he himself felt was his major contribution—the questioner predicting the reply would be the development of chest and cardiac surgery—he would hesitate, then say, “Putting together the best possible training program for surgical house officers.” Most observers in and outside the department agree. The three principles were training both clinical surgeons and future academicians, forming a rectangular, not pyramidal, program, and assigning progressive responsibility. The end point was to inculcate critical judgment (difficult to do). The chairman kept track of the residents’ assignments by a multi-colored chart, dubbed by them “Uncle George’s Christmas Tree” (see author’s note below). Evidence that Humphreys was doing a lot of things right: Many of his graduates went on to become department heads at university settings or to occupy other important posts.

Dr. H. managed to write more than 80 scholarly papers. Not at all parochial, he was widely acquainted abroad; during vacations and sabbaticals he visited 11 or more countries, especially in the Middle and Far East. He made time to help found the American Board of Thoracic Surgery. After his wife’s death in 1980, he “retired” to West Dorset, Vt., and remained active—in town planning and governance among many other things.

Even in his 90s, George Humphreys remained an imposing figure. Bent double with arthritis he was still a “presence.” Styling himself as “Anglo-Saxon and Celtic” he kept some reddish hair. Looking craggy and perhaps forbidding, a moment’s conversation revealed warmth, good humor, quiet confidence, a man at ease and putting his interlocutor at ease. His inner strength, forged early, was palpable. He died at age 98.

Author’s Note: For detailed information about the house staff schedule, the Christmas tree, and other aspects of Dr. Humphreys’ training program, see F.P. Herter et al., American Journal of Surgery, Vol. 119, May 1970, and the John Jones Surgical Society Newsletter, Vol. 5, No. 1, Summer 2002. The writer thanks Frederic P. Herter, Kenneth Forde, and J. Beall Rodgers, all trained by Dr. Humphreys.

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