Historical Summary

Having existed as a clinical operation at Emory University Hospital since 1925, the Department of Surgery became an academic medical institution when Daniel C. Elkin, MD, was appointed the first official chairman of the Department of Surgery of the Emory University School of Medicine in 1930.

Dr. Daniel Elkin

Dr. Daniel Elkin

In 1939, Dr. Elkin was the first beneficiary of a substantial endowment established by Joseph Whitehead, Jr., the son of Coca-Cola magnate Joseph Whitehead, Sr., and became the first Joseph Brown Whitehead Professor and Chair of Surgery. Numerous Whitehead family funds helped create Emory Surgery's original infrastructure, including the construction of research labs, expansion of various divisions, and the design and building of the Whitehead Surgical Pavilion.

Dr. Elkin elevated teaching to equal footing with clinical activities and added a year to the surgical residency. He was a prolific author throughout the 1930s, 1940s, and early 1950s, and made lasting contributions to surgical practice that included his description of pericardiocentesis for cardiac tamponade and popularization of the surgical exposures used to access the proximal subclavian artery, the peroneal artery, and the intraosseous portion of the vertebral body.

Operating room, Emory University Hospital, circa 1961

Operating room, Emory University Hospital, circa 1961.

The Emory Clinic was established in 1953, with various department faculty being founding members, including William McGarity, MD, whose trenchant studies of hyperparathyroid cases contributed to a greater understanding of multiglandular parathyroid disease, and Charles Hatcher, MD, who performed Georgia's first "blue baby" open heart procedure in 1962; the state's first single, double, and triple aortic valve replacements in 1963 and 1964; and the state's first successful coronary bypass surgery in 1970.

John D. Martin, MD, was appointed the J.B. Whitehead Chair of Surgery in 1957, serving until 1971. Dr. Martin successfully integrated the separate residency programs at Grady, Piedmont, Emory, and the Atlanta VA hospitals, streamlining and creating a more effective curriculum. During Dr. Martin's term, Garland Perdue, MD, chief of the Division of Vascular Surgery from 1960-1984, served as primary surgeon on the first kidney transplant performed in Georgia in 1966.

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Dr. W. Dean Warren

Dr. W. Dean Warren

The Department was chaired from 1971-1989 by W. Dean Warren, MD, a leading investigator of portal hypertension for three decades and the co-originator of the distal splenorenal shunt. Dr. Warren served as the 67th president of the American College of Surgeons in 1986. Following Dr. Warren's death from cancer in May 1989, Robert Smith, III, MD, chief of the Division of Vascular Surgery from 1984-1988, served as acting chair until 1991.

Notable clinical events during this period included development of the musculocutaneous flap procedure—the foundation for techniques that are now the standard for reconstructive breast surgery—by Foad Nahai, MD, and other Emory plastic surgeons in 1975; establishment of Emory Surgery's heart transplant program in 1985; the performance of Georgia's first liver transplant in 1987 by J. Michael Henderson, MD, and William Millikan, MD; and the performance of Georgia's first kidney-pancreas transplant in 1989 by Richard Olson, MD, and John Whelchel, MD.

Dr. William Wood

Dr. William Wood

William C. Wood, MD, former medical director of the Cancer Center and chief of Surgical Oncology at Massachusetts General Hospital, was appointed J.B. Whitehead Chair of Surgery in 1991. During his 18-year tenure, Dr. Wood guided Emory Surgery from being a department that had no NIH grants when he arrived to one that regularly placed in the upper ranks of academic departments of surgery receiving NIH funding. He also contributed to advancing breast cancer therapy and the design and meta-analysis of conceptually driven clinical trials.

In 1991, John Bostwick, MD, published the 1st edition of his landmark, two-volume atlas Plastic and Reconstructive Breast Surgery, a touchstone in the field. Shortly thereafter, Christian Larsen, MD, DPhil, and Thomas Pearson, MD, DPhil, initiated their transplant immunology laboratory, which became a cardinal research program in the study of the immunologic mechanisms of transplant rejection and tolerance, with the aim of achieving rejection-free transplant survival without the need for continuous drug therapy.

In 1993, Emory plastic surgeons Felmont Eaves, MD, and Carl Price, MD, adapted endoscopes for certain plastic surgery procedures; Georgia's only lung transplant program began at Emory; and Elliot Chaikof, MD, PhD, established Emory Surgery's first program for the endovascular repair of abdominal and thoracic aortic aneurysms. Joseph Craver, MD, performed Georgia's first minimally invasive direct coronary artery bypass surgery in 1996; Thomas Heffron, MD, performed Georgia's first living-related liver transplant in 1997; and David Vega, MD, implanted the first ventricular assist device (VAD) in Georgia to be used as a bridge to transplant in 1999.

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In the early 2000s, significant research efforts increased Emory Surgery's funding portfolio, including the novel cancer imaging and targeted therapeutic agent projects led by Lily Yang, MD, PhD; examinations helmed by Collin Weber, MD, of cross-species islet transplantation and protective encapsulation of transplanted islets to combat Type 1 diabetes; Dr. Larsen and Dr. Pearson’s ongoing transplant immunology studies; and the work of Elliot Chaikof, MD, PhD, chief of the Division of Vascular Surgery from 2001-2010, who focused on developing endovascular therapies, novel biologics, and tissue engineered products for treatment of aortic aneurysms, carotid disease, and peripheral arterial disease.

Dr. Chris Larsen

Dr. Chris Larsen

The primary clinical highlights from this period were Dr. Larsen and Dr. Pearson's performance of Georgia's first islet transplant in 2003; Dr. Vega and his surgical team's implantation of Georgia's first VAD as a means of providing permanent therapy for heart failure rather than as a bridge to transplant in 2006; and the performance of Georgia's first pediatric Berlin Heart surgery by Kirk Kanter, MD, and the development of laparoscopic hepatic resection by Juan Sarmiento, MD, both in 2008.

In February 2009, Dr. Larsen succeeded Dr. Wood as the Whitehead Chair of Emory Surgery, and continued his work with Dr. Pearson to develop a new class of immunosuppressive drugs known as costimulation blockers. One such drug was belatacept, which Dr. Larsen, Dr. Pearson, and researchers at Bristol Myers Squibb began developing in the 1990s as a less toxic alternative to standard immunosuppressants. In 2011, the FDA approved belatacept for kidney transplant recipients.

Dr. Larsen was appointed Dean of the Emory University School of Medicine in 2013, and John Sweeney, MD, became interim chair of Emory Surgery. Dr. Sweeney was appointed full Whitehead Professor and Chair in January 2015.

Dr. John Sweeney

Dr. John Sweeney

Dr. Sweeney is dedicated to enhancing quality and safety culture in the surgical enterprise, and has conducted collaborative studies with James C. Cox, PhD, director of the Experimental Economics Center of the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University. The studies are concerned with reducing costs and hospital readmissions by increasing physicians' effectiveness in identifying the optimal time to discharge patients. Dr. Sweeney's research has received funding from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality and the Georgia Research Alliance.

Major departmental achievements from 2010 on began with the performance of Emory's 300th lung transplant by Seth Force, MD, that year; the completion of Emory's first hand transplant by a surgical team led by Linda Cendales, MD, in 2011; the inauguration of the general surgery residency's global surgery rotation in Soddo, Ethiopia, in 2012; private practice Paces Plastic Surgery, directed by then-Plastic Surgery Division Chief T. Roderick Hester, MD, joining Emory Surgery in 2013 and becoming the Emory Aesthetic Center; Grady Memorial Hospital's Level I trauma center becoming the local site for the DoD-sponsored, multi-institution Surgical Critical Care Initiative (SC2i) in 2014; the initiation that same year of the Emory Electronic ICU, designed and directed by Timothy Buchman, PhD, MD, which digitally linked the ICU's at five hospitals for remote, 24-7 patient monitoring; Craig Coopersmith, MD, being a member of the international task force of experts that redefined sepsis and septic shock in 2016; Douglas Murphy, MD, performing his 2000th cardiac robotic procedure that same year; Paul Tso, MD, performing the Emory Transplant Center's (ETC) first HIV-positive kidney transplant from an HIV-positive donor in 2017; and William Kitchens, MD, performing the ETC's first HIV-positive liver transplant from an HIV-positive deceased donor in 2018.

Emory Surgery began regularly placing in the top 20 of all departments of surgery nationwide in annual NIH funding in FY2008, and its ranking has continued to climb through the years since. According to ranking tables of annual NIH funding for FY2018 posted by the Blue Ridge Institute for Medical Research in February 2019, Emory Surgery retained the 7th position for the second year in a row and received total NIH funding of more than $12 million.

Please check this site's news reports, Emory Surgery newsletters, and faculty publications sections for recent and current information on Emory Surgery's accomplishments and activities.

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