THE passing of Dr. Michael DeBakey, the pioneer heart surgeon and researcher, earlier this month overshadowed the death of Dr. Ayub Khan Ommaya, a world-renowned neurosurgeon and researcher who passed away in Islamabad of Alzheimer s disease on July 10. A few years ago, when the disease took its hold, he moved back to Pakistan.
He was 78.
Dr. Ommaya was born into a Sufi family from the Himalayan Hazara Hills of northern Pakistan. Sufism is a branch of Islam that while accepting and practicing the core values of religion also believes in pluralism and respect for other religions. That philosophy remained the underpinning of Dr. Ommaya s remarkable life.
After graduating from King Edward Medical College in Lahore in 1953, he went to England as a Rhodes Scholar and received a doctorate in clinical biology from Oxford University, where he also was a member of the rowing team. While in England, he was named the Hunterian Professor in the Royal College of Surgeons, a singular honor for a young surgeon-researcher.
As is often the case in Third World countries, Dr. Ommaya could not get a suitable position when he returned to Pakistan, so he decided to go to the Unites States.
His ordeal was similar to the one faced by another brilliant scientist, the late Dr. Abdus Salam, who had faced a similar dilemma in Pakistan. In the late 1950s, he went back to England to teach and in 1964 established the International Center for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy, that now bears his name. He was the recipient of Nobel Prize in physics in 1979.
Upon his arrival in the United States in 1961, Dr. Ommaya joined the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke as an associate neurosurgeon. He had already made his impact on the profession by inventing a device to deliver chemotherapy to brain cancers. Known as the Ommaya Reservoir, the device is widely used the world over and has been pivotal in the development of all other medical ports now used.
His real genius, however, was to bring conceptual theory of the mechanism of head injuries into practice by bringing seemingly diverse disciplines to collaborate and find solutions. His centripetal theory of traumatic brain injury, tested in primates, was put to use by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in design changes and the development of safety devices for motor vehicles.
In the 1980s, as chief medical adviser to the U.S. Department of Transportation, Dr. Ommaya commissioned a comprehensive report called Injury in America. His friendship and close working relationship with then-Rep. William Lehman (D., Fla.), the chair of the House appropriations subcommittee on transportation, led to the establishment of the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control at the Centers for Disease Control.
As a neurosurgeon, his repertoire was wide and extensive but he excelled in the surgical treatment of vascular malformations of the brain and spinal cord. In one such case in 1977, he used a multidisciplinary approach with a heart surgeon, a heart bypass, extreme hypothermia, and total circulatory arrest to remove a giant vascular malformation from a 35-year old teacher from Rochester, N.Y. The 19-hour-long operation was successful and caught the imagination of professionals and the lay public alike when a detailed account of the remarkable surgical feat was published in Readers Digest in August, 1978.
Dr. Ommaya was also a trained opera singer and, according to his Washington Post obituary, he often serenaded his patients and colleagues with his singing.
He also had a deep insight into history, metaphysics, and religion. In 2001, he published a lengthy article on the rise and decline of science in the Islamic world in the journal World & I.
In it, through historic references and his ample knowledge of Islam, he discussed the decline of science among the Muslims. His theory, expounded upon by other scholars as well, was that early Muslims looked at their religion in a pluralistic and inclusive way that provided the milieu in which various Islamic civilizations developed and flourished.
I first met Ayub in 1982, when he was elected president of the Association of Pakistani Physicians of North America and I, as president-elect of the association, worked with him. Though we were not close friends, we enjoyed seeing each other occasionally and discussing many subjects that were of mutual interest. He was always cordial, courteous, gracious, and extremely thoughtful.
With his death, science has lost a brilliant scientist who was also a polymath. His friends and colleagues have lost a truly remarkable and inspiring human being.