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Published: Monday, 4/4/2011

Doctor excelled in the treatment of pancreatic cancer

BY S. AMJAD HUSSAIN
BLADE COLUMNIST

Two weeks ago, John Howard, a surgeon, teacher, researcher, historian, and humanitarian, passed away in Toledo. A giant among doctors, John Howard packed an enormous amount of living into his 91 years and left an enviable legacy behind.

Born into a poor family in rural Alabama, young John picked cotton and pecans on the family farm and went on to attend the University of Pennsylvania's medical school. After completing surgical training in Philadelphia, he joined the U.S. Army and led the army's surgical research team in Korea.

It was there that the young captain conceived of repairing injured blood vessels in field hospitals instead of tying them off. This innovation saved many limbs and lives.

He also pioneered the use of makeshift dialysis machines in field hospitals when injured soldiers developed kidney shutdown because of shock and blood loss. Had it not been for the early dialysis, many soldiers would have lost kidney function and died.

When an injured patient is brought to a hospital emergency room today, much of what is done was refined on the battlefields of Korea. Dr. Howard was responsible for standardizing much of it.

His four-volume work on the treatment of the injured during the Korean War outlined advances made during that conflict. It was widely believed that the Trapper John character in the television series M*A*S*H was patterned after Dr. Howard.

For his extraordinary services, President Dwight Eisenhower awarded him the Legion of Merit medal.

But his contributions to war medicine were only a small part of his professional legacy. His most enduring legacy is his work on diseases of the pancreas, to which he devoted much of his surgical career and for which he was known around the world.

Dr. Howard excelled in the surgical treatment of pancreatic cancer. He refined the operation for pancreatic cancer developed by Dr. Allen Whipple.

In 1968, Dr. Howard reported performing surgery on a large number of patients with pancreatic cancer without a single death. That was remarkable, because the Whipple procedure carried a mortality rate of 25 percent at the time. Thirty years later, Dr. Howard published his landmark book Surgical Diseases of the Pancreas.

Dr. Howard was fascinated not only with the operation Dr. Whipple had developed, but also with the surgeon himself. This resulted in a two-volume biography of Dr. Whipple that Dr. Howard published in 2008, at the age of 88.

Despite his vast knowledge about the pancreas, he dedicated his book to "the thousands of patients with pancreatic diseases about which we know so little."

On many occasions during international conferences, someone would, on learning that I was from Toledo, ask if I knew Dr. Howard. People were always surprised to learn that I knew him personally. On such occasions, I and his many other friends basked in the reflected glory of Dr. Howard's accomplishments.

The Medical College of Ohio, now the University of Toledo Medical Center, was the fourth and longest stop in Dr. Howard's professional career. He had previously worked at Baylor University in Waco, Texas; Atlanta's Emory University, and Hahnemann University, now part of Drexel University in Philadelphia. He chaired surgery departments at the last two institutions. Though he retired in 1993, he continued to go to his office on the Health Science Campus until a few weeks before his death.

Our paths crossed in 1975 when I returned to Toledo to start a surgical practice. He was already an accomplished surgeon with a global reputation and I was just embarking on my career. In due course, our friendship grew and we were able to discuss religion, geopolitical issues, and medical politics.

At times he would vehemently disagree with some of my op-ed columns in The Blade. But through it all, he remained graceful, kind, and forgiving.

Numerous international honors and awards came his way, but he was most proud of the honorary fellowship he received from the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh — a rare distinction — and the honorary degree of Doctor of Medical Sciences he was awarded by UT. Perhaps his greatest academic honor came when UT established an endowed professorship in pancreatic surgery in his name.

Dr. Howard was an elegant and gracious man. He brought much-needed color and flair to the otherwise monochromatic monotony of the medical college with his signature yellow or red jackets, bold and colorful neckties, and wonderfully infectious smile.

I shall miss him.

Dr. S. Amjad Hussain is a retired Toledo surgeon whose column appears every other week in The Blade.

Contact him at: aghaji@bex.net



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