Dr. Asa Yancey and the realization of his mentor’s dream

Dr. Yancey in an undated portrait (Asa G. Yancey papers, circa 1940-2013, Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University)

Dr. Yancey in an undated portrait
(Asa G. Yancey papers, circa 1940-2013, Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University; photograph by Fabian Bachrach)

“Excellence of performance will transcend artificial barriers created by man”—such was the counsel of Charles R. Drew, MD, FACS, to his surgical trainees during his tenure as chair of surgery at Howard University’s Freedmen’s Hospital (1941–1950), Washington, DC.*

Attendees of the American College of Surgeons (ACS) Clinical Congress 2016 who participate in the Panel Session titled The Enduring Impact of Three African-American Surgical Pioneers, Wednesday, October 19, 12:45–2:15 pm, in Room 206 of the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, Washington, DC, will learn about the enduring, and often underappreciated, contributions of a trio of trailblazing academic surgeons.

This session—which grew out of a discussion between members of the ACS Surgical History Group—will highlight the accomplishments of John Norman, MD, FACS; Asa Yancey, MD, FACS; and Charles Drew, MD, FACS (posthumously). Each of these surgeons was a Fellow of the College, yet many surgeons of all backgrounds and generations are not fully cognizant of the contributions of these notable physicians to the practice of American surgery. Nevertheless, their impact was remarkable by any yardstick—and downright phenomenal given the socioeconomic barriers of the times in which they lived and worked.

Transcending barriers in education

Dr. Yancey personifies the vision Dr. Drew had for his trainees. Born and raised in Atlanta, GA, Dr. Yancey matriculated at Morehouse University (class of 1937), and in 1941, Dr. Yancey was one of four African-American students in his class at the University of Michigan Medical School, Ann Arbor, where his elder brother, Bernice, graduated from medical school in 1930.After a year of postgraduate military duty, Dr. Yancey went on to train at Freedmen’s Hospital under Dr. Drew for two-and-one-half years, from 1942 to December 1944.

A well-developed obstetrics-gynecology program at Howard left little opportunity for general surgery residents to perform much pelvic and gynecologic surgery. Drs. Yancey and Drew, therefore, felt that additional time at Meharry Medical College, Nashville, TN, would broaden his experience.

Transcending the limits of surgery

Dr. Yancey in an undated portrait (Asa G. Yancey papers, circa 1940-2013, Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University)

Dr. Yancey in an undated portrait (Asa G. Yancey papers, circa 1940-2013, Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University)

Following his time at Meharry, and with Dr. Drew’s support, Dr. Yancey became chief of surgery at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Tuskegee, AL (1948–1958)—an institution that also possessed an excellent veterinary school and animal laboratory. In the laboratory, Dr. Yancey worked on a modification of the Swenson technique (proctectomy with coloanal anastomosis) for congenital megacolon (Hirschsprung’s disease). He would later perform this procedure in a patient, stripping only the rectal mucosa and pulling the sigmoid colon through the seromuscular rectal sleeve and fashioning a coloanal anastomosis. Dr. Yancey published an article describing this technique in 1952 in the Journal of the National Medical Association (a journal that was not carried by most predominately white institutions at the time), some 12 years before Franco Soave, MD, published his surgical series of the modification that bears his name.

As a surgical educator, Dr. Yancey is credited with integrating the medical staff at Grady Hospital and the surgical faculty at Emory Medical School, both in Atlanta. Dr. Yancey also led two training programs for surgeons of color in Alabama and Georgia from the 1940s to 1960s. He is one of the quiet heroes of American surgery.


*Harris HR. Howard University celebrates legendary surgeon LaSalle Leffall’s 80th birthday. Washington Post. May 25, 2010. Available at: www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/05/24/AR2010052403750.html. Accessed July 27, 2016.

Yancey AG, Cromartie JE, Ford JR,  Nichols RR Jr, Saville AF Jr. A modification of the Swenson technique for congenital megacolon. J Natl Med Assoc. 1952;44:356-363.

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