In memoriam: William H. Muller, Jr., ACS Past-President, surgical leader, innovator, researcher

Dr. Muller, in a portrait which hangs in the lobby of the UVA Medical Center.

Dr. Muller, in a portrait which hangs in the lobby of the UVA Medical Center.

The surgical world lost a wonderful friend and visionary when William Henry “Harry” Muller, Jr., MD, FACS, died on April 19, in Irvington, VA, at the age of 92. Dr. Muller was an important American College of Surgeons (ACS) leader, having served as Chair of the Board of Regents and as President of the College.
During a career that spanned 40 years, Dr. Muller initiated programs in cardiovascular, plastic, and oncologic surgery at the University of Virginia (UVA) Health System, Charlottesville, where he started the open heart surgery program. He was a pioneer in prosthetic aortic valve surgery and pulmonary banding for pulmonary hypertension. He also earned renown as a pioneer of pediatric congenital heart disease procedures. During the economic downturn of the 1980s, he led the planning, development, and construction of the UVA Health System’s replacement hospital that opened in 1989 and stands as a tribute to his energy and collegiality.

Work-life balance

Dr. Muller was one of the lucky ones who found joy and fulfillment both in his professional life and with his family. He and his wife of 66 years, Hillie, raised three wonderful children, and enjoyed the many rewards of their ever-expanding family.

At the memorial service for him, Dr. Muller’s grandson, Winston Gwathmey, MD, an orthopaedic resident at the UVA Health System, spoke movingly of his grandfather, “Pepa” to him. “My grandfather was a great surgeon who lectured internationally, served numerous visiting professorships, and authored more than 160 scientific papers,” Dr. Gwathmey told the gathering. But the same man, he said, “who trained a generation of thoracic and cardiovascular surgeons taught me how to catch a bream on a piece of bacon when I was five years old.”

“My grandfather would be a little troubled about operating rooms [at UVA] standing idle right now because so many surgeons are at this service,” he added.

One of Dr. Muller’s favorite quotes came from Alan Gregg, an inspiring figure in medical education and research during the first half of the 20th century, who said of excellence: “To this emergent quality I give the name—the heritage of excellence, mostly because it never comes from nor appeals to mediocrities. What more do men of superior character and capacity require for their association than freedom, responsibility, and expectation?” In his presidential address to the Southern Surgical Association in 1975, Dr. Muller referred to this quote, which captures the essence of what he believed and the manner in which he lived.

Early life and education

After graduating from The Citadel in 1940, in Charleston, SC, Dr. Muller attended Duke University School of Medicine, in Durham, NC, where he graduated with honors in 1943. He entered a Johns Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore, MD, internship the following year, under the leadership of Alfred Blalock, MD, FACS. There Dr. Muller made a name for himself in cardiovascular surgery as he joined a group of young men who would contribute significantly to the direction that American surgery would take in the second half of the 20th century. Dr. Muller excelled in this environment and progressed readily through the training program. He was present in the operating room when Dr. Blalock performed the first Blalock-Taussig shunt procedure in 1946.

In April of 1946, Dr. Muller entered the U.S. Army and was deployed to Germany. On completion of his tour of duty in the army, largely because his father had become gravely ill, he returned to the town where he was born, Dillon, SC, where he maintained a private practice until July 1948. He returned to the Johns Hopkins Hospital as a resident in general surgery and completed his postgraduate training in 1949.

A brilliant career

In 1949, his friend and resident colleague, William Longmire, MD, FACS, the first chair of the department of surgery at the new University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA) School of Medicine, recruited Dr. Muller. At UCLA, Dr. Muller quickly assumed a number of vital positions and established cardiothoracic surgery teaching and clinical programs at affiliate institutions. He served as chief of the section of cardiovascular surgery at the Harbor General Hospital, as a thoracic surgeon at the Wadsworth Veterans Administration hospital, and was consultant in surgery at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica. In California, Dr. Muller was named by the U.S. Junior Chamber of Commerce as one of the Ten Outstanding Young Men of the States and one of the Five Outstanding Young Men of California.

In 1954, Dr. Muller became the youngest chair of a surgical department ever when the UVA School of Medicine in Charlottesville sought him to serve as the Stephen H. Watts Professor and chairman of the department of surgery and as surgeon-in-chief, UVA Medical Center, a position he would hold for 27 years. Here, he gained the respect of his colleagues and the admiration of his trainees.
The surgeons who trained under Dr. Muller were highly respectful of him, and although he demanded a great deal of them, he also treated them with dignity and compassion.

The medical students loved him. Everybody appreciated his sense of humor. Those who attended one of the medical school graduations enjoyed a delightful performance of the “Hallelujah Chorus,” with graduating students replacing “Harry Muller” for “Hallelujah” in the chorus. Moreover, his former residents formed the Muller Surgical Society in 1968, which continues to meet biannually in Charlottesville.

In 1976, he became vice-president for Health Affairs at UVA, and went on to become the chief executive officer of the UVA Medical Center. It was a role in which he flourished. In 1981, Dr. Muller resigned his position as chairman of the department of surgery, but he continued his active leadership as vice-president until 1990, when he retired.

Other contributions

Dr. Muller held leadership positions in many surgical organizations in addition to the ACS. He served as president of the Southern Surgical Association, the American Surgical Association, the Society of University Surgeons, and the Society for Vascular Surgery. He was vice-president of the International Cardiovascular Society and the James IV Association of Surgeons. He was vice-chairman of the American Board of Surgery and served as vice-chairman of the Residency Training Committee in Surgery. He also was a founder of the Association for Academic Surgery.

In addition, Dr. Muller contributed significantly to research programs outside of the institutions where he taught and practiced. He was a member of the National Research Council Executive Committee and chaired the Surgery Study Section and was a member of the Otolaryngology Study Section. He also served on the Academic Surgery Training Committee of the National Institutes of Health, and the Research Committee of the American Heart Association.

On his 90th birthday, his many friends and former residents organized a series of phone calls to him, which lasted most of the day. He joyously answered each one with his customary humor and graciousness. The ACS mourns the loss of a surgical leader, academician, and visionary physician. We extend our sincere condolences to the extended family of Dr. Muller while being in awe of his remarkable accomplishments.

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