Remembering Hank

Dr. Henry Bahnson

Dr. Henry Bahnson

I first saw the name Henry (Hank) T. Bahnson, MD, FACS, in 1977. I had purchased the Sabiston Textbook of Surgery: The Biological Basis of Modern Surgical Practice and was paging through the table of contents in my Brighton, MA, apartment prior to starting my third-year clerkship in surgery at Boston Veterans Affairs Hospital, today known as the VA Boston Healthcare System. Dr. Bahnson, a Past-President of the American College of Surgeons (ACS), had authored a chapter on diseases of the aorta, and I was surprised to find a chair of surgery who shared my surname. I was intrigued and eager to learn about him.

During my surgical residency, Julia Spencer, MD, FACS, the first woman resident in the department of urology at Northwestern University, Chicago, IL, reminded me of my interest in Dr. Bahnson. Encountering me on the ward, she would teasingly greet me as “Hank,” and I would return the favor by calling her “Frank” to spoof an assumed lineage to the famous New York, NY, heart surgeon and ACS Past-President, Frank C. Spencer, MD, FACS. Little did we know at the time, but Hank Bahnson and Frank Spencer often accompanied Alfred Blalock, MD, FACS, in his travels to surgery centers around the world to help demonstrate techniques he had devised in cardiac surgery.

John T. Grayhack, MD, FACS, then chair of the department of urology at Northwestern, would jokingly tell colleagues he had accepted me into his postgraduate training program only because he thought I was a scion of the famed Bahnson medical family. Dr. Grayhack had served under Dr. Bahnson at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, MD, during his general surgical training, and he and his wife, Betty, had fond memories of Hank and his wife, Louise. The Bahnson’s gracious hospitality was evident even then, when “Wee” Bahnson would host afternoon gatherings on her porch in Baltimore for the wives and children of the surgical house staff.


I first met Henry Bahnson in his office at the University of Pittsburgh (PA) Medical Center’s Presbyterian Hospital in the fall of 1986. I had seen him in a few group photographs before our introduction, but I was unprepared for his striking physical resemblance to some of my older relatives. He admitted to a mild degree of excitement over our upcoming interview when he read my curriculum vitae the evening before our meeting. In July 1987, our family moved to Pennsylvania, and I began a professional relationship with him at the University of Pittsburgh that lasted nine years.

The first operation I performed in Pittsburgh involved regional hypothermia to facilitate a partial nephrectomy. Dr. Bahnson came into the operating room (OR) to observe me, which increased the nerves of an already anxious surgeon. In those days, slush machines were rarities, so the OR staff had placed bags of normal saline in the freezer to chill overnight. A scrub nurse was preparing the slush by pounding the bags of frozen saline with an orthopaedic hammer on a metal back table. Quietly and without being officious, Dr. Bahnson pointed out that placing the bags at the corner of the table would make the fracturing force of the hammer blows more efficient. This was the first of countless opportunities for me to witness his extraordinary skills of observation and workmanship.

His home in Fox Chapel, PA, was further testimony to the ingenuity he applied to almost any endeavor. No one ever would have considered featuring the house in an architectural or home decorating magazine. He kept beehives for honey, a stocked pond for fishing, horses for riding, a rope tow for skiing, and an orchard for both apples and his special brand of hard cider. At the conclusion of required clerkships in surgery at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, students and selected departmental faculty were invited to his home for an afternoon party. The menu usually centered on lamb or beef cooked on his homemade barbeque spit, which he had fashioned from an old tractor. His working tractor was used to give hayrides for all of the children who attended the picnic. He and Louise also hosted a huge Christmas party every year for the surgical faculty and their families. New recruits were required to sing “We Three Kings” accompanied by Hank on his Hohner harmonica. Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” was sung with few, if any, in the gathering hitting the high notes. His seamless ability to combine work and fellowship was perhaps his greatest asset. It was as instinctive as breathing for him, and his inspiration was a natural product of his normal activity.

During my years in Pittsburgh, I was often asked in the hospital hallways how my dad was doing. For the first several years, I would carefully explain that Hank Bahnson was not my father, but near the end, to save time, I would simply say that he was fine. His son, Alfred Blalock Bahnson, was pursuing a PhD at that time at the medical center. His friends from high school called him “Blay,” his colleagues at the medical school called him “Al,” and he would always greet me as “cous.” His observation of similarities in physiognomy led him to believe that we had to be kin.

Drs. Henry Bahnson and Frank Spencer performing open-heart surgery using total cardiac bypass at Johns Hopkins in 1957. The operation was to correct ventricular septal defect.

Drs. Henry Bahnson and Frank Spencer performing open-heart surgery using total cardiac bypass at Johns Hopkins in 1957. The operation was to correct ventricular septal defect.

Lasting impact

I left Pittsburgh in 1996 but continued to be reminded of Dr. Bahnson in my new home in Ohio. Henry Bahnson was featured in a front-page article from the Wall Street Journal on Monday, February 8, 1999. The story, “Hank’s inquisitive approach to a harmonica virtuoso,” highlighted a series of experiments that Dr. Bahnson performed with his collaborator, a bioengineer, James Antaki, using endoscopy to videotape a harmonica virtuoso as he played “America the Beautiful.” The study led to a publication of a research article titled “Acoustical and physical dynamics of the diatonic harmonica” and led to Dr. Bahnson’s patent for his “Bahnson Overblow Harmonica.”* The modification, which has a slide mechanism, makes it easier for less experienced players to hit notes only a master can normally achieve. In April of that same year, National Geographic published a picture (circa 1892) of Henry Bahnson (a physician) of Salem, NC, and his children. The four children and a dog were sitting atop giant lily pads in his backyard pond. Dr. Bahnson (Hank’s grandfather) had propagated the lily pads (Victoria amazonica), native to South America, which could grow to a size of 20 feet in circumference and could support up to 300 pounds.

The last time I saw Hank was in the café of the San Francisco (CA) Hilton during the October 2002 ACS Clinical Congress. He was having breakfast with his son, Alfred, and he introduced me to his good friend Ben Eiseman, MD, FACS. I was unable to join them, but when I shook his hand and offered my goodbye, he fixed his penetrating eyes upon me, smiled, and advised me to “be brave.” He died a few months later in January 2003 at his home in Pittsburgh.

Every so often, I still think of Hank, usually when I am walking to and from work. In those moments, I remember his forthright approach to problems, his propensity to be candid, and his quiet, decisive nature. However, most of all, I remember that we share a last name, and I am reminded to have courage.

Bahnson HT, Antaki JF, Beery QC. Acoustical and physical dynamics of the diatonic harmonica. J Acoust Soc Am. 1998;103(4):2134-2144.

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