In memoriam: Dr. John Connolly, pioneering cardiothoracic surgeon

Dr. Connolly

Dr. Connolly

John Earle “Jack” Connolly, MD, FACS, Past-Second Vice-President and Vice-Chair of the Board of Regents of the American College of Surgeons (ACS), passed away peacefully surrounded by his family on January 20 at 92 years old. A pioneering cardiothoracic surgeon, Dr. Connolly was the founding chairman, department of surgery, University of California, Irvine (UC Irvine).

Outstanding mentors

Jack was born May 21, 1923, in Omaha, NE, where his father, Earle Connolly, MD, was a surgeon on the faculty of Creighton University’s School of Medicine. The elder Dr. Connolly and Jack’s mother, Gertrude, created an environment that encouraged scholastic excellence. Dr. Earle Connolly often took Jack along on weekend rounds to share his passion for academic surgery. These parental influences were evident as Dr. Jack Connolly went on to graduate with honors from Harvard College, Cambridge, MA, in 1945 and Harvard Medical School, Boston, in 1948.

Dr. Connolly then left New England for the fast-paced life of post-World War II California to begin training in surgery at the Stanford University Hospital, San Francisco, where Emile Holman, MD, FACS, was chief of surgery. Dr. Holman, the last resident to train under William S. Halsted, MD, FACS, was an expert in arteriovenous fistula physiology and management. Dr. Connolly’s residency at Stanford included a penultimate year as a surgical registrar on Sir James Patterson Ross’ professorial unit at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, U.K.

Dr. and Mrs. Connolly

Dr. and Mrs. Connolly

After completing a final year as chief resident at Stanford, Jack returned to the East Coast in 1955 for a two-year thoracic and cardiovascular surgery residency at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, New York, NY. At that time, the emphasis of the program was substantially more thoracic than cardiac, with George H. Humphreys II, MD, FACS, and Robert H. Wylie, Jr., MD, FACS, at the medical center and J. Maxwell Chamberlain, MD, FACS, at Roosevelt and Bellevue hospitals.

Trailblazing career

By the time Dr. Connolly returned to Stanford in 1957 as an instructor in surgery, Frank L.A. Gerbode, MD, FACS, FRCS, had performed the first open heart operation on the West Coast in 1954 and had a well-established cardiac team. Norman E. Shumway, MD, FACS, had just come to Stanford directly from training at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, with Richard L. Varco, MD, FACS, and C. Walton Lillehei, MD, FACS, who were in the vanguard of this rapidly developing field.

Jack decided to focus his efforts on clinical research and was awarded funding as a Markle Scholar from 1957 to 1962. The return on this investment included 37 reports in peer-reviewed publications, ranging from “Direct vision surgery of acquired aortic and mitral valvular stenosis under hypothermia” in Surgery to Intestinal adhesions—present status of prevention and treatment” in California Medicine. Most importantly, however, Dr. Connolly emerged from this experience as a quintessential gentleman surgeon and educator, and well-prepared to accept important responsibilities.

In 1962, California voters approved a proposition to merge doctor of osteopathic medicine (DO) and doctor of medicine licensing, which would both allow existing DOs to become MDs and California Osteopathic Colleges to grant doctor of medicine degrees. The merger resulted in the renaming of the College of Osteopathic Physicians and Surgeons in Los Angeles, which traced its roots to the 19th century, as the California College of Medicine. The school retained its mixed faculty of ex-DOs and a few conventional MDs when it was subsequently acquired by UC Irvine and moved to the Irvine campus.

Kenneth A. Forde, MD, FACS; Dr. Connolly; and Dr. Jim Chandler, 2010

Kenneth A. Forde, MD, FACS; Dr. Connolly; and Dr. Jim Chandler, 2010

Stanford Medical School dean Loren R. “Yank” Chandler, MD, FACS, had resigned in 1953 after holding the position for 20 years to become a practicing pediatric surgeon on the Stanford faculty but could not avoid becoming involved in the issues surrounding the granting of MDs to former DOs. Dr. Chandler was particularly perturbed by the situation at Irvine, which he viewed as a dangerous precedent. When he learned that UC Irvine was interested in Dr. Connolly as a candidate for chair of surgery, Dr. Chandler visited dean Warren L. Bostick, MD, FACS, to urge him to allow Jack complete freedom in appointing or reappointing faculty, a request that Dr. Bostick granted.

Dr. Connolly eagerly accepted the invitation in 1965 to be the founding chair of what would become, essentially, a new department of surgery. He recruited or accepted all of the new department’s original physicians and anesthesiologists, as well as the heads of seven divisions. The university wavered about building a more modern hospital on campus until 1976, when it purchased the Orange County Medical Center, located approximately 12 miles from the main campus. It is now the UC Irvine Medical Center, which radically expanded under the guidance of Jack and two deans to become a center of excellence.

Jack relinquished his chairmanship of the department of surgery in 1978 after serving in that position for 13 years but retained his professorship in thoracic and cardiovascular surgery. Dr. Connolly never actually retired and remained at UC Irvine as its last original faculty member, teaching medical students and residents for nearly half a century.

For a time, he worried that he’d have to retire at age 70. “But then the government changed the retirement age and that saved me,” he would say, smiling broadly. “I really like what I do—I like the atmosphere. As long as they think I’m contributing, I want to keep doing exactly what I’m doing now.”

National and international recognition

Jack’s commitment to surgery has been recognized both at home and abroad. A Fellow of the College since 1958, he was an ACS Governor (1957−1960); a Regent (1972–1983), including one term as Vice-Chair (1982−1983); a member of the Central Judiciary Committee (1975−1980); and Second Vice-President of the ACS (1984–1985). Subsequently, he served on the ACS Patient Safety and Quality Improvement Committee (1987−1993).

Dr. and Mrs. Connolly at the President’s Dinner, Clinical Congress 2015

Dr. and Mrs. Connolly at the President’s Dinner, Clinical Congress 2015

In addition, he was president of the American chapter of the International Cardiovascular Society (1976−1977) and a member of the James IV Association of Surgeons. The John E. Connolly Surgical Society, honoring Jack’s dedication to surgical education and fostering mentorship and camaraderie among his former surgical residents, was established in 1975, and members continue to dine together at the annual ACS Clinical Congress.

Dr. Connolly’s career took him all over the world with numerous honors and visiting professorships. He was perhaps most proud of his honorary fellowships in the Royal College of Surgeons of England, Ireland, and Edinburgh, and his honorary memberships in the Japan Surgical Society and the Vascular Surgical Society of Great Britain and Ireland. He celebrated a major career landmark on June 27, 2012, when the John E. Connolly Endowed Chair in Surgery, now occupied by Michael J. Stamos, MD, FACS, became fully funded.

A family tradition

Dr. Connolly enjoyed taking some of his family along with him on many of his invited international lectures. He also was an enthusiastic golfer and member of several clubs, including Cypress Point Golf Club, San Francisco Golf Club, Big Canyon Country Club, the Bohemian Club, the Pacific Union Club, and the Harvard Club.

Jack Connolly and Virginia “Ginny” Hartman were married in 1967 and had three children: Peter Hart Connolly, MD, was born in 1974; John Earle Connolly, Jr., in 1976; and Sarah Elizabeth Connolly in 1980. History repeated itself when Dr. Peter Connolly graduated from the UC Irvine School of Medicine in 2004 to train in general surgery at the Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center and then in vascular surgery at the New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center, where he is now an assistant professor on the vascular surgery service.

Dr. Jack Connolly also is survived by five grandchildren, raising the possibility of yet another generation of Connolly surgeons.

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