In memoriam: Seymour I. Schwartz, MD, FACS, ACS Icon in Surgery

After a career that spanned nearly 70 years at the University of Rochester (UR), NY, Seymour “Sy” I. Schwartz, MD, FACS, Past-President of the American College of Surgeons (ACS), died August 28, 2020, at his son’s home in St. Louis, MO, after a brief illness. He was 92 years old.

Dr. Schwartz

Outstanding contributions to surgery

Dr. Schwartz edited and cowrote the textbook used to teach generations of young physicians and led the surgical societies that shaped the profession. He remained influential well into his later years by continuing to write, teach, and commit his time to physicians in Rochester and around the globe. He was honored as an Icon in Surgery at the ACS Clinical Congress 2017 for his contributions to our field. Dr. Schwartz’s storied career began at the UR in 1950, when he arrived for a surgical residency. He finished residency in 1957, after a 20-month leave to serve in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War and he then joined the surgical faculty at UR. For the next 60 years, he cultivated expertise in hepatobiliary surgery and other complex operations and rose through the ranks of academic medicine, both inside and outside the UR. He served as chair of surgery at UR from 1987 to 1998, and director of surgical research for 20 years.

Most notably, however, Dr. Schwartz edited and coauthored the standard textbook for the profession, Schwartz’s Principles of Surgery, during the years when his own career was advancing. The first edition of the book—1,850 pages, 52 chapters, and written in a single voice — is known as “the surgeon’s Bible” and was unique for being rooted in basic science. McGraw-Hill, New York, NY, first published the tome in 1969, and it is now in its 11th edition. In 1964, he published Surgical Diseases of the Liver, the first comprehensive textbook focused on hepatic surgery in the U.S.

Holding the Seymour Schwartz Distinguished Professorship in Surgery is certainly the highest honor of my career because of all that Sy’s lifetime of excellence represents. For leaders in our field, Sy is the aspirational mentor that we all want to emulate. His towering intellect, spirit of collegiality, indefatigable work ethic, unending curiosity, and enduring relevance set the bar so high. Although we may never achieve his heights, driven by his embodiment of excellence, we all will keep trying. As a department, we are so saddened by his loss, but we find comfort in knowing that his remarkable legacy spans the globe and lives on.

Condolences and tributes have poured in from around the world, paying tribute to a remarkable leader, mentor, and friend.

Retirement fail

Dr. Schwartz (left) at Clinical Congress 2015 with ACS Past-President Kathryn Anderson, MD, FACS, and Jay L. Grosfeld, MD, FACS, then ACS First Vice-President

Dr. Schwartz retired from the operating room at age 72. He once said that his longevity was thanks to exercise and an ability to keep working in other capacities. On most days, including many Saturdays and Sundays, for the 20 years after his “retirement,” Dr. Schwartz could be found in his timeworn office—a home-away-from-home on the second floor of the UR Medical Center—often writing and reading. Colleagues would filter in to glean information from his vast experience and intellect. They joked that their brilliant mentor had “flunked” retirement. Recent years were filled with accolades, including the UR’s Eastman Medal, which he received in 2018.

“When the American College of Surgeons honored Dr. Schwartz as an Icon in Surgery in 2017, they provided yet another national affirmation of what we here at the UR Medical Center have always known,” said Mark B. Taubman, MD, chief executive officer, UR Medical Center and UR Medicine; dean, UR School of Medicine & Dentistry; and senior vice-president for health sciences at UR.

“Dr. Schwartz was quite simply a giant in both his field and in the life of our institution, where he was an approachable, gracious, and insightful guide to generations of physicians who drew on the deep experience and knowledge that he so willingly shared. I count myself among those he mentored, and he was also a great and supportive friend to my wife Lois and me. We will miss him dearly.”

“Dr. Schwartz was quite simply a giant in both his field and in the life of our institution, where he was an approachable, gracious, and insightful guide to generations of physicians who drew on the deep experience and knowledge that he so willingly shared.”
—Dr. Mark Taubman

Dr. Schwartz is remembered fondly by the surgeons and residents who worked with him at all stages of his life. He was an important catalyst in the career of many leaders in academic surgery including Craig Smith, MD, FACS, who trained as a surgical resident at UR Medical Center and went on to become chair of surgery at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center, NY.

Drs. Schwartz and Smith coauthored several papers during Dr. Smith’s research gap year in the late 1970s. As a mentor Schwartz was “very outspoken, candid, and just so intelligent that it was always worth it,” Dr. Smith said. As Dr. Smith built his career at Columbia the two stayed in touch, and Dr. Smith visited Dr. Schwartz in Rochester a couple of years ago. “He was a very multitalented person and sharp as a tack,” Dr. Smith said.

Even into his 90s, Dr. Schwartz led countless talks on myriad topics, never using notes or prompts. His knowledge was encyclopedic and his memory photographic. He poured countless hours into preparing and tweaking each lecture to perfection, and when he performed, he was flawless. All that preparation made room for his personality to shine through, which would keep the entire room engaged.

He taught us all the importance of following your passion and always put his heart into his work with limitless energy, even as a nonagenarian. He was always interested in others, and everyone that he met left his presence feeling important. He did not like talking about himself unless it served a greater purpose to share the information to teach. His office door was always open, and all were welcome to stop in. He would embrace visitors with a smile and share a story related to their own life experience.

We had a celebration in Rochester in 2018 on the occasion of his 90th birthday and the 50th anniversary of his enduring textbook. Alumni and friends from across the country came to pay their tributes and to thank Sy for the profound influence he had on so many careers. The event was hosted by another Past-President of the ACS, L.D. Britt, MD, MPH, DSc(Hon), FACS, FCCM, FRCSEng(Hon), FRCSEd(Hon), FWACS(Hon), FRCSI(Hon), FCS(SA)(Hon), FRCSGlasg(Hon), and more than 200 people came from around the world for this festive evening to celebrate Dr. Schwartz. It was an evening of great stories, many laughs, and a remarkable tribute to a beloved mentor. The impact that Dr. Schwartz has had on the field of surgery cannot be overstated. A leader in the truest sense of the word, he was a role model, mentor, and teacher for hundreds of residents and fellows who have gone on to their own successful academic careers, benefitting others around the world. As founding editor of the most decorated textbook written to educate future surgeons, his global influence is undeniable.

Cartographer and historian

Dr. Schwartz accepts congratulations at a Clinical Congress 2017 session celebrating the 50th anniversary of Schwartz’s Principles of Surgery, First Edition

In addition to his medical career, Dr. Schwartz was a world expert on cartography and the history of the mapping of the New World. He published five books on the cartography of North America and six history books, including The French and Indian War 1754–1763: The Imperial Struggles for North America. What many surgeons may not know is that he was a highly regarded scholar in the history of cartography, just as famous in that field as he was in surgery. Dr. Schwartz often jokingly said, “I developed a life of schizoid scholarship.”

He became an accordion player after winning the instrument in a poker game while in the Navy and wrote lyrics for the UR School of Medicine and Dentistry’s annual student musical production. He kept one accordion at home and one in his office, and if you walked down the storied and historic corridors of the UR department of surgery on any given Saturday morning, you were likely to be regaled with slightly off-tempo polka music.

Leadership of the ACS and organizations

Dr. Schwartz served as president of the nation’s three most important surgical societies: the Society of Clinical Surgery, the American Surgical Association, and the ACS. He was editor-in-chief of Contemporary Surgery for 28 years, the Yearbook of Surgery for 22 years, and the Journal of the American College of Surgeons for 10 years.

Prior to serving as ACS President (1997−1998), Dr. Schwartz served as Chair of the ACS Board of Regents (1994−1997, ex-officio, 1997−1998), as Vice-Chair (1993−1994), and a member of that governing body (1988−1998). As an ACS Regent and President, he served on the Finance Committee (1997−1998), Nominating Committee (1991−1992), and Honors Committee (1988−1998). He continued his service to the Board of Regents Committee on Nominations until 2001 and to the Advisory Council to the Board until his death.

He was a member of the Board of Governors (1981−1987). He was a consultant to the Commission on Cancer (1989−1992) and was a member of the Communications Committee (1993−1994), the Member Services Liaison Committee (1988−1998), the Program Committee (1992−1994), and Scholarships Committee (1988−1989). He was New York Chapter President (1979−1980). He was a member of the Board of Trustees of the Smithsonian Institution and the Geography and Map Division of the Library of Congress. He was one of few surgeons elected into membership of the American Philosophical Society.

A lasting legacy

Dr. Schwartz in the ACS Icons in Surgery video

“Dr. Schwartz began his career in an era when the most common way to diagnose a surgical problem of any kind was via an operation,” said Michael F. Rotondo, MD, FACS, Chief Executive Officer, University of Rochester Medical Faculty Group; vice-dean, clinical operations, UR School of Medicine; and Past-Medical Director, ACS Trauma Programs. “During his 70-year career he drove innovation that literally shaped the field of surgery and the practices of countless surgeons. Through his significant contributions and teaching, the care of patients across the globe was dramatically improved. To the very end, he remained intensely curious, current, and vital, adding value at every turn to the benefit of the University of Rochester, the medical center and his profession,” Dr. Rotondo said.

In his later years, Dr. Schwartz became more deeply interested in the humanities and was committed to capturing the best qualities about the practice of medicine. He was fascinated with physicians who had become literary figures, and he profiled some of the nation’s finest in From Medicine to Manuscript, published in 2018. It features essays and biographies on exceptional talents, such as Oliver Sacks, MD (whom Dr. Schwartz interviewed before Dr. Sacks died); Khaled Hosseini, MD; Atul Gawande, MD, FACS; Tess Gerritsen, MD; and Abraham Verghese, MD.

Dr. Verghese, when contacted for a Democrat & Chronicle article about Dr. Schwartz in 2018, praised the surgeon for his graciousness, generosity, and huge impact. “Dr. Schwartz had a remarkable effect on my life, considering I’m not a surgeon,” Dr. Verghese said at the time. “It came by virtue of his iconic textbook on surgery. Such books shape the consciousness of so many young physicians, and his was so important to me that I mentioned it in my novel, Cutting for Stone, as one of the two books that the medical student protagonist takes when he flees anarchy in Ethiopia.”

Dr. Schwartz came from a humble background. The son of Jewish immigrants, he grew up in the Bronx, NY, and attended public schools. Yale University, New Haven, CT, admitted Dr. Schwartz for undergraduate studies, but he was unable to afford tuition. Instead, he attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison on a scholarship, arriving in Madison alone by train from New York City at the age of 16. He completed his degree in just two years and then went on to medical school, earning a degree at New York University.

Professional achievements aside, Dr. Schwartz once said that his “biggest contribution in life was his family.” He has three sons: Richard, director of aviation operations at Enterprise Rent-A-Car; Kenneth, founding director of the Phyllis Taylor Center for Social Innovation and Design Thinking at Tulane University, New Orleans, LA; and David, a cardiologist and associate professor at Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis. His wife, Ruth, who died in 1999, was a pioneer in obstetrics and gynecology, and delivered their first two grandchildren. They married while in medical school and then moved to Rochester together as interns and chose to stay.

Ruth introduced her husband to cartography when she thought he needed a hobby early in his medical career. It became a lifelong passion. In 1963, she bought him his first cartography book for 50 cents from a second-hand store, which led to his lifelong interest in rare and historically significant maps.

In addition to his beloved sons and grandchildren, Dr. Schwartz is survived by his sister, Lynn Rosen, EdD, of Rochester, and devoted companion Lyn Kayser, also of Rochester and Sarasota, FL. A memorial service is being arranged for a later date when the coronavirus 2019 pandemic subsides.

To learn more, view the video tribute UR Medical Center produced in 2017 when Dr. Schwartz was honored as an Icon of Surgery by the ACS.

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