James L. Cox, MD, FACS, received the 2020 Jacobson Innovation Award of the American College of Surgeons (ACS) February 5 at a virtual event held in his honor. A professor of surgery at Northwestern University, Chicago, IL, and a senior consultant to eight medical device companies and a member of the board of directors of four companies, Dr. Cox is a highly esteemed cardiothoracic surgeon, researcher, professor, and mentor. He is best known for his influential research and innovative work in cardiothoracic surgery. Over the course of his distinguished career, he has trained many of the future leaders of cardiac surgery while investigating and pioneering new methods to surgically treat cardiac arrhythmias.
This international surgical award honors living surgeons who have been innovators of a new development or technique in any field of surgery and is made possible through a gift from Julius H. Jacobson II, MD, FACS, and his wife Joan. Dr. Jacobson is a general vascular surgeon known for his pioneering work in the development of microsurgery.
“Father of cardiac arrythmias”
Although Dr. Cox has developed multiple procedures to address arrhythmias, he is best known for the Cox-Maze procedure, an operation that involves placing multiple lesions in the right and left atria in a maze-like pattern to interrupt the multiple electrical circuits that cause atrial fibrillation (AFib). The procedure has been the gold standard for surgically treating AFib for more than 30 years, undergoing modifications to make it less invasive and quicker to perform than the original procedure. Dr. Cox’s decades of painstaking research and development revolutionized the treatment of AFib, forever changing the field of cardiac surgery and saving countless lives, making him an exemplary recipient for the prestigious Jacobson Innovation Award.
Dr. Cox’s decades of painstaking research and development revolutionized the treatment of AFib, forever changing the field of cardiac surgery, and saving countless lives.
“During his long career, Dr. Cox has developed and refined many procedures and created and patented many surgical devices related to the treatment of cardiac arrhythmia, garnering him the title, ‘father of cardiac arrhythmias,’” said Valerie W. Rusch, MD, FACS, Immediate Past-President of the ACS, during the virtual event. “He also has been a pioneer in intervention for atrial fibrillation, making him a legend in the field of cardiac surgery.”
Dr. Cox has a legacy of having trained many prominent surgeons around the world, including 34 residents or clinical fellows who went on to become full professors of surgery—30 who went on to become chiefs of cardiac and/or thoracic surgery at their respective institutions.
His research work is extensive. He has published more than 400 peer-reviewed scientific articles, more than 250 scientific abstracts, and holds 35 patents on medical devices. Additionally, he has served as guest lecturer, visiting professor, or guest surgeon more than 600 times and in more than 30 countries. Dr. Cox continues to deliver an average of 50 lectures annually, both nationally and internationally, on the treatment of cardiac arrhythmias.
Star athlete and surgeon
Before his surgical career began, Dr. Cox achieved many notable accomplishments. He was a three-sport athlete on a scholarship at the University of Mississippi, Oxford, and was drafted as an infielder by the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1963. Instead of pursuing a professional baseball career, Dr. Cox decided to attend the University of Tennessee School of Medicine, Memphis, where he received the award as the most outstanding student in his graduating class. During his surgical training at Duke University School of Medicine, Durham, NC, Dr. Cox was called to active duty military service in 1970. He joined the U.S. Army Medical Corps as a captain and was soon promoted to major with a special commendation and appointment by General George S. Patton III as Honorary Tanker, U.S. Army for services performed in May 1971. He subsequently returned to Duke to complete his training in cardiothoracic surgery.
He spent most of his professional career as the first Evarts A. Graham Professor of Surgery, vice-chairman of the department of surgery, and chief of the division of cardiothoracic surgery at Washington University School of Medicine and Barnes Hospital in St. Louis, MO. Dr. Cox was the 81st president of the American Association for Thoracic Surgery (AATS), a member of the editorial board of more than 20 scientific journals, and editor-in-chief of two AATS journals. He has served as chair, Residency Review Committee for Thoracic Surgery; director, American Board of Thoracic Surgery; member, Surgical Study Section, National Institutes of Health; and founding member, board of directors, Cardiothoracic Surgery Network.
Among the numerous awards and honors he has received throughout his illustrious career, Dr. Cox is the only surgeon to receive the Distinguished Scientist Award from the AATS, the Society of Thoracic Surgeons, and the Heart Rhythm Society. He is the only U.S. cardiac surgeon in the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences.
“Dr. Cox’s seminal contribution has been the procedure that bears his name. Along the way, he made significant contributions in heart valve surgery and to academic medicine, and inspired many of us in practice and in research,” said Patrick M. McCarthy, MD, FACS, in his award nomination letter for Dr. Cox. “Coming from humble origins, his story is a classic American success story of achievement.”
View a video interview with Dr. Cox from the Society of Thoracic Surgeons “Giants in Cardiothoracic Surgery” series.