A tribute to Harvey W. Bender, Jr., MD, FACS

Dr. Bender

Editor’s note: Following is a tribute to Past-President Harvey W. Bender, Jr., MD, FACS, who relinquished his title as Past-President during a controversial time in 2011. Nonetheless, He made significant contributions to the ACS and is fondly remembered by friend and colleague James A. O’Neill, JR., MD, FACS, FAAP.

Harvey W. Bender, Jr., MD, FACS, and I joined the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine faculty in 1971 in cardiothoracic surgery and pediatric surgery, respectively, to establish new departments. We became close friends and colleagues and collaborated on the care of many children, so I knew him well and liked him. We stayed in close contact until his death September 12, 2020, at age 86.

From modest beginnings to a brilliant career

Dr. Bender came from humble beginnings, literally. He was born in Corpus Christie, TX, but grew up in Humble, TX, where his family ran a small cattle ranch. Humble was a small town where the only two-story buildings were the courthouse and the school. After graduating from high school, he enrolled in veterinary college at Texas A&M University, College Station. Fortuitously, on a break from college, he attended the funeral of a friend’s dad in a nearby town, and as he returned home he passed the Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, TX. Because he already had a suit on, he decided to see what human medicine was about. The result of this decision to visit the dean’s office was admission to the school and the beginning of an illustrious career; how fortunate that happenstance was.

On graduation from Baylor with high honors, Dr. Bender entered the surgical residency at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD, under Alfred Blalock, MD, FACS, and along the way he spent two years at the National Institutes of Health National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Following his residency training in general and cardiothoracic surgery, he joined the Hopkins faculty and stayed until 1971, when he moved to Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Nashville, TN, where he spent the next 25 years. When he stepped down as head of cardiac and thoracic surgery in 1997, I had the pleasure of hosting a symposium and dinner in his honor, which most of the nation’s leaders of cardiac surgery attended.

Dr. Bender and his wife Doris at Clinical Congress 1999

Dr. Bender was a master cardiac surgeon who said that his broad training in general surgery made him versatile and prepared for any challenge. He said he was inspired to value the characteristics of the ideal surgeon while working with Michael DeBakey, MD, FACS; Denton Cooley, MD, FACS; and Dr. Blalock. Harvey learned to be both a surgeon and a caregiver from them. He was always kind to his patients and their parents, and he was highly principled in all his dealings. Somehow, he always seemed to know the right thing to do.

Dr. Bender came along at a time of flux in pediatric heart surgery, and his clinical research—performed with his cardiology colleagues Gottlieb Friesinger, MD, and Thomas Graham, MD, and recorded in his 300-plus papers—reflect the work of a visionary. He was a true pioneer and led the way in the management of tetralogy of Fallot, transposition of the great arteries, aortic stenosis in infants, pulmonary hypertension, adult congenital heart disease, and many more congenital heart malformations.

At the same time, he was a dedicated educator, producing a large number of distinguished academic cardiac trainees and residents. His time at Vanderbilt was one of building and accomplishment. He built the faculty with special interests, established the residency in cardiothoracic surgery, built large programs in all aspects of adult and pediatric surgery, and established heart and lung transplantation and external cardiac support.

Leadership in surgical societies

As a result of Dr. Bender’s productivity, he received many honors, including leadership positions in the American Board of Surgery, the Board of Thoracic Surgery, the Residency Review Committee for Thoracic Surgery, the Southern Thoracic Association, the American Surgical Association, and others.

Dr. Bender’s ACS Presidential portrait, 2000

Of special note is Dr. Bender’s extensive service to the American College of Surgeons (ACS). The list of committees, special initiatives, and contributions to the Board of Governors (1987−1991) and Board of Regents (1990−1999) cover two single-spaced print pages, including serving on the Advisory Council for Cardiothoracic Surgery (1991−1999). During his time as Chair of the Board of Regents (1997−1999), he was actively involved in the Finance Committee, participating in the purchase of the new College headquarters building in Chicago, IL. He had a keen interest in the College’s legislative and health policy activities, serving on the Board of Governors Committee on Socioeconomic Issues (1989−1990) and the Board of Regents Health Policy and Reimbursement Committee (1993−2000). Dr. Bender served as President of the College (2000–2001) and participated in its reorganization. His Presidential Address, “To serve all with skill and fidelity,” reflected his principled view of the practice of surgery and what a surgeon should be.

A life of quiet dignity

Somehow, this relatively quiet, dignified, humble man grew into a visionary leader in surgery using his intelligence, drive, and values. His legacy as a surgeon, educator, researcher, practical administrator, and humanitarian is one to be admired and respected. He also succeeded as a husband of 60 years to his high school sweetheart, Doris Merle Martin, who died in 2015. They had two children and five grandchildren.

Dr. Bender was an avid reader, astronomer, horseman, and pilot, and he was an expert fly fisherman and golfer. We all lost a lot when, typical of him, he quietly left our world on September 12, 2020. Only once every so often does someone like him pass our way, but we can be thankful he did.



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