Vascular and cardiovascular surgery have had a storied past, but some of the personal aspects of these two disciplines have been unexplored. This column looks at the friendship between two leaders of American surgery.
The first meeting of Daniel Elkin, MD, FACS, and Alfred Blalock, MD, FACS, probably occurred in 1930, when Dr. Blalock developed appendicitis while visiting his mother in Jonesboro, GA. The new chairman of surgery at Emory University Hospital, Atlanta, GA, was Dr. Elkin, and he removed Dr. Blalock’s appendix. Ten years later, in 1940, because of his efforts treating stab wounds of the heart, Dr. Elkin became the third person to receive the Rudolph Matas Award in vascular surgery. After becoming chief of the surgical services at Ashford General Hospital, WV (the converted Greenbrier Hotel), Dr. Elkin and Michael DeBakey, MD, FACS, were commissioned to write a history of vascular surgery during World War II. Dr. Blalock, who had accepted the invitation in 1941 to become chair, department of surgery, at Johns Hopkins, Baltimore, MD, made history by performing the first “blue baby” operation (anastomosis of the left subclavian to the pulmonary artery), which was done in 1944. Twenty years after first meeting, both went on to serve as Presidents of the American College of Surgeons (ACS)—Dr. Blalock as its 35th and Dr. Elkin as its 37th.
When a new wing of Emory University Hospital was to be opened in 1946 (the Conkey Pate Whitehead Memorial Surgical Pavilion), Dr. Elkin turned to his good friend, Dr. Blalock, to give the dedicatory address. Dr. Blalock replied, “Enclosed is a copy of the Dedicatory Address. I am awfully poor at this sort of thing and I hope that it will not be too disappointing to you…. After your dinner on Friday evening, I shall go to Jonesboro to spend a day with my mother.”
One of the relationships documented in their correspondence is the periodic appearance of Ty Cobb, the first inductee into the Baseball Hall of Fame who played for the Detroit Tigers. In Dr. Elkin’s files are a number of letters written in green ink, all from Mr. Cobb and all addressed to “Dear Doc.” Dr. Blalock, interestingly, had a home in Cooperstown, NY, and Dr. Elkin arranged to get Mr. Cobb and Dr. Blalock together in 1955. After their time together in Cooperstown, Dr. Blalock wrote, “Ty was a great success—our guests were fascinated by him…. He has much affection for you.”
On September 19, 1958, Dr. Elkin wrote to Dr. Blalock that he was planning to be at the ACS Clinical Congress in Chicago, IL, and suggested that they could “watch a World Series game over the television.” Ten days later, he wrote back and said that he was not going to Chicago, but rather was going into the hospital. He wrote, “I’m not doing any good. I shall miss you oh so much.” About a month later, on November 3, 1958, he died of congestive heart failure. Dr. Blalock lived six more years and died of metastatic carcinoma in 1964.
Elkin DC. A case for the study of the humanities in the making of a doctor. Ann Surg. 1952:136(3):337-344.
Elkin DC. John Homans Lecture. NEJM. 1951:245:997-1000.
Longmire WP Jr. Alfred Blalock—His Life and Times. Printed by the author: 1991.
Office of the Surgeon General. Department of the Army. Vascular Surgery in World War II. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office; 1955.
Sabiston DC Jr. Presidential Address. Alfred Blalock. Ann Surg. 1978;188(3):255-270.