John Heysham Gibbon, Jr. Memorial Service

Document Type

Audio File




This memorial was held in Mitchell Hall at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia on February 13, 1973.

Dr. John Gibbon was best known for developing the heart-lung machine, performing the first open-heart operation in 1953, and initiating a new era in cardiovascular surgery.



Dr. Wood: This memorial service has been planned by Maly and her family for all of Jack's friends, non-medical and medical. It is being held in this building because of Jack's long deep devotion to this College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Both he and his father were presidents. Moreover, if you look back in the dusty archives, you will find that the first physician in the Gibbon family became a Fellow 185 years ago, in 1788, a year after this College was founded. For those reasons, we are here in S. Weir Mitchell Hall. Five people will speak to us this afternoon. The first is Dr. Charles Fineberg, who was one of Jack's early residents.

Dr. Fineberg: Mrs. Gibbon, as I look out at this large audience, family and friends of Dr. John Gibbon, I see many familiar faces of former residents, colleagues and associates in Dr. Gibbon's Department of Surgery. The few brief remarks that I make this afternoon I offer for all those former residents and associates of Dr. Gibbon. This group of men and women are welded together by a kindred spirit, inspired by Dr. Gibbon, a comradeship which was the most unusual that I have ever encountered in my adult life and which has lasted until this very day. The fact that many of his former residents have travelled at very short notice from distant areas of this country and other countries to be here this afternoon shows the feeling that each of us has for our former professor and chief. The intensity of our feeling and the closeness of our association is almost inexplicable. I believe it is based on the precepts of Dr. Gibbon: hard work and doing the very best that one can for the patients entrusted to him. Dr. Gibbon always insisted on absolute intellectual honesty and complete dedication to the practice of medicine. Dr. Gibbon's contributions to humanity and science have earned for him recognition that will be everlasting. However, of more importance is the fact that he is the tap-root of a tree which has grown to cover all areas of this country and other countries. He is and was the stimulus for teaching of the principles that are being handed down to others, and these principles will be continued wherever the good practice of surgery is carried out. I would like briefly to say a few words to Dr. Gibbon's family, especially to his children. It was very difficult for Dr. Gibbon to show emotion, but behind this veneer was one of the softest and kindest and most devoted and liberal human beings whom I have ever known. He loved young people. He spent a great deal of time with young people. And he often spoke to me of the great sacrifice that a physician has to make, especially regarding his own personal family. With the many tasks that he had in teaching, in the care of patients and in the editing of the Annals of Surgery and the Research Laboratory, there were not enough hours in the day to spread them over all the areas he wished; he often spoke about this lack of ability to give to everyone. For the many hours that he gave to us and took from you, we ask your forgiveness, but we also ask you to remember that all those hours and the dedicated work of both your mother and father have now made it possible for many infants, young people and adults to enjoy a normal existence where twenty years ago this would have been impossible. An accomplishment such as this can never be evaluated in hours. The importance and substance of what I have briefly said is this—I hope that the beloved family of Dr. Gibbon will take comfort in the fact that, although he has been physically removed, through us, his former residents, his colleagues and his friends and what we do in the future, I am really sure John Gibbon will never die.

Dr. Wood: The next to speak to us is Dr. Katharine Sturgis, president of this College.

Dr. Sturgis: Jack Gibbon was the least pretentious, least stuffy person I have ever known. Handsome, innately elegant, brilliant, original, he was comfortable without conceit, happy without arrogance, and compassionate without condescension. He loved people—all sorts of people—loveable people like Bill Mc- Clenahan, controversial people like his old friend Ben Spock. He accepted folks as they are, knew their basic goodness, and forgave their pecularities. He had unerring taste. He was in love with living, with swimming in his pool at Lynfield Farm or at the Hopkinson place in Manchester or in the Caribbean to which he had anticipated flying next Saturday. Tennis was his favorite sport; its swift clean action was just right for his pace. He adored his family, and as he told me after their fortieth anniversary celebration in 1971, "We had them all home under one roof, children and grandchildren, spilling all over the place"; his eyes danced. Jack was a man of few words and much wisdom, who saw to the heart of things quickly. His physical beauty was accompanied by glowing beauty of the spirit. His door was always open. His phone was always available. He loved to paint. As one sat for him he looked much as he does in the color photos downstairs with straw hat, jeans and a pink shirt. One became aware of Jack's love of the land and of the sheep that nibbled spring grass on the gentle hills outside the window, of his pride in his surgeon father's ability as a stone mason. As Jack chose colors critically, gauged sizes, concentrated on his canvas, Maly was a frequent consultant as she had been his working partner for nineteen years while they perfected the heart-lung machine. On several occasions, he told me that few recognized Maly's role in his achievement. Jack's relationship to his dogs was charming. He told me about the acquisition of Wendy, their collie. A knock on the door. There was a gold en -haired young man with a darling collie puppy. "She followed me," the young man explained. "I really can't keep her. I am a student at Swarthmore, and I am looking for a good home for her." And Jack said, "I told him we would have to talk it over with Maly, but I knew she couldn't resist the puppy—or the young man." And so Mark and Wendy came into their lives, sent to them when they would have great need of both of them. I first met Jack when he was president of the Laennec Society and I a member of the Executive Committee which met in Jack's office once a month. Over the years I watched him in action, not in the operating room, but in his relationship with colleagues, friends and family. I grew to love this man, as did all who worked with him. Sensitive but stubborn; sweet but with strong opinions; gentle but a tower of strength. I watched him receive the Philadelphia Award, but missed his most recent occasion of honor, the Dickson Award of the University of Pittsburgh. Typical of his simplicity was the fact that, as he improved the heart-lung machine, he used parts of his original apparatus for the newer set-up and threw out what he did not need. So, when the Smithsonian Institute requested the first apparatus, it couldn't be produced. He and Maly never dwelt on the magnitude of their achievement; had no pride in the original unit but only a burning desire to perfect it for use on humans. Two years ago I mentioned to Jack that I was in heart failure. Amazed he asked, "Why?" "I told you that I had aortic stenosis for years." "You never did. You must have a new valve put in at once. I will call and tell you to whom you should go." That very night he telephoned and gave me a choice of two surgeons. He made the arrangements by long distance telephone at once. Quick thinking and assumption of full responsibility were characteristic of Jack. He was calling a meeting of The College of Physicians Nominating Committee which he chaired so that all would be in order before he left for his Caribbean holiday. Maly and I were planning a celebration at this College for the twentieth anniversary of the first use of the heart-lung machine on a human being. Jack knew of our plans, and I am so glad that he did. He was delighted, but felt that he should not be involved. The very morning he and Maly were playing tennis so happily, I was trying to reach Maly to tell her I had accomplished some of our plans for May 5. For two hours I couldn't reach Lynfield Farm. Then Maly answered and told me that a half hour before, we had lost Jack. The shock was stunning, but then I realized, as all of you did, how right it was that Jack went down as he lived— with flair, joy and in the companionship of his darling wife. It is fitting that we pay tribute to John Gibbon here where he presided with such dignity and grace through the years of his presidency of this College. We cannot part with Jack; his vigor, sweetness and encouragement are an integral part of us.

Dr. Wood: The third to speak to us will be Dr. Rudolph Camishion, another one of Jack's residents.

Dr. Camishion: Mrs. Gibbon, family and friends, it is indeed an honor to participate in this tribute to Dr. Gibbon, an acknowledged great man. My entire professional life centered about him, first, as my teacher when I was a student, as my chief when I was a resident, as my associate in practice, and as my dear friend. When I was a young resident, my wife once said, "I must meet this Dr. Gibbon. Does he have a family and a home, or does he ascend Olympus each night after work?" She came to know him well and to love him as I did. It is easy to understand why any man should wish to emulate Dr. Gibbon. Others will speak of his monumental contributions to medicine. Obviously, these are an important part of his life and part of the man, but he was so much more than a superb academician. He was a man of dignity, integrity, exacting honesty, humility, scholarship and a clinical surgeon completely devoted to his profession. Thus, it becomes clearly evident how he inspired those who surrounded him. He believed that his most important function as a departmental chairman was to provide an opportunity for his house officers and staff to excel. This he did freely and with anyone who showed interest. He told his residents that you cannot be a surgeon eight hours a day; you must be a surgeon in the way you think, act and live every moment of your life. Characteristically he did what he said. Daring, but cautious. Courageous, but acknowledging the risks. He died as he lived, still an inspiration to us all. He left a large surgical progeny to carry on. I doubt that any of us shall ever forget what he gave.

Dr. Wood: Now we will hear from Jack's long-time friend, former neighbor and surgical colleague, Jonathan Rhoads, professor of surgery at the University of Pennsylvania.

Dr. Rhoads: You have heard Jack Gibbon's life was interwoven with those of many here. When he returned from Boston, with him he brought Maly and the first model of the heart-lung machine on which they had carried out acute experiments in animals. He took up his clinical work at the Pennsylvania Hospital with John Flick, and came to the Harrison Department of Surgical Research at the University of Pennsylvania and carried forward his research. It was there that I first knew him. Jack and Maly were spending nearly half a day every day in the laboratory, and both their family and ours were attracted by the Illman-Carter Unit, the University's demonstration school. So we ended up living across the street from it, and finally as next door neighbors in the 4000 block of Pine street. Dr. I. S. Ravdin, as director of the Harrison Department, was so impressed with the possibilities of the heart-lung machine and with the intelligent and vigorous way in which Jack was advancing the problem that he devoted a major part of his then slender budget so that a new and much improved model could be built. With this model, the Gibbons were able to achieve permanent survival of cats whose hearts had been stopped for as long as twenty-five minutes. One of these animals became a household pet in our neighborhood and lived for a long time. With one of the neurosurgeons, the Gibbons showed how brief a time the cat's brain could tolerate having the circulation stopped. Indeed, there were no permanent survivors without the machine if this occurred for more than six or seven minutes. It was Jack who proposed me for the Society of Clinical Surgery, a small society with a distinguished history. This well-travelled society permitted me to see a great deal of the best surgical endeavors throughout the United States. It was Jack who shortly after the war became chairman of the Editorial Board of the Annals of Surgery, and he advised me to become a member. Many were the times that we conferred on manuscripts, so we came to know each other's way of thinking fairly closely. On his fiftieth birthday, Maly invited us to a party at their home where his friends and family put on short skits illustrating different phases of his life. I remember particularly one which I think his sister did, emphasizing their journey together to Europe as teenagers. She portrayed him as so interested in books that he devoted almost more time to reading than to looking at the scenery. Later, he showed the remarkable quality of decisiveness about priorities which always characterized him. A brilliant student, he was well-educated, but was never one to lose the vision of the forest because of his interest in the trees. He would see the main picture and direct his efforts to that which was most important. He talked little about himself. He was graduated from Princeton at the age of nineteen and finished Jefferson Medical College four years later with an M.D. He held the degree of honorary Doctor of Science at the University of Buffalo, Princeton University, the University of Pennsylvania, Duke University and Dickinson College. He devoted the war years to service with the Pennsylvania Hospital Unit in the South Pacific and eventually became the chief of the Surgical Service at the Mayo General Hospital in Galesburg, Illinois. He returned to the University of Pennsylvania as Assistant Professor of Surgery in 1945-46, but was almost immediately appointed professor of surgery and director of surgical research at Jefferson Medical College. He served in that post for ten years, at which time he became the Samuel D. Gross Professor of Surgery and head of the Department of Surgery, in which capacity he served an additional eleven years. He received the Albert Lasker Medical Research Award. He was an Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in England and both a member and past-president of each of the following: the Heart Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania, the Society for Vascular Surgery, the American Association for Thoracic Surgery, the Society of Clinical Surgery and the American Surgical Association, as well as The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. He was the author of a textbook on thoracic surgery which he revised after his retirement, of many chapters in books, and of many original scientific papers. His great contribution was the development and successful demonstration of the apparatus which permits the circulation to be carried on outside the body by an artificial heart and artificial lungs. After the most careful and controlled experiments with animals, he applied this experience in the treatment of a patient with a septal defect at the Jefferson Hospital in May, 1953. The apparatus was successful, the operation was successful, and the patient recovered. The method was widely applied and still further developed in many centers around the world. Its discovery was prerequisite to most of the applications of surgery to heart disease, and its impact on the lives of the human race is immeasurable. With the clarity of thought which characterized him, he cut off his surgical career sharply when he retired from Jefferson and devoted himself to the hobby he had pursued for many years, that of painting and portraiture. He had the advantage of natural talent and the encouragement and criticism of his distinguished father-in-law. Mr. Hopkinson's career in the Fine Arts included his being commissioned to paint the portraits of Calvin Coolidge and of many other distinguished people. When you were with Jack Gibbon, however, you always felt him as a person, rather than as a surgeon, or a scientist or an artist. Possibly my favorite recollection of him is standing with Jack at a reception at the American Surgical Association. Our eyes turned across the room to where Maly was chatting with a group of people. His gaze lingered and his face softened, and he said entirely spontaneously, "Isn't she lovely?" And, of course, she was and is. But coming after more than thirty-five years of married life, this statement was some indication that his personal life was as rich as his professional and scientific life. His life was neither very short nor very long, but it was very complete; and, as he would have had it, it stopped while he was in full possession of his remarkable faculties. He has left innumerable close friends much indebted to him, and all mankind much the better for his great contribution to medicine.

Dr. Wood: My function now is to try to fill in the gaps, if there are any. A word about Jack's family life. He was so busy during the winters while he was professor of surgery that most of his family's recollections are of the summer: swimming—no water was too cold for him; tennis—he was very good; chess—for years he could beat all comers. Square dancing, painting, charades, and actingwhatever he did was always done, I am told, with 100% involvement and enthusiasm. I like to remember how, just home from the war, he had to leave the dinner table the first evening when his homecoming emotions overcame him. I like to think of him at college. He was Princeton 1923—1 was Princeton 1922. I never knew he was there and vice versa. When I was a sophomore, I took a course in social psychology. One day, we had to choose ten members of our class who were going to the top of the world and ten who weren't. My choices were completely backwards. I thought that the big men on campus at whom I had looked up through my shy little compartment would be our future greats. Actually only two of them ever were, Adlai Stevenson and Donald Lowry. The men who became outstanding in later years were not very noticeable in college, just like Jack. It should comfort many who are now in college spending their time learning rather than socializing and politicking. Did you know that Jack wanted to be a poet even after his first year in medical school? 181 I like to remember one day in the early 1950s, when Jack was making tests of his heart-lung machine on dogs, and he invited me to come down to Jefferson and watch him in his operating room. He cut a hole between the two upper chambers of the heart, making an atrial septal defect, and then sewed it up. A week later that dog was running around healthy and happy. I had absolutely no idea until I saw with my own eyes that one could open the heart, work in a bloodless field, and then sew it up a half an hour later and have it function normally. Three years later Jack did that very operation closing an atrial septal defect on Cecelia Bavolek, the first successful open heart operation using the heart-lung machine. He was so wound up after that operation that he couldn't write up the operative report for the record. I like to think of that day in 1935 when Jack and Maly (you know, he stole Pete Churchill's technician and married her in 1931) were first able to clamp completely the pulmonary artery of a cat and maintain the heart and lung function with his machine. And I love to picture Jack and Maly dancing for joy all around the laboratory then and there. I also like to remember that eighteen years elapsed between this experiment and the first time he used the machine on a human patient. He was not one to rush through things and grasp for the glory of priority. He was like the man in the First Psalm—"And he shall be like a tree planted by rivers of water that bringeth forth its fruit in its season." I like to remember Jack as president of this College, standing up there in all his natural dignity and handsomeness, presiding over our meetings. I also like to see Maly in the audience. I like to remember what one of Jack's students told me about him: he was respected as number one among all the teachers, he was available to the students, he was deeply interested in seeing them and talking to them and trying to help them with their problems. This chap said he treated you like an equal, not an inferior. He was never condescending. You can just see what that student saw, can't you? When you are a real man, you don't have to try to look like a big shot. This is one of the things I have noticed about the truly great men whom I have known, of which, of course, Jack was one. They have no facade. They are right there before you, separated by no barrier. What a treat it was to be with Jack. No pretense. I should like to put Jack's heart-lung machine accomplishment in some sort of perspective, at least to give you the perspective of one who has watched the management of heart disease develop over fifty years. Until Jack came along and did his basic, fundamental painstaking work and accomplished his dream, there was no chance to operate upon the heart systematically and to deftly correct important defects. In my younger days, we didn't even try very hard to diagnose some of the congenital defects because there was nothing you could do about them. This has all changed, and I rank Jack's accomplishment high on the list of major medical breakthroughs in world history, quite close to that of vaccination, anesthesia, aseptic surgery and antibiotics in the help it has brought and will bring to thousands. It has always been hard for me to realize that anyone I knew well and liked could ever amount to anything, but, by Jove, Jack did! ! In conclusion, Jack and Maly are a pair of all-around patricians and thoroughbreds, in their heritage, in their intellect, in their appearance, and in their character and spirit. What a privilege it has been for us all to know and love them!