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January 23, 2003

OBITUARY: Henry Theodore Bahnson

Henry T. Bahnson, professor of surgery and retired chairman of the surgery department at Pitt’s School of Medicine, died at his home in Fox Chapel Jan. 10, 2003, following complications from a stroke he suffered two weeks earlier. He was 82.

Bahnson was professor of surgery and department chairman at the medical school between 1963 and 1987, the longest-serving chairman in the school’s 116-year history. He was the first to hold the George V. Foster Chair in Surgery.

While at Pitt, Bahnson served on the surgical staff of UPMC Presbyterian, Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh VA Healthcare System. After his retirement as surgery chair, he continued to serve on the Pitt medical faculty until his death.

He was president of numerous professional groups during his career: the Society of University Surgeons (1965), the American Association for Thoracic Surgery (1976-1977), the American College of Surgeons (1983-1984), the American Surgical Association (1987-1988) and the Johns Hopkins Medical and Surgical Association (1989-1990). He also was a member of the Society of Thoracic Surgeons and the American Society of Transplant Surgeons, among many professional societies.

Bahnson is credited with building one of the leading departments of surgery in the United States. In 1968, he performed the first heart transplant in Pennsylvania.

In 1981, he recruited transplantation pioneer Thomas E. Starzl to Pitt, a move that helped establish the University as among the world’s leading transplant centers.

“In addition to being the best surgeon I have ever seen, Hank Bahnson was just about the finest and most responsible man I ever met,” said Starzl, who is professor of surgery. “Wherever he was planted, flowers grew.

Pittsburgh was blessed to have him for 40 years.”

“Hank Bahnson’s influence in medicine goes far beyond surgery,” said Arthur S. Levine, senior vice chancellor for Health Sciences and dean of Pitt’s School of Medicine. “Bahnson was the quintessential academic physician — master clinician, passionate teacher, profoundly committed to the scientific basis of medicine, and a person of infectious humanism, scholarship and integrity. He was the very soul of our institution, and one of this country’s most important medical leaders. Without Hank, this school never would have achieved its current international stature.”

Christine Carey, Bahnson’s secretary for the last five years, called him “the perfect gentleman. He had high standards and he was a perfectionist, but he was very considerate and very easy to work with. He also had a wonderful sense of humor. He would always be recounting personal anecdotes from the past of things that struck him funny,” said Carey, who is residency program coordinator for cardiothoracic surgery at Pitt.

Carey said that Bahnson was always full of energy and drive and loved to travel. “He just visited Moscow in November 2002 as the invited guest of the Bakoulev Scientific Center for Cardiovascular Surgery, which was honoring Vladimir Bourakovsky,” she said.

Bahnson and Bourakovsky were part of a group formed by the Soviet Minister of Health and U.S. research institutes to study congenital heart disease and cardiovascular surgery in the Soviet Union. “Dr. Bahnson’s return trip meant a great deal to him as he was overwhelmed at how the Soviet heart program had grown and developed since their initial cooperative work in the early 1970s,” Carey said.

Previous awards Bahnson received included Pitt’s School of Medicine Golden Apple Award for Teaching (1988), the Michael E. DeBakey International Surgical Society Award (1992) and the Rene Leriche Award of the International Surgical Society (1997). Bahnson was twice named Pittsburgh’s Man of the Year in Medicine, in 1968 and in 1983.

Bahnson also enjoyed numerous other pursuits outside the hospital and academic life. At home, he raised bees, maintained a small apple orchard, made his own wine and designed and built a rope tow on his property for the enjoyment of family and friends.

He traveled extensively, pursuing his passions for alpine skiing, wilderness adventures, mountaineering and sailing. Mountains conquered by Bahnson include Everest, Nanga Parbat and McKinley. Bahnson often trained for these excursions by running the steps in the 42-floor Cathedral of Learning.

He enjoyed playing music and held a patent for a modified harmonica called the Bahnson Overblow Harp, which The Wall Street Journal featured in a front-page story in 1999.

A native of Winston-Salem, N.C., Bahnson graduated summa cum laude in 1941 from Davidson College, where he also was an all-state offensive lineman, and in 1944, graduated cum laude from Harvard Medical School.

He completed an internship in surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1945.

Following a year of active duty in the U.S. Navy Reserves in the Philippines, he returned to Johns Hopkins, where he completed his surgical residency in 1951.

His residency training was interrupted for one year when he was awarded a National Research Council Fellowship in Basic Science to do research in cardiovascular physiology at the University of Rochester. While there in 1949-1950, he helped to elucidate the renal humoral influence on blood pressure control.

Bahnson was an innovator and leader in both cardiothoracic and vascular surgery. In the 1950s, he helped initiate and perfect resection of abdominal aortic aneurysms.

While at Johns Hopkins he made major contributions to the then-infant field of cardiothoracic surgery, most notably in the special discipline of congenital and acquired valvular heart disorders.

Johns Hopkins remained Bahnson’s academic home until 1963, when as a professor of surgery, he was recruited to Pitt to become the Department of Surgery’s second full-time chairman.

Bahnson is survived by his children David Bahnson of Mendon, Vt.; A. Blalock Bahnson of Ross Township; Suzanne Bahnson Kahley of Fox Chapel; and Barbara Bahnson of Indiana Township, and six grandchildren.

His wife Louise and his eldest son Ted predeceased him.

Memorial gifts may be directed to the Louise P. Bahnson Fellowship Trust Fund, c/o University of Pittsburgh Institutional Advancement, 500 Craig Hall, 200 N. Craig St., Pittsburgh, 15213.

A memorial service will be held on the Pitt campus at a later date.

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