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Legendary Surgery Chair David Sabiston Dies

David Coston Sabiston Jr., M.D., former chairman of the Department of Surgery at Duke and a truly legendary figure in the history of American medicine, died early Monday. A memorial service will be held for Dr. Sabiston at 11 a.m. Thursday, Jan. 29, at the Duke University Chapel.

Dr. Sabiston, who was chairman of the Department of Surgery for 30 years, was truly a giant in the field, training thousands of world-class surgeons, creating one of the most respected surgical residency programs in the world, and establishing a level of clinical achievement that earned him the respect of the global medical and research communities.

As a medical educator, his training programs were extraordinarily successful and have been emulated by medical schools around the world. The 146 chief residents who served under him have gone on to become leaders at the world's great medical institutions and to train future generations of outstanding surgeons. At the time of his retirement, 88 of the 146 were in academic medicine, 24 as department chairs or division chiefs.

As a researcher, Sabiston's development of surgical methods to revascularize the heart and his work to develop radionuclide scanning of the lungs for the diagnosis of pulmonary embolus have saved and prolonged countless lives. He was the chief investigator on an NIH project on coronary insufficiency and myocardial revascularization for more than 30 years. He was a pioneer in coronary artery bypass graft surgery, and was an architect of a department well-known for clinical excellence. Duke's Department of Surgery is No. 1 in NIH research funding among departments of surgery in the country.

His life and work span a key era in the history of medical science and are evidence of a level of excellence rarely achieved. The chain of achievement connects the legendary Alfred Blalock, M.D., under whom Sabiston studied, to a huge community of renowned Duke-trained surgeons.

Department of Surgery Chairman Danny O. Jacobs, M.D., received the sad news from Mrs. Sabiston on Monday morning. Dr. Jacobs described how Dr. Sabiston shaped the Duke surgical residency program into one of the finest and most respected in the world.

"His impact on the world of surgery was extraordinary," said Dr. Jacobs.

Sabiston, who was a native of Jacksonville, N.C., received his M.D. from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in 1947. After Army service, he returned to Hopkins as assistant professor of surgery and became an investigator in the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. In 1961, he received a Fulbright Research Scholarship to study at two prestigious British Institutions: the Hospital for Sick Children of the University of London and the Nuffield Department of Surgery at Oxford University. Within 10 years of joining the Hopkins faculty, Sabiston was promoted to professor of surgery.

In 1964, at age 39, Sabiston joined Duke University as the James B. Duke Professor of Medicine and chairman of the Department of Surgery.

While at Duke he developed a rigorous program that fused his trademark attention to detail, relentless focus on professionalism and the patient and a dedication to basic research as the best way to train gifted surgeons.

He served as president of the American College of Surgeons and was a member of virtually every important surgical society around the globe. He published widely. He was recognized time and again by his students, earning the Thomas D. Kinney Award for Outstanding Teacher of the Year three years in a row in the 1980s.

As a leader in medicine, Sabiston worked at implementing the then-new Medicare legislation and, working with others, he successfully desegregated Duke's surgical clinics and wards.

Although still relatively new to her position as Dean of the School of Medicine, Nancy Andrews, M.D., Ph.D. said she has known of David Sabiston for many years.

"He was a hero in the eyes of the surgeons who taught me in medical school in Boston," she said. "With his passing, we close a major chapter in the history of our young school."

Sabiston retired from Duke in 1994.

Details about a special Department of Surgery event to recognize the life and work of Dr. Sabiston will be announced soon.

See the online exhibition on Dr. Sabiston that was created by the Duke University Medical Center Archives. You can find it at: