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Biographical entry Sheldon, George Frank (1934 - 2013)

MD 1961; FACS 1973; Hon FRCS Edin 1995; Hon FRCS 2000.

20 September 1934
Salina, Kansas, USA
16 June 2013
Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA
General surgeon


George Sheldon was one of the most distinguished American surgeons of the late 20th century, having been president of the American College of Surgeons, the American Surgical Association, the American Association for the Surgery of Trauma, the Society of Surgical Chairmen, the Uniformed Services University Surgical Service Visiting Board and chairman of the American Board of Surgery. He was learned in the humanities as well as in the sciences, and became an icon of American surgery at home and abroad.

George was a third generation physician - his maternal grandfather, George F Zerzan, was a family practitioner in Holyrood, Kansas, and his father, Richard Robert Sheldon, a family practitioner in Salina, Kansas, the town where George was born in 1934. He schooled locally and, owing to a shortage of medical personnel in rural Kansas during the Second World War, began helping his father in the operating theatre of the local hospital and worked there during his high school years. This led to his abiding interest in surgery. He attended Kansas University, taking a bachelor's degree in history and becoming president of the students' union before entering the Medical School, from where he graduated in 1961. During his time there he wrote a history of Kansas medicine since the founding of the state in 1861. He was awarded the L L Marcell award for the highest standing in medicine on graduation, perhaps an early sign of the honours to come.

After an internship, he carried out military service in the Coast Guard, followed by a year of medicine at the Mayo Clinic, before starting his surgical residency in the University of California, San Francisco. He received the Helmut Fresca award for the best resident. There followed a research fellowship at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital, Boston, before he returned to San Francisco with promotion to professor in 1980. Whilst in this post he founded one of the first US trauma centres and became chief of the trauma service which, in addition to residents, also trained military surgeons before their deployment to Vietnam. During this time he also pioneered the use of intravenous hyperalimentation. In 1984 he was invited to become chairman of surgery at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where he remained for the rest of his career. Over the years he published more than 400 articles and book chapters, as well as eight books on such diverse topics as surgical biology, intravenous hyperalimentation, trauma, health policy, workforce issues and history. His last book was a biography of Hugh Williamson, one of the Founding Fathers, and he was working on a biography of his hero, Philip Syng Physick, the so-called 'father of American surgery', at the time of his death.

He was noted as a teacher and educator as well as a scientist. While at the University of North Carolina he received numerous awards, including the Kansas University School of Medicine distinguished alumna award, the University of North Carolina Medical Alumni Association's distinguished faculty award and the distinguished alumni award from the College of Arts and Sciences of the University of Kansas. In 2011, he received the hugely prized Thomas Jefferson award, for which the recipient has to show intellectual distinction, professional superiority and productivity, involvement in the humanities, service to the university and service to the community with a Jefferson vision for higher education.

Almost from the time of his induction as a fellow in 1973 he became actively involved in the American College of Surgeons (ACS), giving the prestigious opening lecture at the 1978 annual clinical congress and being elected to the board of governors a year later. In 1984 he became a regent and during his years in this capacity he served on numerous committees and task forces, taking a particular interest in education and health policy. He was elected president in 1998 and in 2004 became the founding editor of the ACS web portal, which, by the time of his death, had 28 communities, 200 editors and some four million page views. In 2012 he was awarded the ACS lifetime achievement award, only the second surgeon to receive this distinction.

George Sheldon was a great anglophile and took a keen interest in UK medical matters, especially the intricacies of the NHS. With his historical bent he took an interest in the Hunterian Museum and presented artefacts to the collection.

Outside of medicine he was a devoted family man, happily married to Ruth (née Guy) , by whom he had three daughters: Anne, a teacher; Elizabeth, a social scientist; and Julia, a veterinary surgeon. He treasured visits to the family cabin in Colorado, where he could relax from the hurly burly of clinical and academic practice.

The writer of this memoir first met George in 1973 in San Francisco when he was visiting the trauma centre established by Sheldon, as yet to obtain professorial recognition. After the meeting I recorded in my diary 'Sheldon is a go-ahead dynamic young surgeon who I think will certainly be a big name in years to come...' How prophetic those words turned out to be!

George Sheldon died of heart failure on 16 June 2013, aged 78.

Sir Barry Jackson

Sources used to compile this entry: [Bulletin, American College of Surgeons, 2013, number 9; personal knowledge].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England