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Biographical entry Phemister, Dallas Burton (1882 - 1951)

Hon FRCS 22 September 1947; MD Rush Medical College 1904; FACS 1913; Legion d'Honneur 1951.

15 July 1882
Carbondale, Illinois, USA
28 December 1951
Chicago, USA
General surgeon


Born at Carbondale, Illinois, on 15 July 1882, son of John T Phemister and his wife Elizabeth Fox. He was educated at Rush Medical College, Chicago, where he graduated in 1904, and made postgraduate studies in Europe, including a period in Professor Starling's physiological laboratory at University College, London. He was appointed lecturer in surgery and associate clinical professor at Rush Medical College in 1906 and continued to serve it throughout his career, after its incorporation into the University of Chicago Medical Center. He took a leading part in the work of the American College of Surgeons, of which he was a foundation Fellow in 1913, and in many other local, state, national, and international bodies. He distinguished himself as surgeon, scientist, teacher, and counsellor. In later years he advocated what he called "the best American system" of medical practice, through which in a single establishment the specialist should provide free service to the needy and privately paid service to the well-to-do and at the same time receive a proper salary in his capacity as a teacher and research-worker. He exemplified in his own person how superbly this triple activity could be carried by a man as able, modest, and single-minded as himself. He worked hard through the American College of Surgeons to improve postgraduate teaching, and wrote much to this purpose; see particularly his editorial "Graduate training in surgery" in Surgery, Gynecology and Obstetrics, 1942, 74, 643. He was one of those outstanding men who go on educating themselves to the end of their lives.

During the first world war Phemister served in France as a major in the US Medical Corps. He became chief of the department of surgery at the University of Chicago in 1925, with his clinical service at the Albert Merritt Billings Memorial Hospital. He was Thomas D Jones professor of surgery 1940-47, and was elected emeritus professor on his retirement. His pupils and associates compiled and dedicated to him the December 1945 issue of Annals of Surgery (volume 122, No 6), but unfortunately the chance was missed of including a biographical note, a portrait, or a survey of his work in this Festschrift. He was throughout his career a prolific writer for the professional journals; much of his best work, which was widely influential, appeared in Surgery, Gynecology and Obstetrics.

He was always interested to discover the physiological background of surgical disease, in the Hunterian tradition, and to apply his discoveries in devising new operations and new methods of general treatment. He was particularly concerned with the effects of interference with the blood-supply on the skeletal system and in the causation of shock. He made important contributions to the knowledge of appendicitis, calcification of gall-stones, tubercular arthritis, and cancer, especially of bone. He studied the arrest of bone growth, bone cysts, necrosis of bone and osteomyelitis, and was himself a great pioneer in orthopaedic surgery.

He served the office of president of the Chicago Pathological Society, the Institute of Medicine of Chicago 1948-49, the American Surgical Association 1938, the Society for Clinical Surgery, and the American College of Surgeons 1948-49. He was elected an honorary Fellow of The Royal College of Surgeons when the 12th Congress of the International Society of Surgery met in London in 1947. He was a vice-president the 14th Congress in Paris in 1951, and was then decorated with the Legion of Honour of the French Republic. He visited London on his way home from Paris, and expressed keen interest in the College memorials of John Belchier, who first studied the growth of bone by madder-feeding, in the eighteenth century. Phemister married in 1914 Katherine Gannon; he died unexpectedly, of appendicitis, in the Billings Hospital, Chicago, on 28 December 1951, aged 69. He was a tall man of fine appearance, modest and dignified in bearing.

Select publications:
Fate of transplanted bone. Surg Gynec Obstet 1914, 19, 303.
Subperiosteal resection in osteomyelitis. J Amer med Ass 1915, 65, 1994.
Surgery of the thorax. Surg Gynec Obstet 1924, 38, 471.
Silent foci of localized osteomyelitis. J Amer med Ass 1924, 82, 1311.
Haemorrhage and shock in traumatized limbs. Surg Gynec Obstet 1930, 51, 196. Experimental shock: effect of bleeding after reduction of blood pressure by various, methods. Ibid 1933, 56, 161.
Aseptic necrosis of bone. Ibid 1939, 68, 129 and 631.
Transthoracic resection for cancer of cardiac end of stomach. Arch Surg (Chicago), 1943, 46, 915.
Role of nervous system in shock. Ann Surg 1943, 118, 256.
Circulatory disturbances in the head of the femur. Amer Acad orthop Surg Lectures, 1943, 1, 129.
Bone infarcts. Amer J Path 1946, 22, 947.
Treatment of ununited fractures by onlay bone grafts. J Bone Jt Surg 1947, 29, 946. Lesions of bones and joints arising from interruption of circulation. J Mt Sinai Hosp 1948, 15, 55.
Contributions of animal experimentation to the treatment of surgical shock. Surg Gynec Obstet 1948, 86, 487.
Evaluation of full-time and group practice for the clinical faculty of a medical school. Bull Amer Coll Surg 1950, 35, 17.

Sources used to compile this entry: [New York Times, 29 December 1951; J Amer med Ass 1952, 148, 216; Brit med J 1952, 1, 166, an appreciation by Sir Harry Platt, FRCS].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England