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Biographical entry Heselson, Jack (1910 - 1993)

MRCS and FRCS 1938; BA Cape Town 1929; MB ChB 1933.

4 January 1910
Cape Town, South Africa
13 June 1993
Anatomist and General surgeon


Jack Heselson was born on 4 January 1910 in Cape Town, and after his schooling at Wynberg Boys' High School attended the Univesity of Cape Town, where he graduated BA in 1929 and MB ChB in 1933, obtaining distinctions in the final examination and the degree with honours. After his internship at Somerset Hospital, where he served with Professor Charles Saint, he signed up as a ship's doctor and spent a year in Antarctica. With the typical enterprise and enthusiasm that was to characterise his later career, he returned with specimens of whale heart and pituitary for the departments of anatomy and physiology respectively.

In 1936, while a lecturer in anatomy at UCT, Jack decided to embark on a career in surgery. After a period of postgraduate training at Hammersmith Hospital in London, he obtained his FRCS in 1938. He had met his future wife, Sylvia Gavron, BA MB ChB, while an undergraduate at UCT, and they married in London in 1937.

After resident surgical appointments in England, he joined the Emergency Medical Services at the outbreak of war, and acted as clinical assistant to Tudor-Edwards at Brompton Hospital, London. He enlisted in the South African Medical Corps in 1941, and saw action in North Africa, the Middle East and Italy and was discharged with the rank of major.

Returning to private practice in Cape Town in 1946, Jack held part-time appointments at Groote Schuur, Victoria, False Bay and Wynberg Military hospitals, and from 1969 to his formal retirement in 1975 he headed a surgical firm at Groote Schuur. His contributions to academic surgery were considerable. He was the first surgeon to introduce diagnostic laparoscopy to the department in the 1950s and remained a firm proponent of its advantages and potentials. Together with the late Teddy Schrire he initiated the Pigmented Skin Lesion Clinic, and he was an early protagonist of radical amputations for advanced soft tissue sarcoma. Jack was a true 'general surgeon' with a wide repertoire, excellent technical ability and a surgical fearlessness that few of his colleagues could match. His special interest was the surgery of malignant disease. At a time when radiotherapy was relatively primitive and chemotherapy in its infancy, surgery remained the only means of cure. Jack would often accept cases that other surgeons had turned down as inoperable, and the surgical tour de force became his personal hallmark.

Jack will be remembered most for his boundless energy, enthusiasm and his love of people. He devoted considerable time to his hospital duties despite a busy private practice. He took a personal interest in, and made it his business to get to know, all levels of staff working on his unit. A kind and humble man, he was always available for advice, even to the most junior members of his team. He maintained an unswerving personal ethical code and was never heard to criticise a colleague. Teaching was Jack's great love, whether it was at the operating table or with a group of students at a patient's bedside.

He retired formally but reluctantly as head of a surgical firm in 1975. His hobbies of walking, swimming, sailing and carpentry, and a love of classical music were not enough to sustain his post-retirement energies. He stayed on at Groote Schuur as a part-time staff member, continued to teach students and never missed or failed to contribute to the weekly academic meetings.

Sylvia was a tower of strength to Jack and encouraged and supported him as his surgical career blossomed. He in turn provided enormous support when tragedy struck Sylvia in the form of progressive visual loss.

With his own health slowly failing, Jack took a post as part-time lecturer in the Department of Anatomy at UCT in 1985. It came as no surprise to learn that he was soon acknowledged as one of the best teachers in the department, drawing on his clinical experience to underline the relevance of anatomical knowledge.

In 1990 his contributions to the department of surgery at UCT were acknowledged with the conferring of a Distinguished Surgeon Award. In the same year his wife died; a blow from which he never fully recovered. He continued to teach anatomy until a week before his death.

He died suddenly on 13 June 1993, survived by his daughters, Joan (a radiologist practising in Denver, Colorado), Lynne (a psychiatrist practising in Kingston, Ontario) and his son Neil ( a radiologist in Cape Town), their spouses and six grandchildren.

Sources used to compile this entry: [SAMJ 1993 83 625, with portrait].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England