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Biographical entry Zollinger, Robert Milton (1903 - 1992)

Legion of Merit US; Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur 1986; FRCS 1965; FRCS Edinburgh 1966; FACS; MD Ohio 1927.

4 September 1903
Millersport, Ohio, USA
12 June 1992
General surgeon


Bob Zollinger was born on 4 September 1903 in Millersport, Ohio, and received his medical education at the State University, graduating MD in 1927. He spent his intern appointments at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston and in 1929 married Louise, who gave him tremendous support throughout his surgical career. He was Crile Surgical Fellow at Western Reserve from 1930 to 1931 and returned to Boston to undertake his surgical residency at the Brigham between 1932 and 1934. He remained at this hospital and became successively an instructor and then an associate in surgery at the Harvard Medical School between 1932 and 1939. He became an Associate Professor of Surgery at Harvard from 1939 to 1946 and an attending surgeon at the Brigham from 1940 to 1946, but was absent for a considerable proportion of this time in the Medical Corps of the US Army in Europe.

In 1946 Zollinger was appointed Professor of Surgery and Chairman of the Department of Surgery at Columbus, Ohio, a position he retained until his retirement in 1974 when he was made Emeritus. Under his aegis the department acquired a worldwide reputation as an outstanding centre of excellence. Zollinger was already well known for his pioneering contributions in gastrointestinal surgery but in 1955, in association with Dr E H Ellison, he reported six cases of severe peptic ulceration associated with islet cell tumours of the pancreas. The ulceration was intractable, fulminant, frequently fatal and accompanied by the hypersecretion of highly acid gastric juice. The islet cells were of the non-beta type but it was presumed that this effect was hormone induced and it was subsequently confirmed that this was correct and that the hormone concerned was gastrin. This first description of what came to be called the Zollinger-Ellison syndrome ensured that his name will be enshrined in the surgical literature for evermore, but his reputation rests on far more than this event. In addition to his clinical and research capabilities he was an inspiring and dedicated teacher who, nevertheless, at times terrified his pupils. The sight of Bob Zollinger at grand rounds with his blackboard pointer directed en pointe was enough to awe the stoutest heart and shrivel the less resolute. On these occasions no one, from the most senior surgeon present down to the most junior student, was allowed to get away with a statement that was factually incorrect or could not be substantiated; speculation or conjecture was simply unacceptable.

Although of only medium stature and rather cherubic in countenance, Zollinger's determination to achieve the best possible, coupled with his extrovert ebullience, was legendary. He was not only admired but also held in considerable affection worldwide for the inimitable panache that he brought to the scientific forums that he graced for six decades. Even the most formal of occasions came alive once Bob Zollinger got on his feet, and the high and mighty became an endangered species in his presence. In this context it is almost mandatory to mention another contemporary surgical giant, Dr J Engelbert Dunphy, for together they constituted the 'Bob and Bert Show' which both delighted and amazed surgical audiences with the cut and thrust of their verbal exchanges which few appreciated cloaked an abiding friendship that dated back to their house officer days together at the Peter Bent Brigham in Boston.

Zollinger received many prestigious awards and honours and was in almost continual demand as a visiting Professor in the USA and overseas. He was a member of the Board of Regents of the American College of Surgeons from 1963 to 1971 and was elected its President from 1961 to 1962. He was a member of numerous surgical societies both national and international and was at various times President of the American Surgical Association, the Society of University Surgeons, the Society for Surgery of the Alimentary Tract, and that of the Medical Consultants in the second world war. He rendered distinguished service as a senior consultant in surgery in the European theatre of war and commanded the Fifth US General Hospital. He was awarded battle stars for service in Normandy, Northern France and the Rhineland, and was a recipient of the US Army Legion of Merit. He became an honorary FRCS, which he valued greatly, in 1965, an honorary FRCS Edinburgh in 1966, and in 1986 he became a Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur of France. Zollinger held no fewer than five honorary Doctorates at renowned centres of learning worldwide, and was awarded the prestigious Founders Medal of the American Surgical Association in 1977.

In his precious spare time and in retirement Zollinger pursued his longstanding interest in horticulture and was especially absorbed in growing roses and gourds. He had an impressive collection of roses, including many famous British varieties, and his renown was such that he was elected president of the American Rose Society.

Bob Zollinger was a born leader and an impressive doyen of the American surgical scene in the latter half of the twentieth century. He died, somewhat ironically, from carcinoma of the pancreas on 12 June 1992, at the age of 88.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Bull Am Coll Surg 1992 77 34-5].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England