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Special Article
November 1, 2005

Claude H. Organ, Jr, MDA Son’s Tribute

Author Affiliations

Author Affiliations: Dr Organ is in private practice in Atlanta, Ga.

Arch Surg. 2005;140(11):1052-1054. doi:10.1001/archsurg.140.11.1052

On behalf of my mother Elizabeth and the entire Organ family, I would like to express our deepest appreciation and gratitude to Archives of Surgery for honoring Dr Claude H. Organ, Jr's, significant contributions to American and international surgery in this November issue.

It is indeed difficult for all of us to be without him. I am sure, however, that the characteristics and values that made him a good brother, husband, father, and uncle are those that made him a good surgeon, teacher, mentor, colleague, friend, confidant, and counselor for many more.

My father was a keen listener who would consider many angles to aid one in assessing a problem, identifying relevant options that then led you to an appropriate conclusion. Armed with an agile mind and a firm sense of himself, there existed a strong moral foundation within about right and wrong. He possessed a quick and uncanny ability to get to the heart of an issue, “telling it like it is” but in a calm and cogent manner. These are some of the characteristics that made him so effective in many diverse and challenging situations. His sense of humor was quick and, at times, biting, yet it was purposefully direct and frequently deployed when least expected so as to soften his own temper or diffuse that of others.

Education was very important to my father. As a child born and raised during the era of segregation, the attainment of higher education allowed him to witness firsthand how academic excellence broke down the many barriers of discrimination and opened the floodgates of opportunity “to those who drank from the cup of knowledge.” I think this is one of many reasons that he was fascinated with Dr Charles Drew, who would tell his residents that “excellence of performance would transcend the artificial barriers made by man.”

During our formative years of childhood, my father was relentless in reminding us that “what you put in your head, no one can take away,” and “there is no substitute for trench work” (his euphemism for homework and repetition). “There is always room for improvement” was a frequent follow-up comment, even when one had done well. For my father, an individual’s attitude was the most important part of the educational process, and he frequently retorted, “Attitude, not aptitude, determines altitude in school and life.”

As I began to develop my own interest in medicine and surgery and was allowed to watch my father operate with residents, it was illuminating for me to realize that the same “pearls of wisdom” shared with medical students and residents found utility with us at home and vice versa. “Master the fundamentals” and “There is no substitute for excellence” were frequently heard refrains. When I failed an examination early during my first year of medical school and complained that college had not prepared me very well, he responded, “Medical school is no place for remedial work.” He then offered insight into how I should double up on my efforts, review the material on which I had tested poorly, and see the professor to correct any misunderstanding about the subject matter. Before he hung up, he said, “You will make mistakes and fall down in life. . . . The question is what do you do when you get up, and how do you respond to that disappointment?” This would be advice I would heed many times and hear him give to other residents and surgeons. It seemed that the same focus and clarity he brought to being a father and raising a family, he found useful in the education and training of residents and in the counseling of colleagues. Though there was never any pressure from my father to go into medicine or surgery, once I made that decision, a deep well of experience and knowledge from which my father shared freely opened. As I entered the surgical world as a resident and then as a practicing surgeon, I began to more fully appreciate the extent of his contributions as a department chair, site visitor for the Liaison Committee on Medical Education, member of the Residency Review Committee for Surgery, chairman of the American Board of Surgery, Philadelphia, Pa, and president of the American College of Surgeons, Chicago, Ill. This depth of involvement forged friendships both at home and abroad in which people united by the common thread of surgery and surgical education were able to discuss broader societal issues. The inclusion of African Americans, other minorities, and women in positions of influence and leadership were among his favorite topics of discussion. The proof that he practiced what he preached is evidenced by a significant number of women and various minorities who trained in his programs, were a part of his editorial board, and whom he frequently recommended to positions of leadership in American surgery (eg, the current editor of Archives of Surgery, Dr Julie Freischlag). The Society of Black Academic Surgeons and the Association of Women Surgeons, Downers Grove, Ill, are 2 examples of organizations whose formation he actively encouraged that would foster an understanding of the unique challenges and expectations placed on minorities, along with strategies to succeed, in a society that is near becoming but is not yet completely without bias.

That he liked to travel as a visiting professor and actively participate in surgical meetings is an understatement. He felt that it was those interpersonal interactions that provided an appreciation and understanding of surgical education, training, and patient care in various parts of our country and the world, as well as an understanding of what worked, what did not work, and what was on the horizon. These insights impacted how he performed certain surgical procedures, focused his clinical and research efforts, and broadened the pedagogical scope of his resident training back at home.

Maintaining a balance between surgery and family was both challenging and very important to my father. With the love, strength, and support of a wonderful wife, my mother Elizabeth (Betty, whom many have met during their travels), my father was sustained immeasurably. For it was she who was the chief of daily operations in the Organ family. My father was ever mindful of the effect that the surgeon’s profession, with its enormous time commitment, had on the family. It was an aspect that he frequently raised with residents, faculty, and colleagues who sought his advice, as he knew firsthand the difficulties it presented. He often said, “When recruiting residents and staff, it was as important to recruit the spouse as the candidate.”

He was very proud of his own family, his grandchildren, and their accomplishments (Figure 1 and Figure 2). Whenever we talked, one of the first questions would be “How is the next generation of Organs?” It is said that the greatest compliment a father can have is for a child to follow in his footsteps. Or as my father would selectively paraphrase, “Can a good tree bear bad fruit?” Among his children, there are 3 physicians: a general surgeon (myself), a pediatric surgeon (Greg), and a psychiatrist (Paul). My older brother, Claude III, is a banker; David is an academic geographer; Sandra is a ballet dancer and dance company founder; and Rita is an art museum director.

In the closing sentence of the introduction of his book, A Century of Black Surgeons: The USA Experience,1 my father writes, “In each generation, we should achieve more than our predecessors.” I am sure that all will agree that the bar has been raised. I will end by paraphrasing my father’s own words, remarks made at a memorial for his good friend, George Block:

In Proverbs, it is said that “iron sharpens iron; therefore one man sharpens another.” [Claude Organ], you were such a man. Here was a man who seemed to have it all: the love of God, love for his country, the love of his wife and family, and a profound dedication to excellence in his profession.

Godspeed, Claude Organ.

Correspondence: Brian C. Organ, MD, 285 Boulevard NE, Suite 620, Atlanta, GA 30312 (bco529@aol.com).

Accepted for Publication: November 7, 2005.

Organ  CHKosiba  MM A Century of Black Surgeons: The USA Experience.  Norman, Okla Transcript Press1987;