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Special Article
November 1, 2005

Claude H. Organ, Jr

Author Affiliations

Author Affiliations: American College of Surgeons, Chicago, Ill.

Arch Surg. 2005;140(11):1027-1029. doi:10.1001/archsurg.140.11.1027-a

Claude H. Organ, Jr, MD, former editor of this journal, 84th president of the American College of Surgeons (ACS), and a mentor of mine, died of heart failure on Saturday, June 18, in Oakland, Calif, at age 78 years. I had the good fortune to have trained under Dr Organ; to have worked with him after entering practice in San Francisco, Calif; and to have helped him achieve his goals as ACS president.

Overcoming challenges

Dr Organ’s roots were humble, and he never forgot where he came from or how much determination it took for an African American individual born in the segregated South to succeed in this demanding and, frankly, often elitist profession.

He was born October 16, 1926, in Marshall, Tex, and received his secondary education in the public schools of Denison, Tex. He graduated cum laude with his bachelor of science degree from Xavier University, New Orleans, La. He was then accepted to the University of Texas Medical School, but when the school’s administration discovered that he was black, they offered to pay the difference in tuition for him to matriculate elsewhere.

Although such discrimination may have driven some people to cynicism or despair, Dr Organ held onto his dream of becoming a surgeon. He went on to earn his medical degree from Creighton Medical School, Omaha, Neb, where he also completed his surgical training. His dissertation for a master of surgery degree focused on the acid-reducing mechanisms of the duodenum and was completed with the assistance of his scientific advisors, C.M. Wilhmenj, MD, and R.S.K. Lim, MD.

Dedicated educator

After serving as a lieutenant commander in the US Navy Medical Corps, Dr Organ joined the faculty of the department of surgery at Creighton University, where he rose to the rank of professor and was appointed chair. While at Creighton, he developed an elective surgical honors program for senior medical students who wanted to pursue a career in academic surgery. He went on to serve as professor of surgery at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, Oklahoma City.

In 1989, Dr Organ established and became chair of the surgical residency program at the University of California San Francisco–East Bay. His work to support and encourage surgical residents to engage in biomolecular research and enter academic surgery was a valued part of his career. Approximately 30 residents in the University of California San Francisco–East Bay program went on to undertake 2 to 3 years of research experience in prominent laboratories.

Dr Organ truly loved being a surgical educator and always recognized that the future of this profession depends on how well we meet the evolving needs of medical students and surgical residents. As an educator, Dr Organ demanded excellence from the residents he trained. He accepted no excuses for poor performance and maintained the highest standards. Some residents and colleagues found his tenacity and expectations a bit off-putting. But after all was said and done, one had to admit that he was only trying to ensure that the surgeons he trained received the best possible education and were prepared to meet the challenges they would face in patient care. Dr Organ was an inspiration to his residents, and he took enormous pride in their accomplishments.

Surgical leadership

Given his commitment to surgical education, it came as no surprise when he announced that he wanted his term as president of the ACS to be known as “the year of the resident.” During the course of that year, he encouraged the development of the Resident and Associate Society of the ACS and a range of activities intended to advance the role of young people in this organization.

His presidency was the culmination of many years of service to the college. Dr Organ was initiated into the college in 1961 and thereafter served as an active participant in and leader of this fellowship. In 1999, the ACS Board of Regents presented him with its highest honor: the Distinguished Service Award. Dr Organ served as second vice president of the college from 2001 to 2002. He was a member of the Commission on Cancer (1979-1989), a senior member of the Postoperative Care Committee (1986-1996), and a member of the International Relations Committee (1991-2001). He was installed as the second African American president of the college during the convocation ceremony of the 2003 Clinical Congress.

Numerous other surgical organizations and societies benefitted from Dr Organ’s leadership acumen. In 1984, he was elected president of the Southwestern Surgical Congress. His presidency of that organization was marked by significant changes in the association’s policies, programs, and initiatives. To recognize his profound effect on the Southwestern Surgical Congress, in 1995 the organization inaugurated the Claude H. Organ, Jr, Basic Science Lecture.

In addition, Dr Organ served as a national director of Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Medical Society (1979-1989), director (1978-1986) and chairman (1984-1986) of the American Board of Surgery, and president of the Western Surgical Association (2002). He also was a member of numerous professional scientific organizations, including the American, Western, Pacific Coast, and Southern Surgical Associations.

He was an honorary fellow of several international organizations, including the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, the Royal College of Surgeons of South Africa, the Royal College of Surgeons (Edinburgh and England), and the Association of Surgeons of Great Britain and Ireland. He also held honorary doctorate degrees from the University of Nebraska, Xavier University, and the University of Athens, Greece.

Editor, author, lecturer

Dr Organ served as editor-in-chief of the ARCHIVES for 15 years. During his tenure, Claude Organ negotiated multiple practical and conceptual hurdles. He initiated university-based theme issues and expanded the purview of the journal to include the topics of ethics, teaching, surgical history, and socioeconomics. Indeed, Dr Organ orchestrated thoughtful and stimulating discussions about all areas of interest to surgeons and negotiated the increasing circulation and copyright challenges posed by the expanding universe of Web-based publishing.

Dr Organ’s love of a good intellectual fight was reflected in the ARCHIVES content. He encouraged balanced authoritative commentary and the sort of high-octane dialogue that made reading the journal enjoyable. By expanding the scope of the material in the ARCHIVES, Dr Organ pumped academic and financial life back into the publication, which was in financial trouble when he first assumed the mantle.

Additionally, Dr Organ authored or cowrote more than 250 scientific articles and book chapters. One of his articles refuted the myth that Charles Drew, MD, died because he was refused a blood transfusion at a segregated hospital. He also contributed several books to the surgical literature, including the 2-volume A Century of Black Surgeons: The USA Experience (1987), Gasless Laparoscopy with Conventional Instruments (1993), and Abdominal Access in Open and Laparoscopic Surgery (1996).

Dr Organ shared his knowledge and communication skills with surgeons in all corners of this country and the rest of the world through the many named lectureships he delivered. For example, he twice gave the opening ceremony lecture at the Clinical Congress of the ACS (1990 and 1995). He also presented the Archibald Watson Lecture (Australia), the Zollicoffer Lecture (North Carolina), the Michael and Jamie Miller Lecture (South Africa), and many more.

Concerned citizen

During his very moving ACS presidential address, Dr Organ urged the college’s initiates “to embrace a deeper professional purpose . . . to be the complete concerned citizen of society” and to “make a difference” in this organization, their communities, and their institutions. He concluded his address by noting that “where poverty exists, all are poorer; where hatred flourishes, all are corrupted; and where injustice reigns, all are unequal.”

He lived what he preached. Dr Organ gave back to his community by willingly accepting his fair share of responsibility for treating the “walking wounded.” He also was active in a number of community groups and charitable organizations. He was a former president of the Urban League of Omaha and served on the board of directors of Boys Town. He also was director of the National Catholic Conference for Human Justice (1972-1974) and a trustee of both Howard University and Meharry Medical College.

Family man

Dr Organ is survived by his wife of 52 years, Elizabeth (Betty) Lucille Mays Organ, and 7 successful adult children—specifically, Brian C. Organ, MD, FACS, a general surgeon; Gregory M. Organ, MD, FACS, a pediatric surgeon; Paul Organ, MD, a psychiatrist; Claude H. Organ III, a bank executive; David Organ, a university professor in geography; Sandra Organ, a former principal dancer with a ballet company who now owns the Sandra Organ Dance Company; and Rita Organ, a museum curator. He also is survived by 10 grandchildren; his sister, Claudesta Gould; and his brother, Henry Organ, Sr.

I know his children and those who trained under Dr Organ would attribute much of their success to his uncompromising standards of excellence. His inspiration will be sorely missed.

Correspondence: Thomas R. Russell, MD, American College of Surgeons, 633 N St Clair St, Chicago, IL 60611 (trussell@facs.org).

Accepted for Publication: August 18, 2005.