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Polk HC. The Right Thing. Arch Surg. 2005;140(11):1032–1033. doi:10.1001/archsurg.140.11.1032
Claude Organ was a massively influential surgeon and American. His tributes are numerous and wide-ranging, each reflecting the unique views of his eulogist and each person’s relationship to Dr Organ. One comment does deserve correction; he has been incorrectly described as having a very strong ego. From my long friendship, I believe he cloaked this ego, if it existed, in the softest velvet glove I can ever imagine.
I choose to stress what I consider to be Dr Organ’s most consistent and compelling characteristic and the personal diplomacy by which he pursued this good: “What is the right thing?” I first came to know Dr Organ well almost 3 decades ago when he and I were representing different surgical organizations with differing points of view about a matter in surgical education. “Interesting, but probably not important; here today, gone tomorrow; possibly a petty problem magnified by the attached egos,” are phrases he often used. Claude pondered whether the subject of debate and disagreement would matter at all in the surgical care of the American public in the long term.
It was then and there that I heard for the first time what would become the backbone of our friendship and his own imprimatur: “What do you think is the right thing?” No matter how great or small, it seemed that Dr Organ’s focus helped everyone to see that uniquely worthy goal. On countless occasions across our friendship, that question and the imperial pause that followed helped me, dozens of other so-called surgical leaders, and hundreds of young surgeons come to a better conclusion, no matter what the subject.
Inevitably, as a product of his place and time, full citizenship for all minorities was often an underlying theme, if not the case in point. Never once did he choose political correctness, but instead he helped his friends move toward a choice that would be “the right thing.” His support for women, overseas surgeons, and others often eclipsed his espousal of concerns for African American individuals everywhere. This was perhaps best said in June 1993 in his work “Toward a More Complete Society.”1 A secondary theme, often emerging from his lifetime as counselor for minority professionals, was the failure to grasp opportunity and, by doing so, let the opportunity for the greater good for the longer-term slip away. Dr Organ almost never espoused directly opportunities to spread diversity, except that it would be, for the world and our country, the right thing.
Hit the search button (wouldn’t Claude think that was funny coming from me?) and scroll past ambulatory surgery centers2; the generation gap in surgery3; resident work hours4; ethics in surgery5; and the nature of civility,6 a priceless later piece. Dr Organ devoted the lead portion of the ARCHIVES in 1993 to the happy “cohabitation” of surgery and molecular biology7 and much of his microscopic free time to the development of books that uniquely set in perspective African American surgeons and the 20th century.8,9
Also enlightening was the choice of other subjects for signed editorials during his distinguished tenure as editor in chief of the ARCHIVES. For instance, he wrote about “Surgical Care for the Uninsured and Underinsured”10 in May 1991—yes, 14 years ago. How current are his comments on “Fragmentation and Specialization”11 from the summer of 1987? Machiavelli’s The Prince spun off Claudius’ commentary on “The Future of General Surgery” in February 1990,12 which in turn led to reprises by he and George Block, MD, in November 1991. If readers are prone to think that these are contemporary issues for surgeons, then they only need to examine these still points in the recent history of surgery to understand the meaning and significance of Dr Organ’s pursuit of and devotion to The Right Thing.
Correspondence: Hiram C. Polk, Jr, MD, Department of Surgery, University of Louisville, Louisville, KY 40292 (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Accepted for Publication: August 31, 2005.