August 17, 2006
Vol. 25 No. 20

current issue
archive / search
Chronicle RSS Feed

    Cardiac surgeon Karp, wife, both die in auto accident

    A pioneer in heart surgery and transplantation, Robert B. Karp, Professor Emeritus in Surgery and the former Section Chief of Cardiac Surgery, and his wife, Sondra, died Thursday, May 18 in a motor vehicle accident on a highway near the village of Chateauroux, France. He was 72 and she was 71.

    A rare authority on both the surgical treatment of congenital heart disease in children and of complex heart disease in adults, Karp helped start the heart transplant program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, one of the first in the country, in 1981.

    He performed 18 heart transplants there before moving to Chicago in 1983, where he started the heart transplant program in June 1984. It is now the biggest such program in Illinois.

    Karp also was known as a leading expert on the treatment of Tetralogy of Fallot (a complex cluster of inborn cardiac abnormalities), surgical treatment of arrhythmias, heart valve repair and replacement, and post-operative care of cardiac surgery patients. At Chicago, he founded one of the first human tissue banks, collecting and storing human heart valves and blood vessels for surgical use.

    “Bob Karp brought a structured, evidence-based approach to cardiac surgery that was unusual at the time,” said Mark Ferguson, Professor in Surgery. “He kept one entire wall of his office filled with notebooks on cases and selected studies that met his level of expertise, and he used them to plan all of his procedures. He was also extremely erudite. He knew literature and art and, beneath a somewhat gruff exterior, had a wonderful sense of humor.”

    “Bob combined a rigorous, disciplined surgical approach with intense devotion to his patients,” said Bruce Gewertz, Chairman of Surgery, “and he dressed that intensity in the garb of the old-time cardiac surgeon, someone who was always in charge, knew what he wanted from colleagues and subordinates and how to make certain that happened.”

    Born Feb. 6, 1934, in Los Angeles, Karp grew up in southern California, where his father was head of the studio at Paramount Pictures. He earned his B.S. degree from Stanford University in three years, graduating at the age of 20 in 1954. He earned his M.D. with honors from the University of California, San Francisco in 1958.

    He also completed two years of a surgical residency at the University of California, Los Angeles, before serving two years as a captain in the U.S. Army.

    In 1961, while serving in the Army, Karp married Sondra Price, also of Los Angeles. They had twins, Andrew and Gillian, in 1962. Though they divorced within two years, the two got back together and remarried seventeen years later.

    Robert Replogle, Karp’s predecessor as chief of cardiac surgery at the University, described his former colleague’s marriage. “His marriage to Soni brought him a vivacious, effervescent and warm partner, someone who could enhance the humanistic qualities of the analytical scientist,” said “They brought joy to the lives of each other, although—and perhaps because—their personalities were quite different.”

    “Mom was much more social,” said Andrew Karp. “She made him pay attention to that stuff.”

    Karp retired from teaching and from surgery at the University in 2000, moving to Snowmass, Colo. He remained in contact with his surgical friends, continued to lecture and made several humanitarian trips to India and Pakistan, teaching the latest techniques to surgeons there. A hospital library and pathology museum in Parumala, Kerala, India, is being named for him.

    Although his professional colleagues recall Karp’s rigor and intensity, “he was not what you would call a demanding father,” said his son Andrew. “He was wise, a good counselor, wonderfully patient with his children’s follies, interested in our careers and very involved with his grandchildren.”

    “They were a lot of fun and really good people on top of that,” said their daughter Gillian Karp. “As one of my friends said, ‘they were never boring.’”

    Karp’s son Andrew, 43, of Chicago, daughter Gillian, also 43, of Alexandria, Va., and two grandchildren, survive him and his wife, Sondra. A memorial service in Chicago is being arranged for October.