Aug. 18, 1994
Vol. 14, No. 2

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    George Block, Surgery

    George Edward Block, the Thomas D. Jones Professor in Surgery and a pioneer in the development of new techniques in gastrointestinal surgery, died July 17. Block, who had a long history of heart disease, died of cardiac arrest. He was 67.

    Block was one of the world's leading authorities on the surgical treatment of colon and rectal cancer and of inflammatory bowel disease -- ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease. He performed thousands of operations, developing new techniques and refining established ones to improve surgical results and reduce complications.

    "He was a true leader of American surgery who faithfully championed the highest ideals of our profession," said Bruce Gewertz, the Dallas B. Phemister Professor and Chairman of Surgery. "We will all cherish his memory as a healer, teacher and leader."

    "George Block changed the whole field of surgery for neoplastic and inflammatory bowel diseases," said Fabrizio Michelassi, Associate Professor in Surgery. "He made enormous contributions in terms of the principles of surgical treatment."

    Block built his reputation in the 1960s and 1970s as a proponent of a more extensive operation to treat rectal cancer. His best argument was his own remarkable success rate, far better than that of surgeons who espoused a more conservative approach.

    "He was a surgeon's surgeon," said Edwin Kaplan, Professor in Surgery. "He was known by everybody in American surgery as someone who routinely took the most difficult cases and succeeded brilliantly. He was the person experienced surgeons turned to when they needed advice on how to approach a tough surgical problem."

    "George Block was one of the clearest thinkers in all of surgery," said Joseph Kirsner, Louis Block Distinguished Service Professor in Medicine and a longtime friend and colleague of Block's. "He had a remarkable faculty for getting to the key problem in a situation, combined with great skill as an abdominal surgeon. The combination made him a wonderful physician and an outstanding teacher."

    Although Block cultivated a gruff and somewhat cantankerous image, provoking in others the same sort of excellence he demanded of himself, "inside he was as warm and friendly, honest and forthright, sensitive and loyal as anyone I've ever met," recalled Kirsner. "If he was your friend, you really had a friend -- and he had many."

    A native of Joliet, Ill., Block was a 1947 graduate of Northwestern and received his M.D. in 1951 from the University of Michigan. He served in the U.S. Army Medical Corps during the Korean War and was awarded the bronze star for his service. He remained active in the reserves, attaining the rank of colonel.

    In 1955, Block spent a year as an American Cancer Society Postdoctoral Fellow in the Ben May Cancer Research Laboratory at the University of Chicago. He completed his residency at the University of Michigan in 1957 and received his M.S. in surgery from the University of Michigan in 1958. He then taught at Michigan until 1960, when he joined the Chicago faculty as Assistant Professor in Surgery.

    Block remained on the surgical staff for the next 34 years. He became Professor in Surgery and Chief of General Surgery in 1967. In 1979, he was elected president of the medical staff, a position he held until 1984. He was named the Thomas D. Jones Professor in Surgery in 1984 and served as Vice Chairman of Surgery from 1989 to 1991 and Chairman from 1991 to 1992.

    Block was the author or co-author of more than 140 articles, 25 book chapters, one textbook and four instructional films. He won numerous awards and honors in his lifetime, and he served as a visiting professor at nearly 100 universities and medical centers, giving named lectures at such institutions as Harvard Medical School, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, the University of California at San Francisco, Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic, Johns Hopkins University and the universities of Padua and Verona. He served on the Board of Regents of the American College of Surgeons and was chairman of its advisory council for surgery. He was a past vice president of the American Surgical Association and a past president of the Central Surgical Association, the Chicago Surgical Society and the Frederick A. Coller Surgical Society.

    He was also a nationally recognized breeder of Angus cattle and the recipient of the 1993 Breeder of the Year Award.

    He is survived by his wife, Mary Cobb Block; three sons, George Jr. of San Antonio, Texas, John of Chicago and Edward of Nashville, Tenn.; and three grandchildren. A memorial service at the University will be held in the fall.