Dr. Henry Buchwald operated on more than 10,000 patients as the longest-serving University of Minnesota surgeon. Now the renowned Edina doctor, teacher and researcher, who turns 88 on Sunday, has refocused his stitching and cutting skills into a new memoir about the 1960s heyday of surgery at the U.
In a recent interview about his book, "Surgical Renaissance in the Heartland: A Memoir of the Wangensteen Era" (University of Minnesota Press), Buchwald recalled walking with a medical student into the 13-story Phillips-Wangensteen Building at the vortex of the U's medical campus. Buchwald tested the student: "Who was Wangensteen?" The reply: "A Midwestern liquor dealer."
Not quite. Jay Phillips was a philanthropist who founded a highly successful liquor distributing firm. But Dr. Owen Wangensteen was the U's chief of surgery for 37 years, a legendary teacher of young doctors who became professors at more than 30 medical institutions.
"I thought it was important to write this book because people today are sort of ignorant of the greatness in their past," said Buchwald, the last active member of the U's Wangensteen era.
While Buchwald's book tells of obesity surgeries, intestinal bypasses and cholesterol breakthroughs, his memoir is more about people than procedures. It includes colorful characters such as Dr. Richard Varco, a Montana rancher's kid who became an operating room "virtuoso" at the U in the 1940s and '50s.
There's Buchwald himself, an Austrian-born Jew who escaped the Nazis at age 6 and became as deft at storytelling as wielding a scalpel. He credits his wife of 66 years, Daisy Emilie Buchwald, with keeping him on track. She's a former English teacher who holds a doctorate and helped found two local publishing houses. They raised four daughters.
The book is largely an ode to Wangensteen, a Norwegian farmer's son born in 1898 in tiny Lake Park, Minn. Nicknamed "The Chief" after joining the U in 1930, Wangensteen valued his surgeons' intellect and curiosity as much as their technical skills.
"His goal was to generate a department of academic surgeons training academic-minded young people … so that, in time, this country would have a cadre of surgeon-scientists," writes Buchwald.
By the time Wangensteen retired in 1967, his former students included 38 department heads, 72 directors of training programs and 110 full professors.
Buchwald himself arrived in Minnesota in 1960 after emigrating to New York as a boy, receiving his medical training at Columbia University and serving as chief flight surgeon with the Strategic Air Command in the U.S. Air Force.
The U proved to be something of a cultural shock. Buchwald said he had found rounds "fairly formulaic" on the "stultified" East Coast, where patients were wheeled in on gurneys as staff doctors lectured residents on their cases. "What the top man said was accepted," he said. "There was no discussion and certainly no disputing."
But at the U, Buchwald writes, "all civility was abandoned" as "a free-for-all ensued" and teachers and residents "argued vigorously" with one another. "They criticized the knowledge, judgment, technical skills, competence, and at times the intelligence and personal motivation of their colleagues."
His eyes twinkling, Wangensteen stayed above the fray, Buchwald recalls, "enjoying the exchanges and taking pride in the independence and powerful minds of his prodigies."
From daring open-heart operations to early organ transplants by former students Christiaan Barnard and Norman Shumway, Wangensteen attracted "medical students from all over the world because of his strong emphasis on research and laboratory experiment," the New York Times wrote when he died in 1981 of a heart attack in Minneapolis at age 82.
Buchwald said Wangensteen "fostered and loved the intellectual expression of ideas" that defined his era. "Freedom of thought and expression were as wide open as the prairie," he writes.
One anecdote reflects both the feistiness of the author and the loyalty of Wangensteen, the mentor who always had his back.
As chief resident in 1966, Buchwald rebelled when an attending staff doctor popped a quiz during what was supposed to be a Saturday conference to review patient cases. Buchwald thought a surprise test was the wrong way to treat adults and refused to take the exam, asking his fellow residents to join him in a walkout. "No one did," he writes.
A few days later, he said, Wangensteen finessed the brouhaha. The Chief told Buchwald he was terminating his residency for defying a superior — and then named him an instructor as of the previous Friday, making his "insurrection" a technically acceptable clash between teachers.
"I signed the papers," Buchwald writes, "and hurried back to the sanctuary of the operating room."
Curt Brown's tales about Minnesota's history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: http://strib.mn/MN1918.