In Memoriam: Ward O. Griffen, MD, PhD – Surgery Department Chair from 1968-1984

The UK Department of Surgery mourns the passing of Ward O. Griffen, MD, PhD, 92, chair of the department from 1968 – 1984 and one of the giants in the world of American surgery. He died on Tuesday morning, July 21.

Dr. Griffen was born in New Orleans, Louisiana. At 8-years-old, his family moved to a small community just outside of Baltimore, Maryland. In 1949, he graduated from Princeton University with a degree in Psychology. He earned his medical degree from Cornell University Medical College in 1953, then completed an internal medicine internship at Bellevue.

Following Bellevue, Dr. Griffen completed a 9-year residency in general surgery and thoracic surgery at the University of Minnesota under the leadership and guidance of the legendary surgery education pioneer, Dr. Owen H. Wangensteen. Following his residency, Dr. Griffen accepted a faculty appointment at the University of Minnesota.

It was during his brief term there that Dr. Ben Eiseman, UK Surgery’s founding chair, recruited Dr. Griffen to the UK Department of Surgery faculty in September of 1965. He began as an associate professor of surgery and was put in charge of pediatric surgery in the years before there were residency programs for that particular specialty.

In addition to his clinical practice, research, and endeavors to improve surgical education and faculty compensation at UK, Dr. Griffen, by virtue of his doctorates in physiology and biophysics, taught gastrointestinal physiology to freshman medical students throughout his UK faculty career.

Three generations of Department Chairs

Three generations of Department of Surgery Chairs: Dr. Jay Zwischenberger, Dr. William B. Inabnet III, and Dr. Ward O. Griffen

Dr. Griffen was named chair of the UK Department of Surgery in 1968, after Dr. Eiseman decided to return to the University of Colorado. As an advocate of a model of academic surgery that emphasized patient care and compensation based on clinical as well as research activity, clinical volume in the surgery department increased twofold under Dr. Griffen’s leadership. Clinical volume virtually doubled by the late 1970s.

Research activity grew at a more modest pace, but there was no denying Dr. Griffen’s impact on UK surgery residents. Several residents continued as UK HealthCare faculty members after their experience with Dr. Griffen and his faculty.

Even while he was providing leadership, Dr. Griffen was also contributing significantly to the field of Surgery. In 1977, he developed and introduced the Roux-en-y gastric bypass procedure.

Dr. Inabnet, Dr. McGrath, and Dr. Griffen
Dr. William B. Inabnet III, Dr. Patrick McGrath, and Dr. Ward O. Griffen

Dr. Richard Furman, founder of World Medical Missions, was a general surgery and cardiothoracic surgery resident at the University of Kentucky when Dr. Griffen became chair. Dr. Furman credits his former chair with teaching an important lesson in patient care. “Griffen taught us that surgeons must have empathy for our patients. He taught me how to have a heart for what I’m doing and that became very important in my belief in global outreach,” Dr. Furman said.

In 1984, Dr. Griffen accepted an offer to become executive director of the American Board of Surgery, a position he held for the ensuing 10 years.

In an interview for the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, Dr. Griffen underscored his belief that advanced medical technology is no substitute for the relationship between a doctor and patient. “Medicine is being able to take a good history from a patient and then do a thorough physical examination. Ninety percent of the time, you can make your diagnosis if you do those two things well.”

Dr. Griffen is survived by his wife, Margaret Mary “Pudge” Griffen, and seven children, including UK General Surgery alum Dr. Margaret Mary Griffen, the first graduate of UK’s Critical Care Fellowship program.