Surgery pioneer, prof Glenn dies at 88



World-renowned cardiothoracic surgery pioneer and Yale professor William Glenn died March 10 in Peterborough, N.H. He was 88.

Glenn achieved worldwide recognition as a surgeon, scientist and educator throughout his tenure at Yale, which he began in 1948 as the medical school’s first chief of cardiovascular surgery. His innovations included procedures for treating newborns with breathing difficulties and an early model of the artificial heart, as well as a widely-used medical textbook. He was also known as a caring and devoted teacher who worked hard to advance the careers of his advisees.

During his career, Glenn developed surgical procedures that continue to be used in modern surgical treatment. One of these procedures, now known widely as the Glenn Operation or Glenn Shunt, uses a vena cava-pulmonary artery shunt to bypass malformed hearts in the treatment of babies born unable to breathe.

Surgery professor John Elefteriades, a former colleague of Glenn, said the procedure was a tremendous contribution to the care of newborns and infants.

Glenn was also known for his innovations in other areas of cardiovascular science. Glenn and his colleague, Dr. William H. Sewell, were the first to devise an early model of an artificial heart using a pump made from a child’s Erector set. The model is presently in the collections of the Smithsonian Museum.

In 1959, Glenn and his colleagues pioneered the use of electrical stimulation by radio frequency to pace the heart and the diaphragm.

Elefteriades said the procedure significantly improved the quality of life of patients with major breathing disorders.

“It is through Dr. Glenn’s efforts that Yale has become the leader of the procedure in the world,” Elefteriades said.

Graeme Hammond, a professor of cardiothoracic surgery at the School of Medicine, said Glenn was influential in advancing the careers of young academic surgeons.

“One of the important things he did was that he could identify people who could make a big contribution to surgery,” Hammond said. “He could pick those people out. He had an amazing ability to do that.”

Glenn’s textbook, “Glenn’s Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery,” is widely considered the international standard for educating vascular surgeons. The textbook is now in its sixth edition.

In 1979, Glenn became the first surgeon to serve as the president of the American Heart Association. For his service, Glenn was honored by the association with a lectureship bearing his name.

Glenn was known as a fan of the Yale football team, frequently seen walking home from games in the fall with his wife through the fields from the Yale Bowl.

“He was an intrinsically humble man despite all his accomplishments,” Elefteriades said. “His legacy will live on in many ways.”

Born Aug. 12, 1914, Glenn was the youngest of four children. After receiving his Bachelor of Science degree from the University of South Carolina in 1934, Glenn earned his M.D. at Jefferson Medical School in 1938. When World War II broke out, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Medical Corps and established a field hospital at Normandy. It was through his experiences during the war that Glenn cultivated his skills as a pioneer of surgical technique.

Glenn is survived by his wife, Amory; their two children, William A.L. Glenn and Elizabeth McLelan; and four grandchildren.

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