Sic transit gloria mundi


The email came with the words, “It is with sadness we report that Frank Moody died. …” I was instantly transported to the last time I saw the man and a flood of emotions swept over me. The name Frank Moody will ring a distant bell or none at all to some in our profession. Like many of the greats of surgery, he belongs to the ages.

I remember the first time I asked a student, “Who is Michael DeBakey?” I was dumbfounded to be greeted with a blank stare. How could a student of medicine not know of Dr. DeBakey? A few years later, the same question prompted a smart aleck reply that he was the man who invented DeBakey forceps. Well, of course he did invent the forceps, but to know nothing further of the man who was the world’s expert on ulcer disease in the 1940s, the progenitor of the National Medical Library, and among the foremost pioneers of heart surgery seemed beyond belief.

Dr. Frank Moody Photo credit: Dwight Andrews/UTHealth

Dr. Frank Moody

My mentor, Ernest Poulos, has long since left the active surgical scene. At times he would note the passing of one of his heroes like Carl Moyer (look it up!) and say, “Sic transit gloria mundi.” At 27 and anxious to get the right to cut into my fellow human beings, I would cock my head like a confounded puppy and wonder what that meant. I looked up the translation and meaning long ago, but now with age I understand the phrase in my bones.

I have long been a hanger-on at surgical meetings, hoping to meet those mighty figures that shaped surgical history. I saw W. Dean Warren once and had a very long hour with the great Mark Ravitch. Oliver Beahrs once performed magic tricks at a dinner I attended. At every surgical meeting there is an old guy (and now occasionally with the change in our profession, an elderly lady) getting on the bus to go to the reception or dinner dance. Often they are alone, their spouses having departed before them. As a young man, I wondered why the heck they came to the meetings. Just like every generation before, ours was eager to grab the reins, and in our ardor for future glory, we were polite but also restless for them to move aside. I hadn’t yet learned the importance of history and of listening.

What I missed while carousing with my young colleagues was an opportunity to hear history first hand and to learn that, what we thought was so cutting edge, these men and women had long ago considered. Many of our living legends imagined some of today’s innovations but they lacked the technology to bring their dreams to fruition, or time and age defeated them before they reached the final chapter of their research. It was when I was about 50 that I wised up and began seeking out living legends like Frank Moody and Frank Spencer.

In the case of Frank Moody, he was quite elderly when I first met him. For some reason, he knew who I was and shook my hand softly. I didn’t recognize him initially, but at the sound of his name, I knew I was in the presence of a major figure in 20th century gastrointestinal surgery. He had been at the University of California, San Francisco, during an historic time when George Sheldon, Donald Trunkey and other great surgeons trained there with J. Englebert Dunphy as their chief. Dr. Moody’s CV lists 141 articles in basic and clinical science that have had a profound impact on how we view the gastrointestinal tract. He was Chief at the University of Utah and the University of Alabama and finished his career as professor at the University of Texas-Houston. His awards and achievements were legion.

Parkinson’s had only recently really begun to affect him when I met him, and as the years went by his voice became so very faint that I had to lean in to hear him. We would sit together at the back of the dinner dance room so that we could hear each other. And while the other guests entertained themselves, Dr. Moody and I would discuss his life, scientific method and philosophy as well as his insights into his own case of Parkinsonism. I would see him at meetings, making his way slowly but steadily along a corridor while others briskly walked by, unaware that the man they just passed was among the most important surgical pioneers of our time. It was not sad that Dr. Moody was elderly and unrecognized, but that we younger surgeons missed knowing a great man in our tendency to rush past history.

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