Surgical innovation and ethical dilemmas: Precautions and proximity

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This leads to my closing observations about transitions in surgical research, when the work of the pioneering surgeon is bequeathed to the broader surgical community to pick up the torch—or scalpel—and expand the work.

This takes me away from research and, fittingly here at a medical school dedicated to research training, brings me to medical education. To transcend the personal dimensions of surgical innovation—and the courage and vision of the founders—and sustain it more broadly, innovators also have to become educators of future surgeons, organizers of talent, and moral exemplars for the next generation. They have to appreciate that the work that they started, if it is important, will not be completed during their tenure but that future generations will carry it forward and expand upon it. They also have to prepare the next generation with the tools and orientation to appreciate their vision and to embrace what Thomas Kuhn might call new scientific paradigms. 30

On several occasions Wilder Penfield, who founded the Montreal Neurological Institute, wrote with regret about Victor Horsley, the neurosurgeon at Queens Square in London. Penfield viewed Horsley as the founder of his field, but Horsley left no disciples. In his autobiography, fittingly entitled No Man Alone , Penfield noted that Horsley, “the most distinguished pioneer neurosurgeon, had died in 1916 without having established a school of neurosurgery.” 5 This is in contrast to the discipline-building work of Cushing.

It is not an accident that Dr. Cushing founded a field full of trainees and protégés, of which my co-panelists are descendants. It was intentional and part of his ethos of being truly innovative. And it is not an accident that the distinguished surgical innovators at this symposium have also created institutional structures to continue their work for decades to come. Their achievements have transcended the individual innovator and have become systematic. It is said that Dr. Thomas Starzl launched a field. 31 Dr. Denton Cooley founded the Texas Heart Institute. 32 Dr. Thomas Fogarty started the Fogarty Institute for Innovation, whose mission statement explicitly notes that it is “an educational non-profit that mentors, trains and inspires the next generation of medical innovators.” 33 Each of these pioneers, I believe, appreciates the need for continuity and dissemination.

But even here there is something that we nonsurgeons need to understand: although the work transcends the individual surgeon, the ties remain personal and linked to the impact and legacy of founders. Take, for example, highly prized membership in the Denton A. Cooley Cardiovascular Surgical Society. 34 This too is about the importance of individuals and surgical proximity, but here it is transgenerational.


If we truly want to continue the dialogue begun here today, we need to understand these social and professional networks and the importance of surgical proximity in transmitting both methods and values. The proximate nature of surgical research—and the causality and responsibility that accrues to the surgeon—makes surgical research different than other areas of biomedical inquiry. This difference has implications for risk-benefit analysis, conflicts of interest, and clinical equipoise. I hope that my colleagues return to these themes in the coming days so that the regulation of this important area of research can be informed by a deeper understanding of the ethics of surgical discovery and innovation. 35

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