20 Most Innovative Surgeons Alive Today

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While Grey’s Anatomy might have most viewers believing that successful procedures are part soap opera and part skill, the reality of the surgical profession is that new developments come only from great education, hard work, and extensive research. Those who pioneered regenerative surgeries, facial transplants, and all kinds of other procedures that changed healthcare forever have an unmatched dedication to their profession. Of all the surgical innovators to pass through hospital corridors, the 20 listed below are among the most influential still alive today.

1.Denton Cooley, MD, Cardiovascular Surgery

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For nearly six decades, Denton Cooley (b. 1920) has been one of the biggest names in cardiovascular surgery and the Texas medical community. Having received undergraduate and medical degrees from both the University of Texas and the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Cooley returned to his native Lone Star State after a stint with the Army Medical Corps that began in 1946. Cooley’s research while a student at Johns Hopkins was closely aligned with studies into the “Blue Baby” procedure. During his time in Baltimore, Cooley worked to perfect these early procedures designed to correct congenital heart defects in newly born children.

His time back in Texas was even more productive in terms of studying the real causes of heart disease, cardiovascular problems, and the solutions that could give patients a new lease on life. As a result of years of both study and on-the-job surgical experience, Cooley was chosen to perform the first artificial heart transplant in a human being. Since this groundbreaking success early in his career, Cooley has gone on to found and chair the Texas Heart Institute. He currently serves as a consultant in cardiovascular surgery for the Texas Children’s Hospital, teaches clinical coursework at the University of Texas Health Science Center, and is the chair of cardiovascular surgery at St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital.

2. Russell M. Nelson, MD, PhD, Cardiovascular Surgery

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Heart replacement surgery might be Cooley’s domain, but Russell M. Nelson (b. 1924) is just as influential when it comes to performing surgical work on a person’s actual heart rather than replacing it with an artificial alternative. Cooley received his undergraduate degree from the University of Utah and eventually went on to earn his MD from the same institution. After a residency split between Boston’s Massachusetts General and the University of Minnesota, Nelson earned his PhD and began his amazing ascendancy in the profession.

His first major role as a groundbreaker took place when Nelson and a team of colleagues invented the first heart-lung machine. The machine permitted the first open heart surgical procedure in the world in 1951, and in 1955 Nelson was the first person to perform such a surgery within the state of Utah. Nelson’s experience in a number of innovative heart procedures, entirely new at the time, saw him operate on then-LDS president Spencer Kimball and Chinese performer Fang Rongxiang. Nelson also became a leading source of education and experience for residents at the Salt Lake Clinic and the LDS Hospital during his time in the field. Today, he’s a ranking member of the leadership of the Mormon faith.

3. Gazi Yasargil, MD, Neurosurgery

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When it comes to neurosurgery, few names carry as much weight as Gazi Yasargil’s. In fact, Yasargil (b. 1925) is widely considered the father of modern neuroscience and is regarded as an established leader in the field. For three generations, his work has been redefining the bounds of what’s possible within the human brain amid disease, trauma, and a whole host of other health conditions. Yasargil got his start in Turkey but left to pursue medical studies in Germany at the Friedrich Schiller University of Jena in Germany. He is credited with redefining neurosurgery and transforming previously inoperable conditions into those that could be easily handled by a team of skilled surgeons. During his career, he performed more than 7,500 successful intracranial surgeries successfully.

Yasargil spent the vast majority of his career at the University of Zurich but, after his retirement from the university in 1993, accepted a position as a professor of neurosurgery at the University of Arkansas’ College of Medicine. Though officially retired from the profession, he has been active in research and surgical procedures as well as theoretical education at the university.

4. Thomas Starzl, MD, PhD, Transplant Surgery

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A success story from Iowa, Starzl (b. 1926) got his start Westminster College and eventually went on to earn his medical degree from Northwestern University. Starzl’s primary claim to fame is his first successful transplantation of a human liver, which today has become one of the most common, successful, and essential procedures in all of surgery. Starzl’s success not only with liver transplants, but with transplants of numerous other organs, has earned him the nickname “Father of Transplantation” in the medical field.

In addition to transplant work, Starzl has been heavily invested in numerous avenues of research since he first entered the profession. The list of his accomplishments in this area is long, but focuses primarily on things like gene therapy, immunosuppression, and both the rationales and effects of transplantations in modern patients. He has won dozens of awards for his work and was even named one of the most important people of the last millennium in a leading publication.

5. Jean-Michel Dubernard, MD, Transplant Surgery

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Though liver transplants were once considered the cream of the crop in the medical profession, rapid technological and scientific discoveries caused modern surgeons to look well beyond these more simplistic procedures. By the end of the 20th century, most surgeons were looking toward transplants of hands and feet, entire limbs, and even the human face. That’s where Jean-Michel Dubernard (b. 1941) comes in. Dubernard is credited as the first surgeon to successfully perform the transplant of a single human hand, which took place in 1998. He reportedly did a double transplant of human hands about a year later, though this information remained secret until mid-2004.

Dubernard’s accomplishments don’t end with successful human hand transplants. His work extends to face transplants as well. In 2005, he was asked to assist with the first partial human face transplant and, as any surgeon would, he accepted the challenge and was met with great success after the conclusion of the surgery. With a stint in the French National Assembly and ongoing work in transplant research, it’s likely that Dubernard’s contributions to this exciting field are not yet complete, no matter how impressive his accomplishments to this point have been already.

6. Robert F. Spetzler, MD, FACS, Neurosurgery

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Robert Spetzler (b. 1944) is perhaps best known as the surgeon that developed the “standstill surgical procedure.” Somewhat controversial during its first uses, and still pretty scary for most patients, this procedure actually involves inducing what is known as a “clinical death” when performing surgery, which is often an absolute requirement when performing neurosurgical work like removing aneurisms. The removal of aneurisms, even larger ones, is Spetzler’s major area of focus within the profession. To date, he’s removed more than 5,000 aneurisms from patients who otherwise would have had no other option.

Spetzler’s work extends well beyond his own practice at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, since most medical students in the 21st century have probably read his work in one of their textbooks. Spetzler has been heavily involved in the development of effective educational materials for today’s students and remains a driving force not only in surgery, but in the preparation of tomorrow’s groundbreaking surgeons as well.

7. Syed Modasser Ali, FRCS, Ophthalmology

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Syed Modasser Ali (b. 1946) is easily one of India’s greatest contributions to both surgery and ophthalmology. In fact, Ali is widely credited with writing the first fully effective textbook for those pursuing education in community ophthalmology services. Educated at India’s prestigious Dhaka Medical College, Ali’s work in the health field was widely recognized by politicians as an asset not only for the country’s citizens, but also for the development of better policies relating to health awareness and access.

For these reasons, he was nominated to a ranking advisory position, serving the country’s prime minister, in 2001. Ali used this post to advocate for better health overall, crusading against smoking and advocating better community eye practices and standards nationwide. His work has led to safer, more readily available ophthalmology services throughout India, while his textbook remains a driving force for international education in the community-oriented aspect of ophthalmology services.

8. Ioannis Pallikaris, MD, Ophthalmology

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Community ophthalmology isn’t the only area that has been transformed by surgical innovators. The LASIK procedure, which has become known as the single best way to correct human astigmatism and virtually eliminate a patient’s need for contacts or eyeglasses, traces its roots directly back to Pallikaris (b. 1947) in the late 20th century. Under his leadership, the program made its debut in 1989 and he was given the honor of performing the first LASIK procedure in history on a patient desperately in need. Pallikaris successfully completed the procedure and immediately began developing even better methods of performing the same work.

Several years later, he unveiled the Epi-LASIK procedure as a more superficial way of treating common vision problems. The alcohol-free procedure differs slightly from traditional LASIK and is widely considered an improvement, especially for those patients that need only minor reshaping done to regain full use of their vision without corrective lenses or contacts.

9. Maria Siemionow, MD, PhD, Plastic Surgery

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Partial face transplants paved the way for a major breakthrough in 2008, when the first full human face transplant was completed in Cleveland, Ohio. That procedure took a team of 22 highly qualified surgeons, many of them leaders in the broader field itself. At the helm of this successful first transplant was Maria Siemionow (b. 1950), a Polish-born and Polish-educated surgeon who has long been a major force at the Cleveland Clinic in its namesake city.

Fluent in a stunning five languages, Siemionow leads both the microsurgery and plastic surgery departments at the Cleveland Clinic. Her expertise in the field has landed her a spot as a professor of surgery at the Cleveland Clinic’s Lerner College of Medicine, where she helps new surgeons test the bounds of what is considered possible in plastic surgery, transplantation, and a host of other concentrated areas.

10. Benjamin S. Carson, Sr., MD, Neurosurgery (Retired)

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Conjoined twins have long been one of the most complicated issues facing modern medical science, since virtually every set of twins is connected in a slightly different way that complicates their separation. Prior to Benjamin Carson’s work in this area, conjoined twins who were joined at the head were considered essentially “connected for life,” since operating in this area could render one or both of the twins mentally incapacitated. Carson’s work made this a thing of the past, and in 1987 he and a team of 70 fellow surgeons successfully separated conjoined twins connected at the back of the head.

For his efforts in the field, Carson (b. 1951) was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by former President George W. Bush in 2008. He announced his retirement form the surgical profession in March 2013, expressing a desire to take a step back and potentially consider other career options. Among those possibilities on the table for Carson is a political career where he could effect medical policy changes helpful for future developments in this area.

11. Pier Cristoforo Giulianotti, MD, General, Minimally Invasive, and Robotic Surgery

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When it comes to swapping out surgeons for highly technical robots, no one is more innovative and determined than Pier Cristoforo Giulianotti (b. 1953). His work in Chicago has seen him perform more than 2,100 minimally invasive procedures over the course of his career after arriving in the United States from his educational pursuits in Italy. To date, more than 985 of his minimally invasive procedures have leveraged the power of robotics to get the job done with amazing precision.

Thanks to Giulianotti’s extensive work with robotics at the University of Illinois at Chicago, he is considered the world’s most experienced and accomplished robotic surgeon. Patients from all around the world travel to Chicago simply to arrange a procedure with Giulianotti that would otherwise not be possible in their local hospitals or anywhere in their home countries. His work is ongoing, and his developments continue to test the bounds of what can be completed by robotic implements.

12. Kenneth Ouriel, MD, Vascular Surgery

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Ouriel is a leading name in vascular surgery and research, having performed more procedures in more countries than virtually any of his peers from the same generation. Thanks in no small part to his excellent work as a student and his early reputation as a surgeon, Ouriel (b. 1956) was asked to perform a major vascular procedure on former Senate Majority Leader and presidential candidate Bob Dole in 2001. From there, Ouriel continued his research and eventually left for Dubai, where he helped found a major Middle Eastern hospital. To date, he has successfully operated on a number of Middle Eastern leaders, diplomats, and ranking officials.

Toward the end of the last decade, Ouriel returned to the United States from his post in the Middle East and accepted a position as the CIO and Vice President of New York-Presbyterian Hospital. He can be found in that post today, still encouraging leadership through vascular surgical research and practice.

13. Gunther O. Hofmann, MD, PhD

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Gunther Hofmann (b. 1957) is leading one of the most interesting research pursuits in all of Europe. Over the past several years, his work has primarily been concerned with things like hand transplants, joint transplants, and even bone grafting. Many scientists and surgeons alike feel that this is the next frontier for the profession, with the ability to not only transplant organs, but to relieve the stress and pain of arthritis and reshape the bones themselves.

Hofmann’s further pursuits include extensive research into the merits of computer-assisted surgical procedures and robotic precision during major surgeries. Following a stint at Massachusetts General early in his career, Hofmann returned to his native Germany where he is consistently one of the most sought after and most published surgeons currently conducting research into next-generation procedures.

14. Anthony Atala, MD, Regenerative Medicine

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Anthony Atala (b. 1958) has been a big hit with crowds via his TED Talk, which aims to discuss the merits of not just replacing tissue, but actually refurbishing that tissue and bringing it back to like-new condition so that the body can continue to use it without the complications of transplantation. To that end, he has been made a W.H. Boyce professor at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, where he also serves as the school’s director.

Atala is currently the chairperson of the Department of Urology at Wake Forest School of Medicine as well, increasing his influence and making home one of the most notable names in surgery in the southeastern United States. Atala continues to advocate for regenerative procedures, citing the shortages and shortfalls of the donation bank and the need for quicker, more effective surgical procedures in patients all around the world.

15. Wirginia Maixner, MD, Neurosurgery

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A leading name in Australian surgical procedures, Wirginia Maixner (b. 1963) grew up in Australia and rose to become the director of neurosurgery procedures at the Royal Children’s Hospital. Located in Melbourne, the hospital is easily one of the best pediatric facilities in the world. It owes a great deal of that status to Maixner’s work over the past decade or so.

In 2007, Maixner successfully performed the first auditory brainstem implant on a child anywhere in Australia. She followed up that amazing success by separating a pair of conjoined twins at the hospital in 2009. Both of these efforts have been cited as transformative procedures that very well may change the course of pediatric surgeries and even adult surgeries in the years to come. Maixner continues to operate and lead at the Royal Children’s Hospital, and has stated she looks forward to offering groundbreaking surgical work to even more patients in the future.

16. Pedro Cavadas, MD, PhD, Plastic Surgery and Transplant Surgery

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When most people think of transplantation, they typically think of replacing one body part with almost an exact replica. Breaking away from that kind of thinking is exactly what earned Pedro Cavadas (b. 1965) his distinction as one of the world’s most unique and pioneering surgeons. It was Cavadas who first brought attention to something known as “intervention surgery.” This procedure involves using any means necessary to keep a limb or organ alive, or transplant it in a way that is beneficial to the patient but not necessarily identical to their existing human anatomy.

Two examples of this will help clarify exactly what an “intervention” is. Cavadas’ work helped transform a patient’s right hand into a left hand after the right side of that patient’s body became disabled. By transplanting these hands, Cavadas essentially allowed the patient to keep the use of their “good” hand, even though it was technically located in a new position. Cavadas also transplanted a patient’s arm onto their leg in order to keep the arm alive during a surgical procedure. Though unconventional, this saved the arm and made Cavadas one of the most intriguing medical professionals in the world at the time.

17. John R. Adler, Jr., MD, Neurosurgery

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It’s actually not very common for a surgeon to hold a patent, much less 9 patents, but that’s exactly what distinguishes John R. Adler from other innovators in his field. Adler is the inventor of the CyberKnife, a precision tool used for invasive surgeries that has transformed the profession over the course of the past several years. Using imaging, the system can actually ablates tumors and lesions with little surgeon intervention. In addition to this incredible tool, Adler has had more than 180 peer-reviewed chapters and articles published in various books and journals, and has become one of the most published surgeons in the broader profession.

18. Bernard Devauchelle, MD, Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery

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Bernard Devauchelle’s career as a surgeon has been rather remarkable. In addition to years of study as a maxillofacial surgeon at schools throughout France, Devauchelle offered to lead a team of surgeons in 2005 to perform the first full facial transplant in France. The procedure was highly visible, monitored by both French and international news sources for the full extent of its duration. At its conclusion, the procedure was deemed a success both in terms of the face’s functions and aesthetics. The patient remains alive today, and Devauchelle has continued development of his techniques ever since.

19. Paolo Macchiarini, MD, PhD, Thoracic Surgery and Regenerative Medicine

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Macchiarini’s name is another big one associated with the development of regenerative surgeries. In addition to a focus on restoring tissue, he has been centrally concerned with growing new organs and using them in transplant procedures for patients in Spain and the United States. His most notable procedure took place in 2008, when he successfully transplanted a stem cell grown trachea into an adult patient. Two years later, he performed the same procedure on a child for the first time with great success. The next year, Macchiarini made it to the United States to perform a similar procedure.

20. Eric M. Genden, MD, Otolaryngology

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Genden is widely respected as the first surgeon ever to perform a successful jaw transplant. The procedure took place in the United States in 2006 and, in addition to being the first such transplant, was notable for combining a donor’s jaw with the patient’s actual bone marrow. Genden actually had experience in this area, having performed a trachea transplant three years earlier that combined a donor trachea with the recipient’s own tissue.

Genden is a graduate of Columbia University and has spent his time in the profession earning dozens of accolades for his innovative techniques. He continues to be a driving force in the combination of donor organs and patient tissue, mixing the two for a more authentic, successful transplantation overall.

Incredible Work Over Many Decades of Surgery

While most people think of surgery in terms of its limitations or likely outcomes, these 20 surgeons looked at surgery and forced themselves to think in exciting new ways. These divergent thought processes led to things like the first artificial heart transplant, the first stem cell grown transplant, and the first successful transplant procedures for faces, hands, and even joints.

Today, the most innovative surgeons in the world are still hard at work trying to transform the field. Whether they’re the established names mentioned above or newcomers who have yet to be discovered, it’s likely that their work will radically change virtually every surgical procedure over the course of the next generation.