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Stephen J. Mathes, M.D., 1943 to 2007

Nahai, Foad M.D.

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Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery: January 2008 - Volume 121 - Issue 1 - p 362-364
doi: 10.1097/01.prs.0000303441.87235.6d
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I met Steve Mathes 35 years ago on the trauma service at Grady Memorial Hospital, in Atlanta, Georgia. We had both joined the Emory University general surgery program as second-year residents under the direction of W. Dean Warren. We immediately became friends, friends for life. We were confidants, collaborators, colleagues, and part of each other’s families. It was a lifetime friendship now sadly cut short.

Steve was a remarkable individual. He was friendly and outgoing. He loved to talk and could discuss anything. He was athletic, competitive, tireless, and driven. Always ready to see the fun in life, Steve had a wonderful, infectious sense of humor. He was also a compassionate physician with a caring bedside manner, as well as a confident, skilled surgeon.

For years, Steve drove a red Camaro convertible; he loved to have the top down. With his hair blowing in the wind, he exuded an air of confidence and vitality and a love of life. From the start, I knew he was “most likely to succeed,” and indeed he did.

Stephen Mathes was born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana, a southern gentleman through and through. He received his bachelor’s of science degree from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge in 1964 and his medical degree from the Louisiana State University Medical School in New Orleans. He served his internship and first year of general surgery residency at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. In 1970, when called upon by the Army, he asked to be stationed at Ft. Polk, Louisiana. A major in the U.S. Medical Corps, he served as assistant chief of surgery. During his 2 years of service at Ft. Polk, he treated soldiers injured in the Viet Nam conflict. This experience stimulated his interest in reconstructive surgery and his commitment to serving the injured and to restoring form and function. Steve’s passion for reconstructive surgery was the springboard for an illustrious career filled with countless contributions to plastic surgery, numerous honors and achievements, and ongoing service to his fellow men and women.

Stephen J. Mathes, M.D., 1943 to 2007.

At Emory University, Steve completed his general surgery training in 1975 and continued as a plastic surgery resident under Maurice J. Jurkiewicz, completing his training in 1977. As a resident at Emory, his love of teaching was evident. He was a gifted educator, taking advantage of every opportunity to teach the medical students, general surgery and plastic surgery residents, and even his attendings.

Steve was always seeking solutions to problems. He had an inquisitive mind and a talent for research. As a resident, he set up a laboratory at the Veterans Affairs Hospital to investigate the blood supply of muscle flaps and to explore the emerging field of microsurgical tissue transplantation. That he was able to pursue research, teach, write and present papers, take call, provide excellent care to his patients, and still be an involved father to his three young sons was truly amazing. He excelled in everything he did and without question was one of the finest surgeons ever to go through the Emory program.

It came as no surprise that he chose a career in academic plastic surgery. He left Emory in the summer of 1977 for Washington University in St. Louis. It was during his brief tenure there that he and I wrote our first book together, Clinical Atlas of Muscle and Musculocutaneous Flaps. The dissections for that book were performed late in the night in the anatomy laboratories of Washington University following a full day in the operating room, and we returned to the clinics and operating rooms the next day with little, if any, sleep. His energy and enthusiasm were not only admirable but also enviable and infectious!

In 1978, he left St. Louis to join his good friend and mentor Luis Vasconez, who had been appointed chief of plastic surgery at University of California in San Francisco. Thus began Steve’s long, distinguished career as surgeon, teacher, researcher, and leader at University of California, San Francisco. His 26 years there were interrupted briefly in 1984 when he left California for Ann Arbor, Michigan, to become chief of the Section of Plastic Surgery at the University of Michigan. Although he had an immediate effect on the program at Michigan, his stay there was rather short. In 1985, he returned to the University of California, San Francisco as chief of the Division of Plastic Surgery.

By the time he became chief in 1985, Steve had already contributed more than most do in a lifetime. However, it was his 20 years as chief at the University of California, San Francisco that were the most productive of his career. He trained 62 residents, serving as an outstanding mentor, role model, and friend. One of his trainees was my own son, Farzad Nahai. It is a tribute to Steve’s legacy that one in four of his residents have academic positions today, and all have contributed to the plastic surgery literature. Steve inspired and guided many bright medical students and surgical residents to follow him in research and into our field. His son David was one of those young people so motivated.

At the University of California, San Francisco, Steve established a research laboratory to investigate all aspects of wound healing. His landmark research on muscle flaps helped to identify the mechanisms that enabled these flaps to handle infected wounds. He supervised 42 research fellows from around the world. He and his laboratory were the recipients of numerous grants from the National Institutes of Health and also received support from our plastic surgery societies, including the Plastic Surgery Educational Foundation. His tradition of doing research and writing well into the early hours after a full day at work continued throughout his life.

Steve was a bridge builder. He reached out to the entire local plastic surgery community. In return, he received their enthusiastic support for his program at University of California, San Francisco. They welcomed his residents into their practices and expressed pride in having him as chair of the local plastic surgery program. Steve always appreciated this vote of confidence and truly enjoyed his interactions with the local surgical colleagues. They were all close friends. He set an example and a precedent for how “town-gown” relationships should be handled.

Steve was a prolific writer, with 233 peer-reviewed papers and chapters to his credit, not to mention four books. On three of these I had the pleasure of collaborating with him. Steve loved writing and had a unique talent for putting together books that were bestsellers. His final effort, the second edition of the eight-volume Plastic Surgery, is a tribute to his perseverance. He personally read and edited each and every chapter and sent them back for revision, my own included, until they met his exacting standards. His high standards and emphasis on quality never changed. He took no shortcuts and was never satisfied with anything less than first class.

Steve’s many accomplishments in research and clinical excellence were recognized and rewarded throughout his career. He was an early achiever. As a resident, he won the Resident Best Paper Award of the Southeastern Society of Plastic Surgeons in 1976 and the James Barrett Brown Award for Best Journal Paper in 1982. He received six first prize awards in the Plastic Surgery Educational Foundation essay contest (basic science category) between 1981 and 1999. He won the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery Tiffany Award for Best Paper Presentation in 1981. The American Medical Writers Association honored us with the Best Book Award (physician category) for our book Clinical Applications for Muscle and Musculocutaneous Flaps. The American Association of Plastic Surgeons honored him with the Clinician of the Year Award in 2005 and the prestigious Distinguished Fellow Award in 2007. The American Society of Plastic Surgeons in 2005 honored him with the Special Achievement Award.

Steve traveled extensively to teach others at home and abroad. He was an Educational Foundation visiting professor and also belonged to many local, national, and international societies. He was chairman of the Plastic Surgery Research Council in 1988; served as president of the Educational Foundation in 2002; and participated as chair and faculty in countless Educational Foundation symposia and teaching courses. He served on the board of trustees of the American Association of Plastic Surgeons and for 3 years as their secretary. He was a director of the American Board of Plastic Surgery, past-president of the Association of Academic Chairmen in Plastic Surgery, and chair of the Residency Review Committee.

Despite these many accomplishments and commitments, Steve always found time for his friends and his athletic pursuits. He was not “all work and no play”; he loved to have a good time. An accomplished athlete, he was a competitive tennis player. He had played on the Louisiana State University tennis team while in college and had coached tennis at a summer boy’s camp in Maine during college and medical school. I recall with pride and love how he took me to visit the camp on a family vacation in July of 1975, after we had both completed our general surgery residencies. Many of us have fond memories of playing tennis with him. I was never able to beat him, and he had great fun making me run from side to side while he just stood in one spot. When we played doubles, I would always try to be his partner, not his opponent.

Steve was a kind, caring, giving friend–-always there, always attentive, always interested in his friends and their families. He enjoyed having a good time and did so with friends all over the world. Not only did he like to joke and to play practical jokes on his friends, he was also a good sport and always took it well when the tables turned and he was the object of a practical joke.

As a host, he very much enjoyed the constant stream of visitors, especially those from abroad. He not only shared his knowledge with them but always extended southern hospitality, making them feel welcome.

Although Steve had many admirable qualities, punctuality was not one of them. It was rare that he arrived on time, regardless of the occasion. No matter how late he was, once he arrived with his typical rapid gait, hair and coat swaying, tie twisted, with a warm, disarming smile, he was almost always immediately forgiven. He regularly missed flights, and I recall a couple of times when he was responsible for my missed flights. When it happened, he would turn on the charm, smile, and say, “Let’s sit and talk, have a drink, write another chapter, and I will wait with you till you catch the next flight!”

Though he remained true to his southern roots, Steve loved everything about California and he thrived there. He immersed himself in all that Northern California had to offer. He greatly enjoyed the wine country and became very familiar with many of the vineyards and their owners. He loved California wines and took great joy in sharing them with his friends. Each time we visited him in San Francisco, he would surprise us with a new find for us to try.

He is survived by his three sons, David, Brian, and Ned; two granddaughters, Zoe and Nora (with a third grandchild on the way); and his wife, Mary McGrath, the love of his life, with whom he traveled the world and shared professional and personal successes. He was blessed to have Mary in his life; her love for him and her character and strength came shining through during his illness. Plastic surgery has lost a shining star, a giant, a visionary. Sadly, I have lost one of my best friends. He will be sorely missed.


A memorial service will be held on Thursday, January 24, 2008, at 4:00 p.m. in Toland Hall at University of California, San Francisco’s Parnassus Heights Campus, with a reception to follow. The family requests that all donations in memory of Dr. Mathes be made to the Stephen J. Mathes Endowed Chair Fund at UCSF Foundation, P.O. Box 45339, San Francisco, Calif. 94145-0339. This fund will be the first endowment within the Division of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery and will truly recognize a leader in the field.

©2008American Society of Plastic Surgeons