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Robert M. Goldwyn, M.D.

Slavin, Sumner A. M.D.

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Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery: August 2010 - Volume 126 - Issue 2 - p 698-699
doi: 10.1097/PRS.0b013e3181e504c1
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Dr. Robert Malcolm Goldwyn, professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School and former editor-in-chief of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, died on March 23, 2010, at the age of 79 after 16 years of battling prostate cancer. During the 37 years that I knew him–-I met him during my surgical internship in 1973–-he would be first a mentor, then a colleague and best friend. A true scholar for the ages, his career spanned almost 40 years of clinical practice and teaching students and residents, and a quarter of a century of leadership at the Journal.

Dr. Goldwyn was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, an only child whose father was a neuropsychiatrist. His academic accomplishments would characterize his entire life, through Harvard College, from which he graduated Magna Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa, to Harvard Medical School and surgical training at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital. He trained with world-famous surgeons Dr. Francis Moore, chief of surgery, and Dr. Joseph Murray, chief of plastic surgery and organ transplantation pioneer, who received the Nobel Prize in Physiology in 1991. He continued his training in plastic surgery under Dr. William White at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School.

His values and beliefs were based in a deeply rooted humanism whose philosophy, simply stated, was expressed as “everybody is a somebody.” Dr. Goldwyn emanated warmth, compassion, wisdom, honesty, humor, and understanding as the pillars of who he was. He possessed an integrity and authenticity that was evident in his earliest years as a physician. No wonder then, that after completing only 4 years of surgical training, he would write to one of the greatest humanitarian figures of the twentieth century, Dr. Albert Schweitzer, and ask permission to come to work at Schweitzer's clinic in Lambarené, Gabon, Africa. Upon hearing that Schweitzer had accepted her son for a 2-month stay, Dr. Goldwyn's mother dispatched his father to try to discourage him, but the young Dr. Goldwyn resisted his father's entreaties. Dr. Goldwyn would later learn his father's true feelings: “If you had not gone, I would have thought less of you.”

Imagine the scene in 1960 and Bob's excitement when he arrived in Lambarené after many travel disruptions and was driven to the banks of the Ogowe River, where he was met by a small dugout canoe rowed by a team of lepers. Bob crossed the Ogowe River to the other side, where the renowned Dr. Schweitzer awaited him, Schweitzer in his characteristic sun helmet, white shirt, black bow tie, and chinos. Bob Goldwyn was then 30; Schweitzer was 85. Bob kept a diary (which he published in 2008) of his time with Schweitzer, an experience he called “beyond rubies.”

To some extent, his humanism and wit could exceed a prodigious scholarship of over 10 books, 350 scientific articles, and monthly editorials in PRS that were widely acknowledged as a mandatory “first read” when the Journal arrived. Above all, he preached the honesty of authorship and the protection of those whose work effort, not rank, determined the quality of a publication. As the chief of plastic surgery at the Beth Israel Hospital from 1972 to 1996, Dr. Goldwyn was known for his teaching excellence, fairness, and accessibility to the Harvard medical students who honored him with their highest award, the “Golden Apple.” Sought out by students, residents, and colleagues for his advice and wisdom, he was not only plastic surgery's “man of letters,” as Dr. Joseph McCarthy so well phrased it, but also the specialty's model of ethics and integrity. Indeed, it was no stretch of praise to call him the “Abraham Lincoln” of plastic surgery.

In addition to Bob's extraordinary talent as a writer–-his books and writings have become scientific and literary landmarks–-he was one of plastic surgery's most beloved figures. Elected to the presidency of many of our most important organizations, Bob was respected as much for his sense of humor as his erudition. “A surgeon,” he would say, “is the kind of person who goes to the bathroom in someone's house and does not run the water to muffle the sounds.” When his prostate cancer worsened, he would watch brawny footfall and basketball players on TV and proclaim “I wish I had his prostate.” One time he reported to me, ominously, that his PSA had risen to 6.0. He decided that he would call himself Agent PSA-6, a parody of James Bond and Agent 007, and the British Secret Service MI-6. Sometimes, however, the humor could fade quickly. When he was hospitalized for advanced cancer, he observed that “one looks at things very differently out of the hospital window than one does out of other windows.”

Still, he maintained his love for comedians such as Rodney Dangerfield, Milton Berle, and Jackie Mason; their self-deprecating quasiparanoid humor fit this very humble man perfectly. “I am at an age,” he quipped from some humorist, “when food has taken the place of sex; in fact, I plan to put a mirror over the kitchen table.” Or as Jackie Mason would say, “When I went to a football game, every time the players went into a huddle I thought they were talking about me.”

Bob Goldwyn was my best friend and mentor in life. He was loyal, steadfast, supportive, and honest. In 1989, when I had been in practice for about 7 years, I planned to go to Peshawar, Pakistan, with Dr. Goldwyn and Dr. Francis Wolfort as part of a program called Doctors for Afghanistan. Our intention was to help the Afghan war-wounded at makeshift hospitals set up at the Afghani-Pakistan border. One night Dr. Goldwyn called me before the trip and said, “Sumner, you are not going with us to Pakistan.” I was disappointed and very surprised by his comment. When I asked why, he replied, “because you are the father of three children, ages 7, 5, and 3. If something happens to you, they will suffer immeasurably.” I did not go, missing what has been described as a momentous plastic surgical experience capped off by a banquet in honor of the departing plastic surgeons that was attended by none other than Osama Bin Laden, who had not yet evolved into our mortal enemy.

Dr. Goldwyn offered me my first job in plastic surgery after I finished my training at N.Y.U. Shortly after my return, he said to me, “Sumner, we have to run around in black pajamas–-just like the Viet Cong did–-and get things done around here.” There were no Viet Cong at the Beth Israel Hospital in those years, and worse yet, I didn't even own any pajamas, let alone black ones.

In 1994, he endured, along with his daughters Linda and Laura, the enormous tragedy of the death of his wife, Roberta, in a car accident while she was visiting her father in Florida. Almost simultaneously, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer and advised to have a radical prostatectomy, which he did, and consequently missed out on the celebrations in St. Louis of his presidency of the American Association of Plastic Surgeons. His credo was “We shall go on,” and indeed those were the last words that he spoke to me before he passed away. When my wife died 3 years ago of cancer, he wrote me a letter that concluded like this: “And always remember, we shall be with you every step of the way,” and he was true to his word.

It is a great challenge to conclude an obituary about a person of such vastness of spirit, personality, and knowledge. He enjoyed 9 years of true retirement from his clinical practice, noting with some irony that he was 70½ at retirement and Joe DiMaggio had retired at 35. He was fond of saying “You will run out of time before money.” Observing that he was home so much during retirement, he sympathized with the plight of his ever-supportive wife, Tanya. He joked, “It is difficult for a wife. Retirement is twice as much husband on half as much income.”

In the end, he was left us with so many riches–-a love of loving, a love of learning, and a love of books. As tradition goes, presidents give out pens, baseball players give out autographs; Dr. Goldwyn loved to give out copies of his books from a large, time-worn, black briefcase almost the size of a suitcase.

Now, he has crossed the Ogowe one final time. “Live with your century, but never be its creature.” He was never its creature, always its hero.

“The legacy of a hero,“ Benjamin D'Israeli, prime minister of Great Britain, said over 100 years ago, ”is the memory of a great name and the inheritance of a great example.”

Thank you, Bob, for giving us both.

©2010American Society of Plastic Surgeons