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Max Aebi, MD: 2016 ISSLS Lifetime Achievement Award

Gunzburg, Robert, MD, PhD

doi: 10.1097/BRS.0000000000001572

Emory University School of Medicine, VAMC Atlanta, Atlanta, Georgia.

Address correspondence and reprint requests to Robert Gunzburg, MD, PhD, Cavell Spine Centre, Cavell Clinic, Brussels, 1180, Belgium. E-mail:

Dr Max Aebi, a Swiss-Canadian double-citizen, graduated from the Faculty of Medicine, University of Bern, and received his Dr. med. with a thesis on brain abscesses.

He was board certified in general surgery in 1980 and in orthopedic surgery in 1982. After an additional training in neurosurgery, he decided to dedicate his professional career to spine surgery, although he continued in parallel to practice orthopedic trauma and musculoskeletal tumor surgery. As a preparation for his spine and tumor surgery expertise, he spent one year as a visiting fellow, funded by the Swiss National Foundation for Scientific Research, in Edinburgh with M. McMaster, at the Twin Cities Scoliosis Center under D. Bradford, in Boston with J. Hall and H. Mankin, in Wilmington with D. McEwen, in Cleveland with H. Bohlman and finally in Toronto with J. Kostuik.

Back at the University of Bern, Switzerland, he had the opportunity to build the first academic spine unit in the country, from where he was invited in 1991 to the Chair of Orthopedic Surgery at McGill University in Montreal, and also became Orthopedic Surgeon-in-chief of the McGill University Health Center.

Max Aebi's achievements are in several different areas and he initiated distinct visionary projects:

  1. Clinical leadership: Serving almost three terms in Montreal, he was instrumental in merging several hospital services to one major compact orthopedic department with strong specialty divisions and a staff of around 40 residents and fellows. From Canada, he was invited back to the University of Bern to take on the endowed Maurice E. Mueller Chair for Orthopedic Surgery. There he received the mandate to establish together with L. Nolte the MEM Center for Orthopedic Research under the motto “from the bench (basic science) to the bedside (clinical science) and beyond (outcome research).” However, before taking on this challenge, Max Aebi applied for and passed the admission test to the INSEAD Business School in Fontainebleau near Paris where he participated in the Advanced Management Program together with leaders in the world economy. In parallel with his university and research leadership, he established together with former fellows and colleagues a new orthopedic department at a leading private hospital group in Switzerland, where he still practices spinal surgery.
  2. Scientific and scholarly activities: Already as a resident, he was awarded a major research grant from the Swiss National Foundation for Scientific Research. This led to an experimental PhD thesis about allogenic bone transplantation. For this work, he received the SICOT Award in 1984. While building up the spine unit at the University of Bern, he created his own research group focusing on disc degeneration on one side and biomechanical testing and development of new implants on the other. After moving to McGill, Max Aebi had the opportunity to pursue this research by building yet another team of scientists and research fellows. He founded the McGill Orthopedic Research Laboratory, with a focus on disc research and perfusion models. In this research laboratory, the group was able to establish, together with Transplant Québec, one of the largest cadaver spine banks, with preserved spines from the newborn to the elderly. This facilitated extensive biomechanical, biochemical as well as imaging research. He joined forces with the world renowned research group under R. Poole from the Shriners Hospital in Montreal as well as the functional magnetic resonance imaging group of Penfield Institute at McGill University. Several awards crowned the work emerging from this whole team, including two ISSLS Volvo Awards. In addition to the newly formed McGill Orthopedic Research Laboratory, the Miller Laboratory—endowed by J. Miller, a pioneer in arthroplasty surgery—was also under Max Aebi's chair and there too several prize-winning papers were produced.
  3. Once back in Switzerland, Max Aebi took care of the outcome research at the MEM Research Center for Orthopedic Research. There, under his leadership, an enthusiastic young interdisciplinary team of epidemiologists, IT-specialists, statisticians as well as orthopedic surgeons built a web platform with more than 20 registries, among them the Spine Tango. Spine Tango was created together by M. Aebi and D. Grob in collaboration with the Spine Society of Europe. Over a span of 25 years, many young colleagues, now spread across the globe, began their academic careers inspired by Max Aebi's research activities.
    In recognition of his effort to establish basic science as an integral part of orthopedic residency programs and fellowships, Max Aebi was elected President of the Orthopedic Research Society of Canada and at the McGill University Health Center he became responsible for the so-called “Musculoskeletal Axis,” an interdisciplinary research conglomerate of all disciplines involved in musculoskeletal medicine and surgery.
    For his life-long commitment in research and research stimulation of young colleagues, Max Aebi has been invited as a member of the European Academy of Science.
  4. Editor activities, teaching, and learning: Max Aebi founded in 1991, together with S. Nazarian from Marseille, the European Spine Journal, which has grown significantly over the 23 years during which he was Editor-in-Chief. The European Spine Journal belongs today, together with Spine and The Spine Journal, to the three top spine specialist journals worldwide.
  5. He continues to work as a Deputy Editor of European Spine Journal for web-based learning and publishing. Currently, he is developing a European postgraduate education program for spine specialists with an online lecture program, live education events with experienced teachers, an online anatomic access courses for spine surgeons as well as a clinical skill assessment online system. The creation of this program is the result of a life-long effort to improve education for young spine surgeons as well as continuing education for established spine surgeons. Indeed, he started this early in his career, when building with J. Webb and others the spine section within the AO-Foundation, which later became AO Spine. In this AO group, he developed worldwide standardized case-based teaching programs with practical exercises with many spine pioneers in the early 80s and 90s. He also fostered training in the operating theater with constant improvement of learning technologies such as the so-called Open Operating Theater (OOT), an integral part of the European Spine Journal. He also pioneered with colleagues and experts the European Spine Education Week, an endeavor of the Eurospine Foundation when he was its president, in cooperation with the Spine Society of Europe. This initiative goes back to his presidency of EuroSpine - The Spine Society of Europe in 2005.
  6. Surgical techniques and technology: Under the influence of his early teachers Prof. M. Allgöwer and M.E. Mueller, Max Aebi was confronted early in his career with the concept of internal fixation in the musculoskeletal system. He recognized the enormous potential for the development of adequate instrumentation and technology for better spinal surgery concepts. He has participated by giving his ideas leading to the development of many patents in spinal surgery, the profit of which went entirely to the AO Foundation in form of royalties. Already in 1993, he developed basic concepts of minimal-invasive surgery through specialized retractors as well as optical systems with his group at McGill. For this work, as a young surgeon, Max Aebi was granted the AO Innovation Award for the development of the Universal Spine System. Later on, in 2013, he was honored with the AO Lifetime Achievement Award.
  7. Humanitarian work: In 1972, toward the end of his medical training, Max Aebi spent time as an intern in a regional hospital in Tunisia and later as a resident in Ethiopia, both at the University Hospital in Addis Abeba and in a field hospital in the Danakil desert. This experience marked him with fundamental clinical instinct for the rest of his medical career. Max Aebi still spends several weeks a year as a practicing surgeon in less favored areas such as Pakistan and Armenia. When there, he takes the opportunity to teach young colleagues and allows them to operate on complex spine patients with him. He helped build the first national spine department at the National Armed Forces Medical School in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, after having been involved in the rescue organization of paralyzed spine patients victim of the fatal 2006 earthquake. For this commitment, he was awarded an honorary professorship at the Armed Forces Medical School of Pakistan and became a member of the Pakistani National Academy of Medical Science. Several times a year, he travels to Armenia, operating exclusively on deformities in children at the Pediatric Hospital in Yerevan. The high proportion of this deformity in the population led him to initiate a field study about the etiology of congenital scoliosis.
  8. Max Aebi has authored or coauthored more than 250 articles, reviews, book chapters, and editorials. He has been awarded over 50 invited professorships all over the world, honorary memberships of learned societies and a doctorates honoris causa, as well as scientific awards together with his fellows and coworkers.
    Max Aebi insists that his work has only been possible due to the support, collaboration, and enthusiasm of many colleagues and friends. Only with all these people in different parts of the world, he has been able to achieve his remarkable career in many different areas and he feels highly indebted toward them.
  9. Max, the private man: In 1975, Max married Christine who is both a pediatrician specialized in endocrinology and a full-fledged artist exhibiting her works all over the globe. They have two children, Sam born in ’80 and Eva born in ’82. Max is the proud grandfather of four children. Besides medicine, Max has a wide array of hobbies and interests: he is a nautical person, and travels the canals of Europe on his boat, he sculpts, and sings in a choir. He loves nature and history and has an impressive collection of African masks.
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