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Eminent surgeon honored with Jefferson Award for commitment, service

It seems that George Sheldon was destined for a lifetime of healing.

The internationally renowned Zack D. Owens Distinguished Professor of Surgery and former chair of Carolina’s Department of Surgery embarked on this path as a schoolboy in Salina, Kan.

Sheldon

There, during World War II, he began helping out in the hospital operating room where there was an acute shortage of medical personnel, and continued to work at the hospital throughout high school in addition to being a three-sport athlete.

Sheldon entered the University of Kansas with more experience and drive than most first-year students. It was there that he not only excelled academically, but also demonstrated a propensity for service and leadership.

In addition to being student body president his sophomore year, he taught a required western civilization course for the next three years while taking a full load of pre-med courses.

In his first year of medical school at Kansas, Sheldon co-authored an article on the life of “the father of American surgery” Philip Syng Physick for the June 1960 issue of “The Journal of Medical Education.”

He then co-authored the book “The Doctor, 1861–1961, A Pictorial History of Kansas Medicine” and still managed to earn the school’s L.L. Marcell Award for Highest Academic Standing in Medicine.

After finishing medical school, Sheldon completed post-graduate work as a fellow in internal medicine at the Mayo Clinic, then as a resident in surgery at the University of California-San Francisco (UCSF), followed by a fellowship in surgical biology at Harvard Medical School and funded by the National Heart Institute.

He returned to UCSF to serve as professor of surgery and chief of the trauma service before coming to Chapel Hill in 1984, where he was surgery chair for the next 17 years.

Undoubtedly, this distinguished background shaped Sheldon’s career. But it is the application of his knowledge and skill in touching the lives of so many people – students and patients alike – that led the peers of this longtime faculty member to honor him with the prestigious 2011 Thomas Jefferson Award. Chancellor Holden Thorp will present the award at the Sept. 16 Faculty Council meeting.

The annual Jefferson Award was created in 1961 by the Robert Earl McConnell Foundation to recognize a Carolina faculty member who, through personal influence and performance of duty in teaching, writing and scholarship, has best exemplified the ideals and objectives of Thomas Jefferson. UNC faculty members nominate candidates for the honor, which carries a cash prize. A faculty committee chooses the recipient.

“Dr. Sheldon’s career has been particularly unique in its record of national leadership. He is one of fewer than 20 surgeons in the last 100 years to have held the post of president or chair of every major surgical organization in the United States,” Anthony Meyer, Colin G. Thomas Jr. MD Distinguished Professor and chair of surgery, said in nominating Sheldon.

These posts include serving as chair of the American Board of Surgery and president of the American College of Surgeons (the N.C. chapter named him an honored surgeon in 2001). He also founded the college’s Health Policy Institute with the Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Policy Research.

Sheldon was president of the American Surgical Association, the Society of Surgical Chairs and the American Association for the Surgery of Trauma, and he was the first surgeon who was not a dean to chair the Association of American Medical Colleges since 1879.

His tenure as chair of UNC’s surgery department saw substantial faculty growth and program expansion, including the evolution from a small kidney transplant program to the only transplant program in the Southeast for all organs in people of all ages.

He established a popular medical school course on the history of medicine in the United States and published the first biography of Hugh Williamson (see go.unc.edu/Nc64G).

A strong advocate for the AHEC (Area Health Education Centers) program, Sheldon left his imprint on AHEC through the development of trauma systems, database registries and medical education and outreach opportunities, Meyer said.

He is among an elite group – one of fewer than 20 UNC faculty members elected to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Science. Internationally, Sheldon is an honorary member of learned societies in Great Britain, Scotland, Japan, Hong Kong, British Columbia, Thailand and Colombia. He also was one of the first honorary fellows of the Society of Black Academic Surgeons.

“The special recognitions awarded thus far to Dr. Sheldon could fill albums,” Meyer said. “But most importantly, they speak to the remarkable eminence he has earned over a lifetime of unusually devoted hard work and tireless, energetic commitment to the academy.

“His achievements and repute in the fields of education, health policy, surgery, workforce planning and management, national service and scholarship are eclipsed only by his love for his family, his patients and students of all ages.”

Sheldon’s family includes his wife of 53 years, Ruth, and three daughters: Anne, a secondary school teacher; Elizabeth, an education specialist in California; and Julia, a doctor of veterinary medicine.

Throughout his career, Sheldon has tirelessly promoted individuals who deserved recognition, whatever their fields of study and wherever they worked, Meyer said.

“He demonstrates Jeffersonian scope, ranging in his contacts and knowledge from the humanities to demography, and from German politics to occupational sociology and human rights,” he said. “Dr. Sheldon’s Jeffersonian attributes reach well beyond his career achievements.”

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INSIDE THE PRINT EDITION:
September 14, 2011

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