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Following in the Footsteps of the Craniofacial Masters

06/10/2013 05:09 pm ET | Updated Aug 10, 2013
  • Michael Yaremchuk, M.D. Chief of Craniofacial Surgery at MGH as well as operating his private practice at 170 Commonwealth Avenue, Suite 101 Boston, MA

Recently we lost three great visionaries in the field of surgery, with the passing of the plastic surgeons Fernando Ortiz-Monasterio, Daniel Marchac and Joseph Murray. Craniofacial surgery is a sub-specialty in the field of plastic surgery which focuses on severe deformities of the face and skull vault. Fathered by the great innovator Dr. Paul Tessier, the specialty crosses the boundaries of several surgical specialties including plastic, maxillofacial, ophthalmic and neurologic to treat severe soft tissue and skeletal facial deformities. Drs. Ortiz-Monasterio, Marchac and Murray were the vanguard in this field during the last three decades. As thought leaders in plastic surgery, they defined and refined techniques in not only craniofacial but also many other areas of plastic surgery.

In addition to their significant contributions to medicine, all three were Renaissance men -- masters of language, sports and culture, recognized throughout the plastic surgery and scientific community for their intellectual curiosity. A brief look into these extraordinary men and their work in craniofacial surgery follows:

Dr. Fernando Ortiz-Monasterio, Mexico
Known as "el Maestro," Dr. Ortiz-Monasterio dedicated his life to plastic and reconstructive surgery and is known for his ground-breaking advances to repair cleft lip and palate in utero. With a particular focus on impoverished communities across Mexico, his work included providing more than 24,000 children pediatric facial repair and reconstruction in a Mexico City hospital alone. A world traveler and teacher, Ortiz-Monasterio provided craniofacial plastic surgery training throughout the world and received Medals of Honor from several nations, including Australia, Germany and Peru. He was a member of the International Craniofacial Club (which Dr. Marchac was a part of as well) that met regularly since 1972 to exchange ideas on the relatively new (at the time) field of craniofacial reconstruction.

In addition to his surgical accomplishments, Ortiz-Monasterio was an Olympic athlete as a member of the Mexican sailing team. In a Journal of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery article reflecting on his career, "Both Fernando and [his wife] Leonor spoke multiple languages; understood and reveled in the worlds of fine food, wine, art, history, family, and surgery; and were aristocratic in bearing but at the same time down to earth."

Dr. Daniel Marchac, France
Ortiz-Monasterio's close colleague Daniel Marchac was just as versatile a man. A pioneer for his work in craniofacial surgery in infancy, Marchac was awarded with the Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur -- the highest civilian honor in France. A true connector, he was a founding member of the International Craniofacial Club and instrumental in aiding in organizing numerous scientific events. He created fellowships in both Craniofacial Surgery and Aesthetic Surgery, where surgical trainees around the world had the opportunity to learn by his side in Paris and enjoy the city's cultural riches as an added bonus.

Another international traveler and sportsman, he enjoyed sailing as well as skiing. His family heritage was in fine jewelry, and Marchac himself was a skilled jeweler. In a recent edition of Maxillofacial News commemorating the three masters, Marchac is described as: "Behind his soft spoken, quiet demeanor, characteristic smile, and ever-present optimism was a highly competitive, persistent pursuit of quality and excellence."

Dr. Joseph Murray, United States
As I discussed in an earlier blog, Dr. Murray, who is credited with the first living donor kidney transplant, demonstrated how plastic surgeons are so much more than the nip-tuck experts associated with the profession. Best known for his work in transplantation, Murray was also a skilled plastic and reconstructive surgeon, which began with his care for thousands of soldiers disfigured during World War II. His experience included significant advances treating congenital craniofacial deformities, with a particular interest in improving the quality of life for patients who had acquired or were born with these deformities.

In 1990, Murray was lauded with a Nobel Prize for his discoveries in organ transplantation -- an outstanding and well-deserved honor. A standout athlete as well, he excelled in football, ice hockey and baseball.

Dr. Murray once said that a scientist should possess curiosity, imagination, and persistence. Ortiz-Monasterio, Marchac and Murray were plastic surgeons who broadened the scope of their work to understand and improve all the aspects of the human body and its conditions. However, these gifted doctors, ever the innovators, would not have thrived in the increasingly homogenized system of medical training that exists today. As program director for Harvard's Plastic Surgery Training program, I encourage plastic surgery trainees to think beyond the course curricula and take responsibility for looking towards what could be known, vs. what should be known. Aspiring plastic surgeons, and any surgeon for that matter, would do well to look to these craniofacial pioneers for guidance.

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