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Obituary: Dr. Henry Bahnson / Performed first heart transplant in Pennsylvania

Saturday, January 11, 2003

By Anita Srikameswaran, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Dr. Henry "Hank" Theodore Bahnson, who in 1968 performed Pennsylvania's first heart transplant, died early yesterday at his Fox Chapel home.

Dr. Bahnson suffered a stroke Dec. 28 and was hospitalized at UPMC Presbysterian. When it became clear that there was no treatment to aid him, he was sent home to be with his family. He was 82.

Dr. Bahnson headed the surgery department at the University of Pittsburgh's medical school from 1963 to 1987, making his the longest chairmanship in the school's 116-year history.

"He was the very soul of our institution and one of this country's most important medical leaders," said Dr. Arthur S. Levine, senior vice chancellor and dean of the university's medical school. "Without Hank, this school never would have achieved its current international stature."

Dr. Bahnson was highly respected and attracted great talent to the university.

Dr. Thomas Starzl, who has made organ transplantation an almost routine procedure, said Dr. Bahnson was the reason he came to Pittsburgh in 1981. The two met in 1952 when Starzl began training with Dr. Bahnson at Johns Hopkins University.

"He was the best surgeon there, maybe the best surgeon they had ever produced," Starzl said. "He was a great hero then, just like always."

Under Dr. Bahnson's guidance, Pitt's surgery department grew from a few doctors to one of the largest in the nation, said cardiothoracic surgeon Dr. Bartley Griffith, chairman of cardiac services at the Univerity of Maryland. Griffith began his internship at Pitt in 1974 and learned to do surgery with Dr. Bahnson before becoming his colleague at the Pittsburgh medical center.

"When I trained under him, he seemed huge," Griffith recalled. "I've got this wonderful picture of him outside the scrub sink where he was all sinewy and veiny and muscular. He was a force in the operating room."

Alfred Blalock "Blay" Bahnson, of Ross, watched his father perform the state's first heart transplant from an observation area. He remembers his father taking the donor heart out of an ice bath and placing it in recipient Ben Anolik's chest, commenting about how cold the organ felt.

The patient died 14 months later from an infection, and at the time was the third-longest-lived heart transplant recipient. Dr. Bahnson stopped doing the operation until Starzl came to Pittsburgh with the antirejection drug cyclosporin, which greatly improved transplant survival rates.

Still, "he was a risk-taker," Blay Bahnson said of his father. "Climbing mountains was evidence of that." Dr. Bahnson had climbed Mount Everest, Mount McKinley and Nanga Parbat. He also excelled at skiing and sailing, which he would do during summers in Cape Cod in all kinds of weather.

"He worked hard at everything he did, including having fun," his son said.

Reflecting his various interests, Dr. Bahnson invented and patented the Bahnson Overblow Harmonica, which has a slide mechanism to allow novice players to sound notes that only highly skilled musicians can get from conventional instruments.

He also raised bees, maintained a small apple orchard and brought home experimental animals, such as goats and sheep, to care for.

Bahnson said his father seemed a bit uncomfortable in formal social situations, preferring "to be out on the tractor, splitting logs, climbing mountains."

Griffith knows what it's like to be a nervous, anxious-to-please young surgeon traveling with Dr. Bahnson to distant conferences.

"You could go the whole way from the [plane] terminal in Pittsburgh to Los Angeles and not say a word," he remembered. "You'd be 6 inches apart. It's just the way he was."

Dr. Bahnson was born on Nov. 15, 1920, in Winston-Salem, N.C. He was an All-State offensive lineman at Davidson College in Davidson, N.C., where he graduated summa cum laude in 1941.

He graduated cum laude from Harvard Medical School in 1944 and then completed an internship at Johns Hopkins Hospital. After serving for a year in the Navy Reserves in the Philippines, Dr. Bahnson returned to the Baltimore hospital to complete his surgical training in 1951.

While at Hopkins, he developed and performed the first operation to repair aneurysms of the aorta where it arched out of the heart. He would go on to create other important surgical techniques.

"Dr. Bahnson was a marvellous technician ... ," Griffith said. "He had these very knobby hands, big knuckles. He looked more like a mechanic. But boy, he could make the hands work."

He remained a professor at Pitt until his death.

Besides his son Blay, Dr. Bahnson is survived by another son, Dr. David Bahnson, of Mendon, Vt.; two daughters, Suzanne Bahnson Kahley of Fox Chapel and Barbara Bahnson of Indiana Township; and six grandchildren. His wife, Louise, and his eldest son, Ted, preceded him in death.

The family will receive friends from 2 to 5 p.m. today and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. tomorrow at 612 Dorseyville Road, Fox Chapel. A memorial service will be held at a later date in Heinz Chapel on the Pitt campus.

Anita Srikameswaran can be reached at anitas@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3858.

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