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John Sawyers, a steady hand in the operating room and as head of Surgical Sciences, dies at 90

Mar. 22, 2016, 12:11 PM

John Sawyers, M.D., whose decades-long career as a surgeon culminated in the chairmanship of the Vanderbilt Section of Surgical Sciences from 1983 to 1995, died Friday, March 18. He was 90.

Dr. Sawyers was known for his surgical skill and his steady manner both in the operating room and the conference room.

“Dr. Sawyers was a friend and a mentor to many, and an exemplar to generations of Vanderbilt students, residents and faculty,” said C. Wright Pinson, MBA, M.D., deputy vice chancellor for Health Affairs and CEO of the Vanderbilt Health System.

“As we recall his skills as a surgeon, his foresight as a leader and his integrity, we recognize the enormous role he played in helping to build a very strong foundation for the Section of Surgical Sciences. He will be missed, but his achievements and influence will continue.”

“John was incredibly supportive as a mentor and a role model,” recalled Daniel Beauchamp, M.D., the current chair of the Section of Surgical Sciences and holder, as was Dr. Sawyers, of the John Clinton Foshee Distinguished Chair in Surgery.

Dr. Sawyers, who at the time of his death was professor of Surgery, Emeritus, was a native of Centerville, Iowa.

In his telling, he came to his profession through the example of his paternal grandfather, who was a surgeon, and through a disinclination for the life of an Iowa farmer. Dr. Sawyers’ family had a farm while he was growing up, and he learned at an early age he was not a fan of hot summers toiling under the prairie sun.

“Farm work is good stimulation for studying hard in school,” he once said.

He graduated from the University of Rochester in 1946—his time there had been interrupted by two years of service in the U.S. Navy—and three years later earned his M.D. from Johns Hopkins.

Dr. Sawyers began an internship at Johns Hopkins Hospital and first met H. William Scott Jr., M.D., associate professor of Surgery at Hopkins.

On the recommendation of Alfred Blalock, M.D., chair of Surgery at Hopkins, Dr. Sawyers began a surgical internship at Vanderbilt, but was drafted back into the Navy for two years during the Korean War. Upon his return, Scott had moved from Hopkins to Vanderbilt as professor and chair of Surgery, and Dr. Sawyers finished his residency in Surgery.

Scott, who was the head of Surgery at Vanderbilt from 1952 until his retirement in 1982 (he died in 1998), put aside his characteristic taciturn nature when it came to Dr. Sawyers.

“John is the salt of the earth,” Scott said in a 1987 interview. “He’s absolutely solid, absolutely reliable, smart as he can be, infinitely honest. He’s the most solid citizen the world has ever produced.”

Dr. Sawyers joined the faculty as instructor in Surgery in 1957, rose to professor of Surgery in 1969, was named vice-chairman of Surgery in 1973, and succeeded Scott as director of the Section of Surgical Sciences in 1983. He retired in 1995.

“His clinical expertise and wisdom were unparalleled and he was one of the experienced ‘go-to’ professors for discussion and advice regarding difficult clinical challenges,” Beauchamp said. “In his unique, quiet way, Dr. Sawyers helped to provide the sound basis from which the Division of Surgical Oncology was built and launched in 1997. Through the generosity of Dr. Sawyers and his family, the Dr. John L. Sawyers Endowed Professorship in Surgery was established, and I was very proud to be the first recipient of that professorship.”

Dr. Sawyers was a national leader in academic surgery, serving many roles in professional organizations, including membership in the American Academy for the Advancement of Science, president of the state chapter of the American College of Surgeons and chairman of the Cancer Committee of the American College of Chest Physicians.

He was active in the Nashville community, serving as president of the Nashville Academy of Medicine, president of the local chapter of the American Cancer Society, and president of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce.

Dr. Sawyers also served as surgeon-in-chief at Metropolitan Nashville General Hospital from 1960 to 1977 and surgeon-in-chief at Saint Thomas Hospital from 1977 to 1982. Residents rotating through those institutions, both Vanderbilt-affiliated training sites in those years, became familiar with the sight of his strikingly blue eyes peering over the top of his surgical mask as he passed on his decades of knowledge of how to care for patients.

Even into his 60s, Dr. Sawyers continued his dedication to his patients, performing 250 to 300 surgeries a year.

Perhaps one of his most memorable cases, however, was a surgery he was always grateful that he was not called on to perform. During President John F. Kennedy’s visit to Nashville in May 1963, the Secret Service asked Dr. Sawyers to be on standby in case the president needed emergency treatment.

“I had a very unexciting time, and that’s what I wanted,” Dr. Sawyers recalled later, noting ruefully that he didn’t actually get to see the president, since he was required to be in the emergency room near a dedicated phone line until he got word that JFK had left the city.

Preceded in death by his wife of 53 years, Julia Sawyers, M.D., a former Vanderbilt anesthesiologist, Dr. Sawyers is survived by their three children, Charles, Al and Julia.

A memorial service will be held at noon on Saturday, April 2 at First Presbyterian Church, 4815 Franklin Road. A visitation will be held before the service from 10 a.m. to noon, and a reception and celebration will be held at the University Club from 5-7 p.m.

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