Longtime Neurological Surgery chair Allen mournedDec. 11, 2019, 3:33 PM
by Wayne Wood
George Allen, MD, PhD, an innovative surgeon who served for more than 25 years as chair of the Department of Neurological Surgery at Vanderbilt, died Dec. 7. He was 77.
“There was only one George Allen,” said Reid Thompson, MD, who succeeded Allen as William F. Meacham Professor of Neurological Surgery and chair of the department in 2010. “He was sharp, observant, creative and inventive. He was a tough taskmaster — with a heart of gold. His patients adored him, and he taught us — his faculty and residents — to treat patients as if they were family.”
Dr. Allen was a native of St. Louis who studied medicine at Washington University, earning an MD in 1967. After an internship at Duke University and a stint in the Laboratory of Neurochemistry at the National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke, he completed a residency in neurosurgery at the University of Minnesota, and also earned a PhD there in 1975.
He joined the faculty at The Johns Hopkins University, rising to professor of Neurological Surgery, and it was from Hopkins that he came to Vanderbilt as professor and chair of Neurological Surgery in 1984. Dr. Allen’s wife, Shannon Hersey, MD, is associate professor of Clinical Anesthesiology at Vanderbilt.
During his 25-year tenure as chair, Dr. Allen added 13 full-time faculty, 14 residents and four post-doctoral researchers. He also oversaw the creation of five subspecialty programs and graduated 45 residents during his tenure.
Dr. Allen was known as a generous mentor and an exacting teacher. Every resident leaving the program had to pass the “Katie test.”
“I asked myself if my daughter Katie were to ever need a neurosurgeon, would I recommend one of my residents to do it. If I wouldn’t let a resident take care of my daughter, I wouldn’t let him graduate,” Dr. Allen explained in a 2009 interview.
Dr. Allen was a national leader in Neurosurgery with memberships and offices in major professional organizations and was also a sought-after invited speaker.
In addition to his clinical practice of surgery, Dr. Allen was an active researcher. He actively supported and initiated many advancements in both clinical surgery and basic research in the neurosciences. He oversaw the development of a drug, Nimodipine, which reduces the risk of stroke after aneurysm surgery.
In 1986, Allen led the team that performed an innovative surgical procedure on several patients in which adrenal gland cells were transferred to the brain for the treatment of severe Parkinson’s disease. While that surgery has been superseded by other treatment, at the time the new procedure helped some patients and offered hope, and Allen was prominently featured in national news outlets discussing the surgery.
Dr. Allen again made national news in 1993 when Pauline Gore, mother of then-vice president Al Gore Jr., suffered a stroke and was brought to Vanderbilt for treatment. Dr. Allen was her physician and participated in news conferences to brief reporters on her progress. It was during Mrs. Gore’s hospitalization that President Bill Clinton and Vice President Gore came to Vanderbilt to visit her, marking the only time that a president and vice president have visited the Medical Center together.
Friends and family knew of his varied interests outside medicine, including antique maps, early American furniture, antique porcelain, golf, and poetry.
“Second only to the love of his family, he loved and was deeply devoted to the Vanderbilt Department of Neurosurgery,” Thompson said. “He wanted nothing more than to see the department flourish. And he took immense pride in having set it in motion.”
Dr. Allen was preceded in death by his parents, Mitchell and Cleo, and his sister, Elizabeth. He is survived by his wife of 37 years, Shannon, his daughters Katie (Kevin), Jennifer (Christopher), and Elizabeth, and his brother, Robert (Nancy), in addition to seven nieces and nephews, three great nieces, one great nephew and two grandsons.
A celebration of life will be held at Belle Meade Country Club on Sunday, Jan. 5, 2020, from 4-6 p.m. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Dr. George Allen Neurosurgical Training Fund, Vanderbilt University Medical Center, 3322 West End Ave, Suite 900, Attn: Chris Collins, Nashville, TN 37203.