September 14, 2020

Former Cardiac and Thoracic Surgery leader Bender mourned

Harvey W. Bender, MD, professor of Cardiac and Thoracic Surgery, Emeritus, died Sept. 12. He was 86.

Harvey W. Bender Jr., MD, professor of Cardiac and Thoracic Surgery, Emeritus, died Sept. 12. He was 86.

Harvey W. Bender, MD

Dr. Bender was head of Cardiac and Thoracic Surgery at Vanderbilt for more than a quarter century, from 1971 to 1997 — first as division chief, and then, in 1975, as chair of the newly formed Department of Cardiac and Thoracic Surgery.

“Dr. Bender was a pivotal figure in the growth and development of Thoracic Surgery at Vanderbilt,” said Walter Merrill, MD, professor of Cardiac Surgery, who worked alongside Dr. Bender for many years. “He would frequently say that he was recruited here about the time that Dr. Gottlieb Friesinger and Dr. Thomas Graham were brought on board to help them lead in the evolution of cardiac care at Vanderbilt.

“He was particularly instrumental in the increased activity in children’s heart surgery and in the development of the heart and lung transplantation programs. He played a very important role in the education of both general and thoracic surgical residents at Vanderbilt. One of his key teachings was that the individual surgeon, whether that surgeon was an attending or resident physician, was totally responsible for every aspect of a given patient’s care, including results that were less than optimal.”

Dr. Bender was a native of Corpus Christi, Texas, and grew up in Humble, Texas, a small town near Houston. His original career ambition was to become a veterinarian, and, toward that end, he began classes at Texas A&M’s School of Veterinary Medicine.

As he told the story later in an interview that is part of the “History of Cardiac Surgery” series housed at the Annette and Irwin Eskind Biomedical Library, while on a break from school he attended a funeral in a nearby town. As he was driving back home, he passed the Baylor College of Medicine, and, since he already had on a suit, he made an impulsive decision.

“I’ll just stop in there and see what it takes to become a doctor.”

As it happened, a couple of members of the school’s admissions committee were around that day and spent some time talking with the well-dressed young man who had come calling.

Some days later a letter arrived, informing him he had been accepted into the next year’s class, and requesting the payment of a $50 admission fee.

So, Dr. Bender switched from animal medicine to human medicine, and in 1959 received his medical degree with high honors from Baylor University College of Medicine. He then was recruited to enter the surgical residency at the Johns Hopkins Hospital that was administered by Alfred Blalock, MD, who several years earlier had moved from a faculty position at Vanderbilt to Hopkins.

In addition, Dr. Bender spent two years as a clinical associate at the National Heart and Lung Institute of the National Institutes of Health. After completing his training in general and cardiothoracic surgery he was invited to stay on the faculty at Johns Hopkins and was serving on the faculty of Hopkins when he was recruited to Vanderbilt in 1971.

During his 25 years of leadership in Cardiac and Thoracic Surgery at Vanderbilt, Dr. Bender led the program to national and international prominence. He initiated the department’s residency training program and was a pivotal figure in the growth and development of all aspects of the institution’s general and thoracic surgical programs, including the establishment of the Cardiothoracic Surgery Training Program. He also oversaw the creation of Vanderbilt’s heart and lung transplantation programs, and he pioneered the development and application of corrective surgery for congenital heart disease in infancy.

“Dr. Bender’s influence at Vanderbilt extended throughout the Medical Center over four decades,” said James Johns, MD, professor of Pediatrics in the Division of Pediatric Cardiology. “Dr. Bender’s mentorship, scholarship, and leadership guided the careers of many cardiothoracic surgeons and cardiologists, and he directly impacted the lives of thousands of patients.”

In addition to his roles at Vanderbilt, Dr. Bender served as chair of the Board of Regents and as president of the American College of Surgeons, was a member and chair of the American Board of Thoracic Surgery and the Thoracic Surgery Review Committee and had prominent roles in numerous other professional organizations.

When he announced he was stepping down as chair of the department, a symposium and dinner at Hermitage Hotel were held in his honor.

Dr. Bender was preceded in death by his wife of 60 years, Doris Merle Martin Bender, and his grandson, William Hardie Bender. Survivors include son Todd (Peggy) Bender of Nashville; daughter Lori (Donnie) Woodward of Melbourne, Florida; sister Georgia Fields of Humble, Texas; grandchildren Munro (Brad) Hickson, Scott Bender, Lyz Bender, Kristin Locke, Katie (Rhett) Fordham, close family friend Jenifer (Julian) King, and numerous grandchildren, nieces and nephews.

Services are private. Memorial contributions may be made to Trout Unlimited ( in his memory.