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VUMC mourns loss of otolaryngologist and surgeon Ries

Jan. 8, 2021, 9:42 AM


by Jill Clendening

William Russell Ries, MD, professor of Otolaryngology and Carol and John S. Odess Professor of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery in the Department of Otolaryngology at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, died Jan. 5. He was 67.

William Russell Ries, MD

Dr. Ries was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in November 2020.

“Knowing Russell was an authentic privilege,” said Roland “Ron” Eavey, MD, SM, Guy M. Maness Professor and chair of the Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery. “His warmth and calm demeanor uplifted everyone he touched. He was an exceptionally skilled facial plastic and reconstructive surgeon who helped found the department in the 1980s.

“He grew the service, exemplified legendary teaching skills that inspired many residents to seek careers in his discipline and initiated a coveted fellowship. He achieved ultimate success, both as an accomplished professional as well as an appreciated human being.”

Dr. Ries was hired as a full-time faculty member at VUMC in 1988 by the Otolaryngology Department’s first chair, Robert Ossoff, DMD, MD. In 1996, he was promoted to associate professor and in 2008 he was promoted to professor. Before joining VUMC, he had a private practice based at Southern Hills Medical Center in Nashville.

While the Department of Otolaryngology has long celebrated Ossoff, James Duncavage, MD, James Netterville, MD, and David Zealear, PhD, as the “founding four” members present when the department organized in 1986, that group is being officially amended to include Ries as one of the “founding five” due to his remarkable contributions over three decades, Ossoff said.

“He’s been taken from us much too soon,” said Ossoff, who was a junior faculty member at Northwestern University when he first met Ries as a young resident. “Russell was a very compassionate doctor who cared greatly about his patients and their outcomes. His contributions to the field have been numerous, particularly in terms of surgical innovations. He was an excellent communicator and confidence builder and had an innate ability to transfer his knowledge to our residents and fellows.”

Dr. Ries earned his medical degree from the University of Tennessee in Memphis and completed residencies at Baptist Memorial Hospital in Memphis and Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. He completed a fellowship under Jack Anderson, MD, in facial plastic and reconstructive surgery at Tulane University Medical Center.

Dr. Ries was a fellow and diplomate of the American College of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery and a diplomate of the American Board of Otolaryngology. He was a member of the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, the American College of Surgeons and the Triological Society. In 2004, he was elected to the board of directors for the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery.

In 2006 he was named the first holder of the Carol and John S. Odess Chair in Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery in the Department of Otolaryngology. In this role he expanded research in the use of lasers for facial plastic and reconstructive surgery. He was also instrumental in founding the department’s Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery Fellowship in 2014, for which he served as program director.

“Russell had a unique gift to make every person feel special, and that certainly came through when developing our fellowship program,” said Scott Stephan, MD, assistant professor of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery. “Together with his stellar academic reputation, his warm and reassuring personality drew residents from all over the country, driving it to the top tier nationally in just a handful of years.”

Dr. Ries was well loved by his colleagues. On Dec. 20, a group of around 40 people, members of the department and their families, gathered outside his home to sing Christmas carols to him and his family gathered on the porch.

“Russell and I are so grateful to Jack (John) and Carol Odess, who endowed the chair in the department that he held,” said his wife, Susie Webb Ries. “The people he worked with at Vanderbilt were just like family to him.”

Dr. Ries is survived by his wife, Susie, daughter Katie Ries (Stephen Martin) and grandchildren George and Margaret Martin; son Russell Ries Jr. (Eleanor Schneider) and son Robert “Bud” Ries (Charice Starr).

A funeral service for Dr. Ries will be held at Christ Church Cathedral in Nashville at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, Jan. 16. Due to the pandemic, in-person attendance is limited to family and invited friends. His service will be live streamed and archived. For information, visit

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