Dr. John W. Kirklin, former chairman of the UAB Department of Surgery died April 21 from complications from a head injury that occurred in January. He was 86.

Posted on April 23, 2004 at 10:20 a.m.

BIRMINGHAM, AL — Dr. John W. Kirklin, former chairman of the UAB Department of Surgery died April 21 from complications from a head injury that occurred in January. He was 86.

Born in Muncie, Ind., Kirklin revolutionized cardiovascular surgery through his development and refinement of the heart-lung machine. In the 1950s, while at the Mayo Clinic, he modified the Gibbon machine and performed the world’s first series of open-heart operations using a heart-lung machine. He, and his colleagues, improved the original pumping and oxygenator system to the point that utilization of the machine is part of the everyday practice of cardiac surgery.

“The world of medicine has lost one of its giants,” said UAB President Carol Garrison. “His dedication and skills brought the world medical innovations that have literally saved millions of lives.”

Throughout his life, Kirklin sought new methods and techniques to improve health care of patients. His efforts led to the development of a computerized intensive care unit with continuous monitoring of vital functions that became a model for modern ICUs around the world. They have improved care, reduced complications and saved innumerable lives.

Resident training and medical education always were a focal-point of his professional life. Under Kirklin’s leadership, surgical residents learned the skills of surgery while being exposed to his rigorous analytical methods and demanding intellect. Cardiac surgical fellows from throughout the world came to UAB to learn his surgical methods.

“The contributions that John Kirklin made to improve the care provided to patients cannot be measured in any terms other than those who are alive as a result of his efforts,” said Dr. Albert Pacifico, director of cardiovascular surgery at UAB. “Those of us who were fortunate enough to train under Dr. Kirklin learned the value of continually striving to improve patient care. And part of that is to care for the person as a whole, not simply the medical problem presented to you.”

Kirklin joined the UAB faculty in 1966 as chairman of the Department of Surgery and the Surgeon in Chief for UAB Hospital. He held those positions until 1982 during which time he built one of the most prestigious cardiovascular surgical programs in the world. He retired from surgery in 1989.

Kirklin earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Minnesota in 1938 before receiving his medical degree from Harvard University Medical School in 1942. He completed an internship at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia and then served as a fellow in surgery at the Mayo Clinic. In 1948 he earned a master’s degree in surgery from the University of Minnesota Graduate School. He joined the Mayo Clinic surgical staff in 1950 and pioneered the dawn of cardiovascular surgery there, serving as its first chairman of surgery and performing the first operations for a variety of congenital heart malformations, highlighted by his contribution to the surgical correction of Tetralogy of Fallot.

Kirklin’s innovative ideas went beyond direct patient care. His organizational capabilities led to the formation and development of the departments of surgery at UAB and the Mayo Clinic, as well as the University of Alabama Health Services Foundation, the practice plan for faculty physicians at UAB.

Kirklin saw the necessity for both public and private funding to make UAB one of the world’s preeminent medical centers. As such, he guided the formation of the Health Services Foundation to pool the private resources of the faculty for long-term investment into the institution. One of the most visible results of those investments is The Kirklin Clinic, opened in 1992 and named for Kirklin, who was instrumental in convincing world-famous architect I.M. Pei to design the clinic.

“John Kirklin recognized that a public institution could not be saddled with the burdens associated with yearly appropriations from the state if it wanted to reach the level of excellence he envisioned,” said Dr. Arnold G. Diethelm, who joined UAB in 1967 to establish the transplantation program and who succeeded Kirklin as chairman from 1982-1999. “Bringing together the disparate parts of this fledgling medical center created the atmosphere necessary to bring world-class medical care to the city of Birmingham.”

Kirklin possessed the rare combination of great surgical skills, and intense commitment to research, and the ability to surround himself with people of tremendous talent. In a dedication to him at the Mayo Clinic, he was described as “the greatest amalgamator of men and ideas” in the history of cardiac surgery.

A hallmark of Kirklin’s career was his determination to share information that he thought would improve patient outcomes after cardiac surgery. He authored more than 700 publications, but he often stated that his greatest contribution was his textbook, Cardiac Surgery, which remains the premier reference text in the field. He also served on multiple editorial boards and served as editor of The Journal of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery.

The Kirklin family name has become a symbol of dedication to medicine. His father was director of radiology at the Mayo Clinic, his wife was a physician and director of the surgeon’s assistant program at UAB, his son is a cardiac surgeon and director of cardiothoracic transplantation at UAB, and his grandson is a medical student at UAB.

Kirklin’s accomplishments didn’t go unnoticed. He received many honors and awards throughout his career including:

  • The American Heart Association Research Achievement Award for 1976

  • The Rudolph Matas Award in Vascular Surgery (world’s highest recognition for surgery of the heart and blood vessels)

  • The 1972 Lister Medal awarded by the Royal College of Surgeons in England

  • The Rene Leriche Prize of the International Society of Surgery and the American Surgical Association Medallion for Scientific Achievement.

Additionally, he received many honorary degrees, both nationally and internationally including:

  • Doctor of Medicine — University of Munich, Germany

  • Doctor of Science — Hamline University, St. Paul, MN, UAB; Indiana University; Georgetown University School of Medicine

  • Doctor of Honoris Causa — University of Bordeau II, France; Republica Oriental del Uruguay Universidad de la Republica; University of Marseille, France.

He was a member of more than 60 local, state, national and international associations and scientific societies, including the American Association for Thoracic Surgery, serving as president in 1978-79; the American College of Cardiology, serving as vice president of the board of governors in 1973-74; the American Heart Association, the American College of Surgeons and the National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine.

A private funeral service will be held April 24. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be made to the John W. Kirklin Research Fund for Cardiothoracic Surgery, c/o UAB Gift Records, 1530 3rd Ave. S., AB1230, Birmingham, Ala., 35294.

Downloadable Images

To save images from your browser window, follow these directions:

  • Windows users: follow the "Download now" link below and then right-click the large image — select "Save picture as ..." from the menu to save the image to your local computer.

  • Macintosh users: follow the "Download now" link below and then control-click (hold down control while clicking) the large image — select "Download Image to Disk" to save the image to your local computer.

Dr. John W. Kirklin (pictured, center). Photo credit: Hank Black, UAB Media Relations.

Image Size:
1,874 pixels by 2,850 pixels
(6.2" by 9.5")
Resolution: 300 dpi
Format: JPEG (RGB)
File Size: 2,437 KB
Download Now!
Dr. John W. Kirklin (pictured, center). Photo credit: Hank Black, UAB Media Relations.

Dr. John W. Kirklin (pictured)

Image Size:
900 pixels by 1,353 pixels
(3.0" by 4.6")
Resolution: 300 dpi
Format: JPEG (Grayscale)
File Size: 554 KB
Download Now!
Dr. John W. Kirklin (pictured).