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PRODUCED BY AND FOR MEMBERS OF THE DEPARTMENT OF SURGERY January 2013 | Archived Issues

Leon Morgenstern, MD: 1919-2012

Leon Morgenstern, MD, a beloved colleague and the founding director of surgery for Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, died Dec. 23 at his home in Malibu at age 93. A surgeon, scholar, humanist, medical researcher and prolific author, he remained active after his retirement and was working in his Cedars-Sinai office as recently as Dec. 21.

Cedars-Sinai is planning a memorial in his honor.


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Leon Morgenstern, MD: 1919-2012

Click the image above to view photos from throughout Morgenstern's career.

Leon Morgenstern, MD, a beloved colleague and the founding director of surgery for Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, died Dec. 23 at his home in Malibu at age 93. A surgeon, scholar, humanist, medical researcher and prolific author, he remained active after his retirement and was working in his Cedars-Sinai office as recently as Dec. 21. Services will be private, but Cedars-Sinai is planning a memorial in his honor.

Our condolences go out to his wife, Laurie Mattlin; sons, David Ethan and Seth August; and five grandchildren.

"Dr. Morgenstern was an inspiring and remarkable human being and surgeon," said Thomas M. Priselac, president and CEO of Cedars-Sinai. "My heart sank when I learned of his death because he played such a great role in the history of the medical center, and we had come to rely on his wisdom, foresight and counsel."

Morgenstern joined Cedars of Lebanon as an attending physician in 1953, then became an attending in 1954 at Mount Sinai Hospital. He became Cedars of Lebanon's Director of Surgery in 1960, and in 1970, at the creation of Cedars-Sinai, he retained that title.

He served as Cedars-Sinai's director of Surgery until 1988, presiding over a time of sweeping change in his field, in medicine and at the medical center. He said the Department of Surgery had only 1.5 staff members when he started; there are more than 80 general surgeons alone in the department now, thanks in no small measure to his tireless work, his professional accomplishment; generous, principled and compassionate leadership; and, above all, his personal touch. He was a warm, brilliant and innovative man who helped to transform the field and this institution by putting Cedars-Sinai on the map, internationally, as a surgical leader.

Under his leadership, Cedars-Sinai won recognition for its pre-eminence in cardiothoracic and intestinal surgery. New techniques in surgical specialties were quickly adopted and offered to patients, including intraocular lenses and laser surgery in ophthalmology, artificial joints in orthopedics, prosthetic grafts in vascular surgery, kidney stone dissolution in urology, and the Swan-Ganz catheter and valve replacement in cardiac surgery.

The surgeons and innovators he recruited and who counted him as both mentor and dear friend include: George Berci, MD, a colleague for more than a half century, who, with what he credits as Morgenstern's unstinting support, has been honored by his profession for helping to develop the tools and techniques for minimally invasive surgery; and Edward Phillips, MD, a nationally recognized leader in breast cancer care and laparoscopic surgery, director of the Saul and Joyce Brandman Breast Center – A Project of Women's Guild at the Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute, and executive vice chair of the Department of Surgery.

"All of our lives and our work were made so much richer by the kindness, compassion, support and thoughtfulness of Dr. Morgenstern," Berci said. "He listened well and was such a brilliant physician and surgeon that every conversation you had with him helped you solve problems."

Morgenstern, by example and in his teaching and writing, insisted that physicians always put patients and their needs first – with firm, but gentle and compassionate care. He wrote to criticize doctors who got wrapped up in jargon and acronyms. And he urged even the busiest doctors to spend time seated at the bedside of those in their care, listening patiently, closely and carefully to every comment and complaint.

He could take a longer view, colleagues say, because among his many achievements, Morgenstern was an accomplished medical historian, speaking on the Napoleonic legacy to French medicine, publishing about Russian author Anton Chekhov's time in medical school or the role played by the Shah of Iran's spleen in contemporary Middle Eastern affairs. As a writer, he was crisp, learned and enriched his work with personal experience – how it felt to be a patient himself, suffering from tinnitus and declining hearing; what it was like as an emeritus to receive late-night anxious calls from patients, inquiring about impending surgeries; and how he had consulted with colleagues about his own wishes for care at the end of his life.

His scholarly humanism saw him establish Cedars-Sinai's Center for Healthcare Ethics, which helps patients, caregivers, policy-makers and others in the challenging struggles with the ethics of how best to care for and treat patients and how to raise professionals' awareness of ethics in their practice. He provided leadership in his writings and his daily conversations across the medical center on difficult topics such as end-of-life care and helping those in pain and discomfort.

"Dr. Morgenstern was not only a brilliant surgeon, he also was our wise counselor, our impeccable visionary and professional, and above all a remarkable, values-driven compassionate physician," said Shlomo Melmed, MD, senior vice president for Academic Affairs, dean of the Medical Faculty and the Helene A. and Philip E. Hixon Chair in Investigative Medicine. "His ethical standards will remain indelibly etched on our culture for decades to come."

Morgenstern, who became emeritus director, then senior adviser in 2007, of Cedars-Sinai's Center for Healthcare Ethics, was a board-certified general surgeon and one of seven American Surgical Association fellows at Cedars-Sinai. A member of Alpha Omega Alpha, the national medical honorary society, he had served on the editorial board of Surgical Innovations and was a reviewer for Archives of Surgery. He was a professor emeritus in surgery at UCLA School of Medicine, was an adjunct ethics professor at the University of Judaism, Los Angeles, and was an advisory board member to the Pacific Center for Health Policy and Ethics at USC.

The American Technion Society, Healing Arts Division, honored him with its Maimonides Award in 1985. He was recognized at Cedars-Sinai for his excellence in teaching and outstanding contributions to medical education with Golden Apple Awards in 1985 and 1986. The medical center named him its Pioneer of Medicine Award winner in 1990, and in 2000, in recognition for his support to nurses and to ethical and compassionate care, he received the Friends of Nursing Award. He was chair of the Mural Committee, Jewish Contributions to Medicine: A work of art and history. Cedars-Sinai honors him with the Dr. Leon Morgenstern Great Debates in Clinical Medicine Resident Competition, the 10th annual such event scheduled for April.