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SLU Department of Surgery History

Heart Transplant Press Conference

From left: Dr. Russell Kraeger, Dr. John Schweiss, Dr. Vallee L. Willman, Dr. George Kaiser, Dr. Hendrick Barner and Dr. J. Gerard Mudd speak to the press following Saint Louis University's first successful heart transplant in 1972.

The history of the Saint Louis University Department of Surgery began in 1837 with the founding of the School of Medicine and the appointment of six faculty members including the pioneering physiologist and military surgeon William Beaumont who served as the first professor of surgery. 

In 1903, SLU purchased the combined Marion-Sims Beaumont Medical Colleges, which along with the purchase of Mallanphy Hospital, allowed it to open the current medical school at this present site on Grand Boulevard. In 1925, Firmin Desloge Hospital (now the legacy St. Louis University Hospital) was completed. In 1956, a bequest made by surgeon William T. Coughlin, M.D., to SLU and SSM led to the establishment of Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital, at the time the only free standing Catholic pediatric hospital in the nation.

C. Rollins Hanlon
C. Rollins Hanlon, M.D.

In 1950, C. Rollins Hanlon, M.D., was hired as department chair. Originally from Baltimore, Dr. Hanlon was a cardiothoracic surgeon who trained under Dr. Blalock (co-inventor of Blalock-Taussig shunt) at Johns Hopkins University. Dr Hanlon was just 35 years old when he became the first full-time salaried clinical chair at SLU. Prior to Dr. Hanlon, university physicians earned the majority of their income through private practice and teaching was performed on a volunteer and part-time basis. 

In 1951, Dr. Hanlon started the first cardiac catheterization lab west of the Mississippi and he soon established  an animal laboratory to undertake research in the area of cardiac surgery and transplantation. He performed the first open heart surgery in St. Louis in 1956, followed by a series of other firsts including the first prosthetic valve (1962), pacemaker (1965) and coronary bypass (1969).

Dr. Hanlon was a founding member of the American Board of Thoracic Surgery, and in 1966 was elected as chairman of the American Board of Surgery. During his tenure, he hired several full-time faculty and started a general surgery residency program. He also established dedicated cardiothoracic, plastic, neurosurgery and urology divisions with their own dedicated training programs. Dr. Hanlon remained chair for 19 years until he retired in 1969, at the age of 54. He then took the position of Executive Director for the American College of Surgeons, a position in which he served for a subsequent 17 years. 

Hanlon First Residency Class
Members of Chairman C. Rollins Hanlon's first residency class, which included Vallee L. Willman, M.D., who would follow Hanlon as department chair.

Vallee L. Willman, M.D., was named chair after Dr. Hanlon’s departure. He was part of the first residency class under Dr. Hanlon and was a trusted protégé and associate. In 1972, Dr. Willman and his team performed the first heart transplant west of the Mississippi River and, during his 26-year tenure, the department continued to grow in reputation and national stature. There was continued growth in the number of operative procedures, faculty members and training programs, as well as expansion of clinical services to Mercy Medical Center, St Mary’s Hospital and the St. Louis Veterans Administration Hospital. Dr. Willman retired in 1995 as professor emeritus. 

Recent chairmen of the department include:

  • Thomas A. Miller, M.D. – 1996-1998
  • Gary J. Peterson, M.D. – Interim 1998-1999
  • Robert G. Johnson, M.D. – 1999-2012
  • Donald J. Jacobs, M.D. – 2012-2018
  • Sameer A. Siddiqui, M.D. – 2018-Present