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Defanging the ‘Rattlesnake’

Defanging the ‘Rattlesnake’

Charles Yeo has dramatically advanced the field of pancreatic cancer surgery.

“The Rattlesnake of the Abdomen” is just one nom de guerre applied to the pancreas, a 6- to 10-inch-long gland that enables the body to digest food. Located under the stomach and in front of the spine, it is surrounded by a tangle of blood vessels and is extremely “friable,” meaning easily crumbled.

If a portion of the pancreas is cancerous, the complicated procedure for operating on it, originally devised in the 1930s by Columbia University surgeon Allen Whipple (1881–1963), is known as the “Everest of General Surgery.” It can take between five and eight hours to perform.

Few surgeons have been more adept at scaling that mountain and defanging those abdominal rattlesnakes than Charles J. Yeo ’79, who has served as chair of the Department of Surgery at Sidney Kimmel Medical College of Thomas Jefferson University since 2005. To date, Yeo has performed some 1,700 Whipple procedures. He has also designed and completed numerous randomized clinical trials — work that has dramatically advanced the field of pancreatic surgery, and in particular, the Whipple.

Yeo has also trained more than 80 chief residents, served as editor-in-chief of the Journal of Pancreatic Cancer and Shackelford’s Surgery of the Alimentary Tract, and been a prolific author of scientific papers, book chapters and books. Recognized as one of the most influential biomedical researchers in the world, he received the Johns Hopkins Alumni Association’s Distinguished Alumnus Award in 2019.

During his years at Johns Hopkins, where he completed his general surgical residency and served on the faculty, Yeo was an acclaimed protégé of John Cameron ’62, surgery department chair from 1984 to 2003. Cameron made Johns Hopkins “Pancreas Central” by performing 2,400 Whipples during his career — more than any other surgeon in the world — and training dozens of surgeons like Yeo in how to tackle it.

In 2002, Yeo was named Johns Hopkins’ inaugural John L. Cameron, M.D., Professor of Alimentary Tract Diseases.

While completing 1,700 Whipple procedures is a mind-boggling accomplishment, Yeo concedes that he’s still far from reaching Cameron’s milestone. But, described by some colleagues as “hypercompetitive,” Yeo jokes: “I have John in my sights!”
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