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‘Stealth’ Transformer

‘Stealth’ Transformer

George Zuidema brought the Department of Surgery into the modern era.

A determinedly low-profile but tireless leader — once described as exemplifying “stealth hyperactivity” — George D. Zuidema ’53 transformed the Department of Surgery at Johns Hopkins during a 20-year tenure as its head, bringing it into the modern era.

What still astounds Zuidema’s successor, John Cameron ’62, is that “George made radical changes without anybody hardly noticing.”

Zuidema died on July 6 of aplastic anemia in his hometown of Holland, Michigan. He was 92.

Zuidema’s selection, at 36, as successor to the legendary cardiac surgeon Alfred Blalock ’22 (1899–1964) met with Blalock’s fierce opposition, roiled the department and created an uproar in academic surgical centers nationwide. Richard Ross (1924–2015), who headed cardiology during the uproar and later was dean of the medical school from 1975 to 1990, said stepping into Blalock’s shoes “was sort of like succeeding God.” Yet Zuidema “not only survived,” Ross recalled, “but indeed, thrived on it.”

Beginning in 1964, Zuidema devised an innovative restructuring of the department in response to the intensifying pace of surgical specialization. His initiative led to the establishment of separate departments for neurosurgery, orthopaedics, otolaryngology, urology and general surgery, which had divisions for such specialties as cardiac surgery, pediatric surgery, gastroenterology, transplant surgery and others. He also revised the residency program and enlarged the full-time staff by developing a professional fee structure, ensuring the department’s growth and financial stability.

Zuidema’s achievements extended beyond the operating room. During a two-year stint in the U.S. Air Force in the mid-1950s, he conducted research with the human centrifuge. His findings proved that astronauts could better withstand the gravitational pull of liftoff if they were reclining on their backs — which became standard practice on all space flights.

In 1984, he became the vice provost for medical affairs at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

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