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Dr. Donald S. Gann, professor of surgery at Hopkins and Maryland, dies

Dr. Donald Gann was a longtime member of the Stony Run Friends Meeting.
Dr. Donald Gann was a longtime member of the Stony Run Friends Meeting. (Nanine Hartzenbusch / XX)

Dr. Donald S. Gann, a trauma surgeon and a professor of surgery at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and at the University of Maryland, died Feb. 3 of undetermined causes at his Brooklandville home. He was 87.

Donald Stuart Gann, son of Dr. Mark Gann, chief of surgery at Sinai Hospital, and his wife, Beatrice Gann, an educator, was born in Baltimore and raised on Eutaw Place and later in Catonsville.

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He attended Polytechnic Institute through the 11th grade, when he left high school early to attend Dartmouth College at the age of 16.

“He never received a high school diploma,” said his daughter, Susan Hibbs of Brooklandville.

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Dr. Gann was a 1952 magna cum laude graduate of Dartmouth with a double major in physics and philosophy. He was elected to Phi Beta Kappa.

He earned his medical degree in 1956 from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. From 1956 to 1957, he completed a residency in surgery at Hopkins and an assistant residency in surgery at Union Memorial Hospital.

“His contribution to medicine was multi-faceted; he was a surgeon, an innovator, an educator, a mentor, a research scientist and the author of hundreds of published articles, chapters and books,” according to a biographical profile submitted by his family.

“The surgery decision happened to me in medical school,” Dr. Gann explained in an interview with the American Association for the Surgery of Trauma. “I initially intended to be some variety of scientist. I was sort of groping around. I had a bit of a head start working with some pretty distinguished physiologists but didn’t have any sense of what I was going to do. I also found that I was dexterous enough to do some unusually complicated things.”

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In 1967, when Dr. Gann was 36, he became the first chair of the newly established department of biomedical engineering at Case Western Reserve University. He was an assistant resident in surgery at University Hospitals from 1960 to 1962 and chief resident in surgery from 1962 to 1963.

In 1970, he returned to Hopkins as a professor of biomedical engineering and associate professor of surgery, and four years later was appointed professor of emergency medicine and director of the division of emergency medicine, a newly created department.

When he came to Hopkins, he told The Evening Sun that his long-range interest was “the application of science to the care of people.”

Dr. Gann left Hopkins in 1979 and went to Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, to establish and chair the department of surgery at the university. He also had a second role as surgeon in chief at the Rhode Island Hospital, also in Providence.

After returning to Baltimore in 1988, he practiced surgery and held four high-level assignments at the University of Maryland Medical Center, where he headed the division surgical critical care from 1992 to 2000. He was also chief of the trauma surgery and critical care sections, and chief of the section of endocrine surgery.

He retired from UMMS in 2010.

Dr. Gann’s professional associations included serving as president from 1987 to 1988 of the American Association for the Surgery of Trauma. He was also a member of the American Association of Endocrine Surgeons, American College of Surgeons, Halsted Society, Southern Surgical Association, Endocrine Society and the Biomedical Engineering Society, of which he was president from 1971 to 1972.

Dr. Gann and Dan Darlington, a physiologist, established Shock Therapeutics Biotechnologies Inc., whose mission is to create and develop patented treatment for hemorrhagic shock and currently is raising funds to develop a patented antibody that will allow patients to live from one to four hours until appropriate lifesaving procedures can be performed.

“I’ve known Dr. Gann all of my academic life. I shared a post-doc fellowship with him and he gave me a faculty position in surgery at Hopkins which I had for 18 years,” said Dr. Darlington, who holds a Ph.D. “He was very smart and very kind but very demanding. His thoughts were don’t shoot for the moon but shoot for the stars and then you can see how you can soar.”

He said that Dr. Gann eschewed all titles.

“He’d tell academics everyone was equal. He treated you like a peer, and he expected you to act like one. And because everyone was equal, there was no fear or retribution," he said. “And he realized he didn’t know everything and he’d say, ‘Tell me what you know so we can move this along faster.’ He wanted to learn as much as he possibly could.”

Dr. Darlington, who lives in San Antonio, described Dr. Gann as a “genius and was simply something else.”

Dr. Gann became a Quaker at a young age and was a longtime member of the Stony Run Friends Meeting. “His life was deeply informed by his spiritual practice and the values of Quakerism,” according to the family profile.

He served twice as clerk of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization founded in 1917 to promote peace and social justice locally, nationally and internationally. In his capacity as AFSC clerk, he worked with multiple Nobel laureates to restrict the global trade in small arms.

In a 1997 Baltimore Sun interview he mocked the slogan, "Guns don’t kill people, people do."

“I do think guns kill people. And sometimes, the people pulling the trigger are people who don’t even know what they’re doing — like little kids. And sometimes the victims are people who are not intended to be shot — like little kids,” he said.

In 1960, Dr. Gann married the former Gail Burgan, a nurse practitioner at the University of Maryland.

“I couldn’t have done it without the kind of support I’ve had, not to mention somebody who is willing to live anywhere, almost,” he explained in the American Association for the Surgery Trauma interview. “I learned early on that I’ve married somebody that’s smarter than I am, and I like it that way; but she feels the other way about it, and that makes it nice, too.”

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, plans for a memorial service to be held this summer are incomplete.

In addition to his wife of 60 years and daughter, Dr. Gann is survived by three sons, Donald S. Gann Jr. of Reisterstown, Robert Gann and Richard Gann, both of Providence; and three grandchildren.

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