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Dr. George D. Zuidema, former director of surgery at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, dies

Dr. George Zuidema devised an innovative restructuring of the Johns Hopkins surgery department,
Dr. George Zuidema devised an innovative restructuring of the Johns Hopkins surgery department,

Dr. George D. Zuidema, whose years as surgeon-in-chief and head of the department of surgery at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine have been described as transformative, died Monday of a blood disorder at his home in Holland, Michigan. The former Timonium resident was 92.

George Dale Zuidema, who was of Dutch ancestry, was born and raised in Holland, Michigan. His father, Jacob Zuidema, was a city engineer, and his mother, Reka Zuidema, was a homemaker.

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After graduating from Holland High School in 1946, he enrolled at Hope College, also in Holland, from which he graduated summa cum laude in 1949, and then was awarded four scholarships, which enabled him to attend Johns Hopkins’ medical school, from which he graduated in 1953.

“For a while, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to go into medicine or another field of science, but several things helped me make up my mind,” he told The Sunday Sun in a 1964 profile. “My brother is a doctor and though he tried to talk me out of following in his footsteps that only encouraged me. I thought I might be able to contribute more in a positive way if I went into medicine. And I knew I would enjoy the contact with people.”

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Dr. Zuidema chose not to do postgraduate training under the legendary Dr. Alfred Blalock, co-creator of the 1944 “blue baby” operation in cardiac surgery, and instead went to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston for his internship and residency.

After leaving Massachusetts General, he served in the Air Force from 1954 to 1956 at Wright Patterson Aerospace Medical Laboratory in Dayton, Ohio, as a resident physiologist, and returned to Massachusetts General, where he was named chief resident in 1959. A year later, he joined the faculty of the University of Michigan Medical School, where he rose to assistant professor and finally associate professor.

His appointment in 1964 to succeed Dr. Blalock, who had been surgery chief for 23 years and retired that year, was not without controversy. Dr. Blalock publicly stated his opposition to Dr. Zuidema’s succeeding him at Hopkins, and he was joined in this effort by professors and surgeons from across the country who had been protégés of Dr. Blalock.

Dr. Richard S. Ross, an internationally known Hopkins cardiologist at the time of the controversy, who later was dean of the Hopkins medical school from 1975 to 1990, said observed in a 2009 interview that succeeding Dr. Blalock “was sort of like succeeding God.”

“Soft-spoken, direct, self-possessed, looking even younger than his 36 years, Dr. Zuidema has behind him the experiences and achievements of more than an ordinary lifetime,” according the Sunday Sun profile. “He brings to his new position the accomplishments of a surgeon, teacher, writer and researcher.”

“By 1964, he was renowned for his originality and productivity as a researcher, having written more than 200 medical journal articles. He also received important scholarships and awards,” according to a 2019 Johns Hopkins profile.

Dr. Zuidema was able to overcome the initial reaction to his appointment by making substantive and lasting changes at Hopkins, all the while winning over his critics.

“Beginning in 1964, Dr. Zuidema devised an innovative re-structuring of the Johns Hopkins surgery department in response to the intensifying pace of surgical specialization,” according to the profile. “His initiative led to the establishment of separate departments for neurosurgery, orthopaedics, otolaryngology, urology and general surgery, which has divisions for such specialties as cardiac surgery, pediatric surgery, gastrointestinal surgery and transplant surgery.”

Dr. John L. Cameron, who succeeded Dr. Zuidema as director of the Department of Surgery, observed in the Hopkins profile that “George made radical changes without anybody hardly noticing.”

He added that Dr. Zuidema was “not only a very good surgeon, an excellent teacher and researcher, but even more importantly, an outstanding human being who set an example for the rest of us to live our lives by.”

During his years at Hopkins, Dr. Zuidema chaired a five-year project that resulted in the three-volume “Study on Surgical Services for the United States,” while recruiting hundreds of surgeons to contribute to it.

He also founded the Baltimore Academy of Surgery ‘to get the academic people and the leading clinical surgeons in the community together,” he said in a 1995 interview with the Johns Hopkins Medical News.

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In 1984, Dr. Zuidema returned to Michigan as vice provost for medical affairs and professor of surgery at the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor, at a troubled time.

Again, among his many accomplishments, he was able to settle a “longstanding feud between the medical center and its teaching hospital, helped launch a successful, university run health maintenance organization, founded new centers for cancer, geriatrics and substance abuse, and oversaw a billion-dollar rebuilding of the medical center,” according to the Hopkins profile.

In light of his success at Michigan, regents established the $1.2 million George D. Zuidema Professorship of Surgery.

Dr. Zuidema retired from Michigan in 1994.

He was the author of more than 25 books, including “The Johns Hopkins Atlas of Human Functional Anatomy,” “Surgery of the Alimentary Tract,” and “The Management of Trauma.” His collection of papers in the Alan Mason Chesney Medical Archives of the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions extends 60 linear feet.

Reflecting on his years in Baltimore, Dr. Zuidema said in the 1995 interview that “Hopkins is a place that gets in your blood, is unique in terms of collegiality, mutual respect, the ability to work with a lot of gifted people. It is not easy to leave that.”

In his leisure time, Dr. Zuidema liked to read, especially about the Civil War, and paint nautical scenes in oils. He was also an accomplished salt and freshwater fisherman, and enjoyed sailing the Gilead, his 38-foot trawler, on Michigan’s Elk Lake, 200 miles north of Ann Arbor.

His wife of 65, years, the former Joan Houtman, a registered nurse, died in 2018.

Graveside services were held in Holland on Thursday, and plans for a memorial service to be held there are incomplete.

Dr. Zuidema is survived by a son, David Zuidema of Timonium; three daughters, Nancy Radcliffe of McLean, Virginia, Karen Voter of Fairport, New York, and Sarah Kohl of Holland, Michigan; 10 grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren.

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