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August 2007 Issue

J. Wesley Alexander, MD, ScD
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Surgery Professor Celebrates 50 Years at UC

By Amanda Harper
Published August 2007

“I would walk barefoot on hot coals to get the opportunity to work with Dr. Alexander.”

That effectively sums up the reputation of J. Wesley Alexander, MD, ScD.

Alexander, professor of surgery, recently celebrated his 50th anniversary with UC’s surgery department. With a long history of excellence in both transplant surgery and burn wound care research, Alexander hung up his surgical mask as a transplant surgeon in 2004, but still actively performs bariatric and other gastrointestinal/endocrine surgical procedures.

His work doesn’t just earn the respect of his UC and national colleagues—surgery trainees consistently give him positive marks for teaching. The recent performance review from a resident willing to walk on hot coals testifies to that.

Alexander has seen monumental changes in medicine during his surgical career at UC. And, at age 73, he’ll probably see more, because he has no plans to retire.

“I tried that about nine years ago, and it didn’t really suit me,” he laughs. “I decided to switch my surgical
focus instead.”

He started his long career at UC as a surgical intern at Cincinnati General Hospital in 1957. Medicine has changed a lot since then.

Alexander remembers watching nurses sharpen needles by hand on a creaking wheel because—at the time—there were no disposable needles.

During his residency, he had to work up patients’ blood and urine laboratory tests himself. There were no dedicated teams of medical technicians to complete these simple but critical tests for the physicians.

In fact, the hospital team even mixed its own intravenous fluid— something that would never happen today. There were no computer tomography tests or positron emission tomography scans—a thorough physical examination and X-rays were the first-line diagnostic tools of choice—and minimally invasive surgery wasn’t even thought of yet.

Alexander founded the first transplant surgery program in Cincinnati at what is now University Hospital and led the division for more than 30 years. In this leadership role, he completed the hospital’s first kidney transplant in 1967 and expanded transplantation services to include both the liver and pancreas. A true surgeon-scientist,

Alexander received National Institutes of Health research funding nearly 40 consecutive years, and made major contributions to the fields of surgical infection, immunologic tolerance in transplantation and postsurgical nutrition.

He developed an interest in finding better ways to care for patients with burn injuries and critical illness during a two-year
stint as chief of trauma research for the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. After his Army tenure, he returned to UC and combined his research interests with his clinical skills as a transplant surgeon, focusing on the specific nutritional needs of patients after surgery.

Alexander’s excellence in research earned him numerous accolades, including the Ashbel Smith Distinguished Alumnus Award from the University of Texas (1990), the George Rieveschl Jr. Award for Distinguished Scientific Research (1996) and UC College of Medicine’s Drake Medal (1997).

And as to residents’ evaluations declaring all they would endure to study with him: “Those comments are what really matter,” he says.

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