Leon Morgenstern, MD, senior adviser, Center for Healthcare Ethics, Emeritus Director, Department of Surgery, 1919-2012
LOS ANGELES — Dec. 26, 2012 – Leon Morgenstern, MD, who led Cedars-Sinai’s Department of Surgery into international prominence and founded its Center for Healthcare Ethics, died Sunday in Los Angeles at the age of 93. A surgeon, scholar, humanist, medical researcher and prolific author, he remained active after his retirement and worked in his office up until the day of his death.
“Dr. Morgenstern was an inspiring and remarkable human being and surgeon,” said Thomas M. Priselac, president and CEO of Cedars-Sinai. “My heart sank when I learned of his death because he played such a great role in the history of the medical center, and we had come to rely on his wisdom, foresight and counsel.”
A Pittsburgh, Pa. native, Morgenstern considered himself a New Yorker. He would write that he was a frail, sickly child who benefited from an encounter with an imposing rabbi who specialized in healing. He received his bachelor’s magna cum laude from Brooklyn College and earned his medical degree from New York University College of Medicine. With an interruption for two years in the U.S. Army Medical Corps, he served his internship, fellowship and surgical residency at Queens General Hospital. He came to Los Angeles in 1953, seeking opportunity and found warm camaraderie as a general surgeon and attending physician at two hospitals then-serving the city’s Jewish communities – Cedars of Lebanon and Mount Sinai.
When Morgenstern started at Cedars of Lebanon, he said there were 1.5 people in the surgery department, which, under David State, MD, began a push for excellence. With Morgenstern as State’s research assistant and in charge of training residents, the department received accreditation for its surgical residency, expanded its research and launched into the fledgling field of open-heart procedures.
After he briefly followed State back to New York, Morgenstern returned to Cedars of Lebanon to become Director of Surgery, a post he continued to hold after Cedars of Lebanon and Mount Sinai merged to become Cedars-Sinai in 1970.
He held the post until 1988, presiding over a period of sweeping change at the medical center and in his field. During his long career as a general surgeon, Morgenstern, researched and published almost 300 articles in peer-reviewed medical journals and publications on a range of medical and surgical topics, including breast cancer and its care, especially with radiation therapy.
He became a national leader for his pioneering work in surgeries of the spleen, an organ known for its fragility and propensity to uncontrolled bleeding, which he helped develop techniques to control. He later helped advance conservation of that organ after injury and partial removal.
Even as he was saving and changing lives as a surgeon, Morgenstern also put his indelible stamp on his field, his department and Cedars-Sinai. He built a formidable department, whose membership now includes more than 80 general surgeons alone, with vision and clarity, colleagues say. He later would say that he looked, first and foremost, for doctors of exemplary character, who also possessed great skill and considerable intellect.
“Leon Morgenstern clearly was a crucial reason that patients, residents, fellows and surgeons came to know, respect and so admire the Department of Surgery at Cedars-Sinai,” said Bruce Gewertz, MD, Surgeon-in-Chief, chair of the Department of Surgery and the Harriet and Steven Nichols Endowed Chair in Surgery. “Dr. Morgenstern was a warm, brilliant and innovative man who helped to transform the field and this institution by putting Cedars-Sinai on the map, internationally, as a surgical leader.”
Under his leadership, Cedars-Sinai won recognition for its preeminence in cardiothoracic and intestinal surgery. New techniques in surgical specialties were quickly adopted and offered to patients, including intraocular lenses and laser surgery in ophthalmology, artificial joints in orthopedics, prosthetic grafts in vascular surgery, kidney stone dissolution in urology, and the Swan-Ganz catheter and valve replacement in cardiac surgery.
The surgeons and innovators he recruited and who counted him as both mentor and dear friend include: George Berci, MD, a colleague for more than a half century, who, with what he credits as Morgenstern’s unstinting support, has been honored by his profession for helping to develop the tools and techniques for minimally invasive surgery; and Edward Phillips, MD, a nationally recognized leader in breast cancer care and laparoscopic surgery, and Director of the Saul and Joyce Brandman Breast Center -- A Project of Women's Guild at the Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute and Executive Vice Chairman of the Department of Surgery.
“All of our lives and our work were made so much richer by the kindness, compassion, support and thoughtfulness of Dr. Morgenstern,” said Berci, 93. “He listened well and was such a brilliant physician and surgeon that every conversation you had with him helped you solve problems.”
Morgenstern, by example and in his teaching and writing, insisted that physicians always put patients and their needs first – with firm, but gentle and compassionate care. He wrote to criticize doctors who got wrapped up in jargon and acronyms; he did not allow distracting music to blare in operating suites under his sway. And he urged even the busiest doctors to spend time, seated at the bedside of those in their care, listening patiently, closely and carefully to every comment and complaint.
He could take a longer view, colleagues say, because among his many other achievements, Morgenstern was an accomplished medical historian, speaking on the Napoleonic legacy to French medicine, publishing about Russian author Anton Chekhov’s time in medical school or the role played by the Shah of Iran’s spleen in contemporary Middle Eastern affairs. As a writer, he was crisp, learned and enriched his work with personal experience – how it felt to be a patient himself, suffering from tinnitus and declining hearing; what it was like as an emeritus to receive late-night anxious calls from patients, inquiring about impending surgeries; and how he had consulted with colleagues about his own wishes for care at the end of his life.
His scholarly humanism saw him establish Cedars-Sinai’s Center for Healthcare Ethics, which helps patients, caregivers, policy-makers and others in the challenging struggles with the ethics of how best to care for and treat patients and how to raise professional’s awareness of ethics in their practice. He provided leadership in his writings and his daily conversations across the medical center on difficult topics such as end of life care and helping those in pain and discomfort.
“Dr. Morgenstern was not only a brilliant surgeon, he also was our wise counselor, our impeccable visionary and professional, and above all a remarkable, values-driven compassionate physician,” said Shlomo Melmed, MD, senior vice president for Academic Affairs, Dean of the Medical Faculty and the Helene A. and Philip E. Hixon Chair in Investigative Medicine. “His ethical standards will remain indelibly etched on our culture for decades to come.”
Services will be private but Cedars-Sinai is planning a memorial in Morgenstern’s honor. He is survived by his wife, Laurie Mattlin, whom he married in 1967; his two sons, David Ethan and Seth August; and five grandchildren.
Morgenstern, who became emeritus director then senior adviser in 2007 to Cedars-Sinai’s Center for Healthcare Ethics, was a board certified general surgeon and one of seven American Surgical Association fellows at Cedars-Sinai. A member of Alpha Omega Alpha, the national medical honorary society, he had served on the editorial board of Surgical Innovations and was a reviewer for Archives of Surgery. He was a professor emeritus in surgery at UCLA School of Medicine, was an adjunct ethics professor at the University of Judaism, Los Angeles, and was an advisory board member to the Pacific Center for Health Policy and Ethics at USC.