Benson Reid Wilcox, M.D., a heart surgeon who served 29 years as chief of the Division of Cardiothoracic Surgery at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, died May 11, 2010, at his home after a courageous battle with brain cancer. He was 77.
Dr. Wilcox served as chief of cardiothoracic surgery at UNC from 1969 to 1998. During that period, which was a time of dramatic advances in heart and lung surgery, the UNC hospital began offering coronary artery surgery, heart and lung transplantation, successful surgery for congenital heart defects in newborn infants, and a comprehensive program for the treatment of lung and esophageal cancer.
Dr. Wilcox was primarily a pediatric heart surgeon whose specialties were congenital heart disease, pediatric cardiac morphology, pediatric chest disease, and pulmonary circulation. He was a co-author of three books and an author of numerous medical journal articles and book chapters. He held important leadership posts in national medical organizations and was especially interested in the training of future surgeons.
Dr. Wilcox, known as Ben, was born May 26, 1932, in Charlotte, N.C., the son of James Simpson Wilcox and Louisa Reid Wilcox. He was raised in Charlotte and graduated from the Darlington School in Rome, Ga., in 1949. He was named 1997 Distinguished Alumnus of the Darlington School.
He earned an A.B. in history from the University of North Carolina in 1953 and an M.D. from the UNC School of Medicine in 1957. As an undergraduate at UNC, he was president of Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity and Rex of the Order of Gimghoul. At the UNC medical school, he was president of his class and was inducted into the Alpha Omega Alpha medical honor society in 1957.
While a medical student in 1956, Dr. Wilcox helped to conduct laboratory research on the application of newly developed heart-lung machines. A heart-lung machine was first used in the operating room at UNC in April 1957, beginning the era of open heart surgery at North Carolina Memorial Hospital.
After serving as a surgery resident at Barnes Hospital in St. Louis (1957-1959) and North Carolina Memorial Hospital in Chapel Hill (1959-1960), he spent two years as a surgical clinical associate at the National Heart Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. He then returned to UNC as chief resident in cardiovascular and thoracic surgery (1962-63) and as chief resident in surgery (1963-64).
He joined the UNC Department of Surgery faculty in 1964 and was appointed as chief of the Division of Cardiothoracic Surgery in 1969 and as a full professor in 1971. He was named a Markle Scholar in Academic Medicine in 1967. After he retired as chief of cardiothoracic surgery, Dr. Wilcox remained on the UNC medical school faculty as Professor of Surgery from 1998 until his death.
Dr. Wilcox served the university in a number of other capacities. He was a member of the Selection Committee for the North Carolina Fellows Program; the UNC Faculty Committee on Athletics, serving as chairman from 1977 to 1985; and the Morehead Foundation’s Central Selection Committee, serving as chairman from 1989 to 1992. He was on the university’s Faculty Council and other campus-wide committees. He was a member of the executive committee of the Atlantic Coast Conference from 1978 to 1982 and was its president from 1980 to 1981. He also served on the board of directors of the Ronald McDonald House in Chapel Hill from 1981 to 1999.
He held leadership positions in prestigious professional organizations, including chairman of the American Board of Thoracic Surgery, chairman of the Advisory Council for Cardiothoracic Surgery of the American College of Surgeons, president of the Nathan A. Womack Surgical Society, and president of The Society of Thoracic Surgeons, the largest society of thoracic surgeons in the world. He received the Distinguished Service Award from the Society of Thoracic Surgeons in 2003.
He had a strong interest in graduate medical education, the training of resident physicians. He was instrumental in establishing the Thoracic Surgery Directors Association (TSDA) which was formed to improve cardiothoracic surgery training and education for doctors, and whose members are directors of cardiothoracic surgery residency programs across the United States. From 1985 to 1987, he served as president of TSDA. In 2009, the TSDA honored him by establishing the Benson Wilcox Award for Best Resident Paper, to be presented each year at The Society of Thoracic Surgeons’ annual meeting for the best scientific abstract submitted by a cardiothoracic surgery resident.
He also was on the Board of Directors of the National Resident Matching Program from 1998 to 2007, serving as president from 2001 to 2002. He was a member of the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education’s Residency Review Committee for Thoracic Surgery (1999-2005); the American College of Surgeons’ Graduate Medical Education Committee (1993-2001); and a member of the Committee on Graduate Education for the American Association for Thoracic Surgery (1992-2001).
In 1980, Dr. Wilcox spent time during a sabbatical at Royal Brompton National Heart and Lung Hospital in London, beginning a collaboration with Robert H. Anderson, M.D., a pediatric morphologist at Royal Brompton. After that visit, he and Dr. Anderson worked together on many research projects and publications, including the book Surgical Anatomy of the Heart (Raven Press, 3rd edition, 2004). The two physicians established a program that for many years enabled UNC cardiothoracic surgery residents to spend time in London studying with Dr. Anderson and attending rounds with him. Dr. Anderson also visited UNC.
Dr. Wilcox also was co-author of Atlas of the Heart (Gower Medical Publishing, 1988); and a co-editor of Diagnostic Atlas of the Heart (Raven Press, 1994). He was an author of more than 100 scientific and clinical articles that were published in medical journals.
After operating on many ill children, Dr. Wilcox had the idea of starting a support group for families of children who are undergoing heart surgery. The Carolina Parent Network, begun in 1986 and directed by Maggie Morris for many years, enables parents of children who are facing heart surgery at UNC to talk to parents who have already had the experience, and it also educates families about what to expect before, during and after surgery.
Dr. Wilcox loved history, especially medical history. As a medical student at UNC, he helped found the Bullitt Club for the study of the history of medicine. As a faculty member, he began collecting old and rare books about the history of medicine, particularly books about thoracic surgery and the specialties that preceded it. In 1984, he began presenting a rare book to the UNC Health Sciences Library each year in honor of his chief resident. In 1998 and 1999, he donated most of his medical book collection to the library. Since then the Benson Reid Wilcox Collection has grown to more than 1,400 books, journals, reprints and other items. He served on the board of visitors for the UNC Health Sciences Library.
“Dr. Wilcox’ contributions to the historical collections at the Health Sciences Library were truly remarkable in both variety and scope. An avid and erudite bibliophile, he thrilled in the hunt for significant texts, and had a deep appreciation for the role of history in the theory and practice of medicine,” said Daniel Smith, special collections librarian for the UNC Health Sciences Library.
Dr. Wilcox is survived by his wife, Patsy Davis, and by his four children: Adelaide W. King and her husband, Ruffin, of Charlottesville, Va.; Sandra W. Conway and her husband, Peter, of Charlotte, N.C.; Melissa W. Bond and her husband, Brett, of Charlotte; and Reid Wilcox and his wife, Suzanne, of Greensboro, N.C. He is also survived by 11 grandchildren, Alexandra and Ruffin King; Peter, Ben and Adelaide Conway; Brett, Lucinda and Reid Bond; and Ben, Henry and Ellie Wilcox. He is also survived by two stepdaughters, Harriet Kendall and Julia Klein; a brother, Bob Wilcox; two sisters-in-law, Dede Thompson and Louise Wilcox, and a brother-in-law Allan Davis. He was predeceased by his parents and by his brother Jim Wilcox.
A memorial service was held Friday, May 14, in Gerrard Hall on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
In lieu of flowers, the family suggests memorial gifts to the TSDA Benson R. Wilcox Award. Checks can be made to the Thoracic Surgery Directors Association and mailed to Michael R. Mill, M.D., Division of Cardiothoracic Surgery, CB#7065, UNC-CH, Chapel Hill, NC, 27599-7065.