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Pittsburgh heart surgery pioneer Dr. George J. Magovern dies

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Dr. George J. Magovern, the pioneering heart surgeon known for a distinguished career at Allegheny General Hospital, died on Monday Nov. 4, 2013, hospital officials said. He was 89.
Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2013, 1:21 p.m.
 

Dr. George J. Magovern, an influential cardiovascular surgeon who pioneered artificial heart valves and helped establish Allegheny General Hospital as a leading force in open-heart surgery, died on Monday, hospital officials said. He was 89.

Magovern is widely regarded as one of Pittsburgh's great medical icons, along with polio vaccine maker Jonas Salk and transplant great Thomas Starzl.

“They all made big contributions, which laid the foundation to the fact that Pittsburgh is a biomedical powerhouse,” said his son, Dr. George Magovern Jr., chief of thoracic and cardiovascular surgery at Allegheny Health Network.

Magovern died of natural causes, his son said. Until two years ago, Magovern visited his office in Allegheny General in the North Side every week, where he read medical journals, attended conferences and chatted with former colleagues.

Magovern is best known for co-creating with engineer Harry Cromie a sutureless heart valve at a time when doctors spent too much time sewing the artificial devices to the heart muscle. The device, which was first used in 1962, reduced the time doctors spent doing surgeries. Perhaps most significantly, it improved patient survival rates to 90 percent at a time when more than half of patients died after surgery.

Born in New York City, Magovern joined the staff of Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh in 1959 after training at George Washington University Hospital in Washington. He chaired AGH's department of surgery from 1970 to 1994 and developed the region's first trauma center.

As a young surgeon, Magovern began performing coronary artery bypass surgery to treat blockage or narrowing of the coronary arteries. His success prompted the hospital's open heart program to become the largest in Pennsylvania and the tenth largest in the United States.

“He was the utmost gentleman, always,” said Dr. Bartley Griffith, the former chair of cardiac surgery at UPMC and now professor of surgery at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. “He was the archetype of the compassionate surgeon.”

Griffith said he decided to become a surgeon after watching Magovern work. He said his mentor wore his emotions for everyone to see and patients adored him for it.

“I remember seeing him many times so exhausted that after driving home he'd have to wait to get out of the car,” Griffith said.

At a time when rivalries among Pittsburgh's hospitals weren't as pronounced, Magovern collaborated with surgeons at other area facilities. In 1963, he performed the world's second lung transplant at UPMC Presbyterian.

In addition to his son George, Magovern is survived by daughters Mary Magovern Scott, Susan Magovern, Frances Magovern O'Connor and Ann Margaret Magovern, and 14 grandchildren.

A Mass of Christian burial will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday at St. Scholastica Church in Aspinwall. Memorial contributions can be made to the Allegheny Heart Institute, 320 East North Ave., Pittsburgh, PA 15212.

Luis Fábregas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7998 or lfabregas@tribweb.com.

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