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Fox Chapel man continues to train interns in burn unit while seeking golf excellence

Tawnya Panizzi
| Thursday, Feb. 13, 2003

Jack Gaisford was preparing to leave for a Hawaiian medical internship just days before the Japanese dropped a bomb on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

"They blew up my hospital. ... I didn't have a job, so I decided to stay here," said Gaisford, 87. "It was probably better anyway."

Instead, Gaisford and his bride, Franny, settled into a cozy home along Shady Lane, and he became chief resident of pediatric surgery at Children's Hospital in Pittsburgh.

"This is a wonderful place for small children," he said. "They would play and never go on the main street. And it was close to the hospitals. I could get to any of them within minutes."

Gaisford couldn't have known 61 years ago that fate chose a life for him in Fox Chapel that would lead to, among other things, a stint as the chief of a Philippine Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (M*A*S*H) and a dear friendship with one of the world's most revered military leaders, the late General Matthew Ridgway.

"He did so much in a quiet unassuming fashion for people who never knew him," Gaisford said from the den of his palatial stone cottage along West Waldheim Road, where he became Ridgway's neighbor in 1965.

The same probably could be said about Gaisford.

Now a world-renowned burn surgeon, the Chicora native can rattle off a list of formidable accomplishments matched, likely, only by his humility.

They include:

  • Serving as the first resident of plastic surgery in Pittsburgh. He spurred a training center for aspiring specialists when there was none available in Pittsburgh.

  • Founding the burn center at West Penn Hospital in 1970.

  • Traveling to Israel in 1990 to perform cancer surgery en masse at a city hospital.

  • Authoring a handful of books on topics ranging from Ridgway and M*A*S*H units to his not-so-secret passion, golf.

    "The sport has meant everything to me," said Gaisford, who earned golf scholarships to both Kiski Prep School, where he was one of 11 in his graduating class, and to the University of Pennsylvania, where an uncle inspired him to study medicine.

    His early skill has been a continuous gateway for Gaisford, who parlayed his passion into meetings with both former President George Bush and military doctor Richard Hornberger, who penned the inspiration for one of TV's longest-running sitcoms, M*A*S*H.

    "A golfing friend of mine knew (Hornberger) so I called him up. I bet him that I knew his commanding officer in Korea, which he couldn't believe," Gaisford said, laughing. "When I told him it was Ridgway, he dropped the phone. I got on a plane and played golf with him the next day."

    At 87, Gaisford still hits the greens at Fox Chapel Golf Club almost daily each summer. And he still keeps photos of his 1933 high school golf team framed along his gameroom wall. They hang beside autographed photos of U.S. Open champions Lew Worsham and Tom Watson, a patient of his.

    Gaisford's home, surrounded by towering trees and rolling lawns, seems a fitting retreat for the medical trailblazer.

    The den, where he and his wife of nearly 60 years spend a good part of the day, is filled with mementos that seem ripe with Gaisford's character: a collection of handcarved wooden doctor figurines, a flower salvaged from Nagasaki after the city was destroyed by Truman's atom bomb, and an oversized top-secret blueprint given to him by Ridgway, outlining a plan of attack for the general's 82nd Airborne Division in Korea.

    Candid Ridgway snapshots are peppered among family portraits of Gaisford's six grandchildren sitting on Santa's lap.

    Of course, there are photos that journal Gaisford's military and medical adventures, like the one of him with spear-laden tribal guerillas and the one of Ridgway and him cruising in a convertible at the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro, Africa.

    Gaisford laughed as he recalled that picture and the trip to Johannesburg, where he was invited on a medical mission.

    "The general asked if he could come along. By the time we got off the plane word had gotten out and all the state heads were waiting for us," Gaisford said. "I was an addendum to the trip at this point."

    His surgical career ended about 10 years ago, but Gaisford still reports to West Penn Hospital each morning to help train interns at the burn center. And, he currently serves on both a research team and the board of directors for Mylan Labs, the world's largest generic drug company.

    "But let me show you where I do my real work," Gaisford said, revealing a broad smile and a basement hideaway lined with more than 200 golf clubs, including a putter shaped like a bright red hot dog — a gift from a former chairman of Heinz.

    Buckets of white golf balls litter the floor and a practice net sits nearby.

    "I've hit a million balls into that thing," he said. "That's work."

    Jack Gaisford


  • Age: 87.

  • Hometown: Fox Chapel.

  • Family: Wife, Franny; three daughters, Linda Tedder, Cindy Klee and Carolyn Imbriglia.

  • Favorite thing about the Lower Valley: It's a wonderful place for small children.

  • Motto: You can buy a small place and turn it into anything you want.

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