Dr. Edgar Housepian packed more work, more contributions and more kindness into his time on earth than most. This year, March 18 would have been his 89th birthday (he passed away on November 14, 2014), and we take the opportunity to celebrate and remember him through his writings.
Dr. Housepian’s papers are now available at the Columbia University Medical Center Health Sciences Library. They provide an opportunity to learn from his perspective, to investigate his thinking process and simply to enjoy the record he left of a prodigious mind at work.
At Dr. Housepian’s memorial service, Dr. Robert Solomon pointed in his eulogy to his longtime friend’s extraordinary compassion. According to Dr. Solomon, Dr. Housepian was a highly skilled neurosurgeon who brought ease and empathy to all his interactions with patients.
Dr. Housepian saw patients for a variety of conditions, but he specialized in treating optic nerve tumors. “You’re better off financially being a specialist in hemorrhoids,” he once quipped. “There aren’t that many optic nerve tumors. But it was exciting.”
Some of this excitement, coupled with a drive to improve lives, took the form of innovation. Dr. Housepian developed new instruments, systems and techniques. He was one of the first doctors to perform minimally invasive stereotactic procedures, for example. Among his papers are drawings for a device he dreamed up to improve aneurysm surgery. He also supported younger doctors in their efforts to refine surgical practice.
A beloved professor in the Columbia Department of Neurosurgery for almost 60 years, Dr. Housepian was a collaborative, generous colleague. He was full of praise for the strengths of others, and he saw in the members of his department many qualities he valued.
Dr. Housepian described former Department Chair Dr. Bennett Stein, for instance, as “thoughtful and compassionate, bright and effective.” Dr. Solomon stood out as unusually “even-handed… not only a good person but also an outstanding surgeon who runs the department really well.”
(As an emeritus professor, Dr. Housepian pronounced with a trademark twinkle in his eye, “The department has never been nicer, now that I’m out of it.”)
Propelled by creative and humanitarian energy, Dr. Housepian was a continuous innovator who actively sought opportunities to help those around him, near and far.
He is widely admired for his role in international relief efforts. Following a terrible earthquake that struck Armenia in 1988, he established systems to help with the medical emergency there. He also co-founded the Fund for Armenian Relief. He received numerous honors based on that work.
Dr. Housepian believed in the importance of international exchange when it came to medical education as well. He developed partnership programs that would enable generations of Columbia medical students to travel all over the world, gaining and sharing expertise.
Renowned as a teacher and mentor, Dr. Housepian left legacies in the form of the many physicians he inspired, as well as in the lives of all the patients, on multiple continents, touched by his work.
As we raise our glasses to him this week on his birthday, we are all aware that we could do worse than to be a little more like him. We send his family our very best wishes.
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