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Man of Action

Julius Jacobson

Dr. Julius Jacobson, G’48, is the father of vascular microsurgery. But that’s just for starters. Like Ben Franklin, he has only to see a challenge to address it, and the 83-year-old physician doesn’t let age stand in the way.

In 1947, when he first became involved with microsurgery, the dissecting microscope was the instrument of choice. Used for surgery on the eye and other small areas, it allowed surgeons to operate on tiny structures. For work on blood vessels, though, the surgeon and an assistant both had to view the surgery in progress. Jacobson needed a two-person surgical microscope. So he built it himself.

Once his prototype “diploscope” was ready, he approached American corporations. “The inevitable question, Can we sell 10,000? came up,” he remembers, “and nothing happened.” Germany’s Carl Zeiss was interested, so the inventor made the trip to post-war Germany, where he worked with Zeiss optical engineers to create a surgical tool of such significance that the original now resides at the Smithsonian. With the diploscope, effective treatments for “blue babies,” dismembered limbs, and other maladies were suddenly available, and the field of vascular microsurgery took off. “Many more than 10,000 have been sold,” he notes pointedly.

Original thinking, Jacobson says, is the most important thing in the world. For him, it’s a way of life. Right now, for example, he’s seeking the venture capital for a new high-tech idea he calls “24/7 medicine.”

“ All my life, I’ve gotten calls in the middle of the night about patients. There’s a monitor by every bed at the ICU, but the content isn’t written down or saved. My idea is to provide 24/7 medicine by allowing doctors to access saved content from the monitor, observe the patient, and conduct a videoconference with the doctor on call—all from a distance.” Other projects in the wings include a failsafe walker for the elderly and an internal thermometer for overheated athletes.

To spur others to innovate, he’s endowed the Jacobson Innovation Award of the American College of Surgeons. The award honors living surgeons who develop new tools or techniques that advance any field of surgery. Winners have included surgeons who made breakthroughs in laparoscopic surgery and kidney transplantation.

Through his patients, many of whom owe life and limb to his surgical expertise, Jacobson has received a behind-the-scenes entrée to the worlds of art and music. As with technology, interest led to enthusiasm—and enthusiasm to action.

One patient offered Jacobson a painting he admired as a reward for a successful operation and started the surgeon down the road to serious art collecting. Today, in his New York City apartment, Jacobson points out works by Degas, Bruegel, Bonnard, Redon, and others.

Another patient with connections to the classical-music community, ran into Jacobson at a concert. Listening to the surgeon’s well informed opinions about the program, the patient joked that Jacobson should write a book. It took about a year for him to create The Classical Music Experience, a CD-book combo narrated by Kevin Kline. He’s now at work on volume two.

Julius Jacobson no longer performs surgery and has retired from his position as chief of cardiac surgery at Mount Sinai Hospital. As for the rest of his projects—
he’s only just begun.

Lisa Jo Rudy is a freelance writer and consultant based
in Elkins Park, PA.

Copyright ©2004 University of Pennsylvania
School of Arts and Sciences
Updated August 31, 2004