Alumnus of Merit Award 2008
The Alumnus of Merit Award is the highest honor the Alumni Association bestows on an alumnus of Whitman College. This award is given to alumni who have achieved distinction in their chosen field, or rendered outstanding service to their community, or rendered outstanding service to, and demonstrated loyal interest in, Whitman College. Members of the Board of Trustees, the Board of Overseers, and the Board of Directors of the Alumni Association are eligible three years after their last term has been served.
2008 Alumnus of Merit Award Recipient
Dr. Gordon Tobin '65 is one of a team of surgeons who has performed three human hand transplants — including the first successful one — and is preparing to transplant a human face. The University of Louisville (Kentucky) professor of surgery and former director of the division of plastic surgery there also is a pioneer in reconstructive techniques for major cancer surgery.
Yet Tobin is perhaps most proud of the surgical techniques he has taught other doctors, including those in Third World countries, to help them care for and perform reconstructive surgery on burn victims.
The Whitman Alumni Association is prouder still of Tobin. It has awarded him its highest honor, the Alumnus of Merit Award for 2008, for achieving distinction in his chosen field.
Tobin, co-founder of the Louisville-Vietnam Burn Project and leader of many international medical missions, realized on one of those missions that the benefits stopped when the trip was over. “We worked dawn to dusk every day we were there and operated on 200 children, but then it was over, and we came home. And no more children could be helped.”
He didn’t stop organizing medical missions, but he did change their focus.
“We began training physicians and health professionals wherever we went in the techniques we were using. We left them with the obligation they would pass them on,” he said.
His desire to do something bigger than he had initially imagined, something sustainable, was born at Whitman.
A Twin Falls, Idaho, native, Tobin was drawn to the college by word-of-mouth and its “very strong expression of the liberal arts philosophy.” Medicine was one of a few possible career options when he arrived. By commencement, he knew it was his future.
“A lot of that was a positive experience in the sciences,” he said. “(The late biology professor) Arthur Rempel was a towering figure.” The other side of medicine, the ethical side, was deeply influenced by “another towering figure,” George Ball, Weyerhaeuser professor of biblical literature, emeritus.
“It was also that experience of having one’s horizon expanded,” Tobin said. “I realized there was so much more out there that I hadn’t seen. That experience has guided me ever after. I’m always looking for what’s beyond the horizon.”
So far, the horizon is limitless.
Tobin’s initial interest in surgery quickly zeroed in on plastic surgery, a field that was exploding when he got his medical degree at the University of California, San Francisco, in 1969. “The opportunities to work on the frontier of knowledge and expand that frontier were enormous in plastic surgery,” he said.
The exception was composite tissue transplant (hands, face, etc.) research, which had been quashed by immunosuppression issues in an unsuccessful hand transplant attempt in the 1960s.
It was “the instinct that came from the Whitman experience and looking at the limits not as barriers, but challenges,” Tobin said, that pushed him to research the technical aspects of transplants of the face, jaws and other parts of the body in spite of the immunological barrier. “I was hoping for the day when we’d understand enough immunology to do a transplant, but frankly I didn’t know if it would happen in my lifetime,” he said.
“When we did our first hand transplant (nearly 10 years ago), we still didn’t know if our laboratory work would bear out in human beings. At some point, you can’t tell until you do the surgery.” Their patient was an emergency medical technician instructor who in an “irresponsible moment” had lost his hands to fireworks.
One of the primary considerations in choosing a composite tissue transplant patient is the ethical side of the equation, Tobin said. The ideal candidate is a person who will live a productive life and is committed to a lifetime of medication and follow-up medical care. The hand transplant by a team of French surgeons several weeks before the Louisville transplant was unsuccessful, in large part, Tobin said, because in the French team’s haste to be the first they did not screen the patient carefully enough.
Likewise, face transplants should be performed only for the most severe deformities such as war injuries, “the kind of injuries we’re seeing now in Iraq,” he said.
In recent years, Tobin has organized teams of surgeons to travel to Afghanistan and Pakistan to treat burn and amputation patients. The U.S. government halted both trips because it could not guarantee the team’s safety. Two years ago Tobin missed his 40th Whitman reunion while preparing for the Afghanistan trip. In December 2007, the trip to Rawalpindi, Pakistan, was halted about two weeks before departure. Later that same month, Pakistan opposition leader Benazir Bhutto was assassinated directly in front of the burn unit where the team would have worked, Tobin said. “I can’t in good conscience take a team into that situation.”
Still, the mission goes forward. After the first attempt, Afghani doctors were brought to the United States to study the surgeons’ techniques, and Pakistani doctors will be, too, he said.
Tobin gives a great deal of credit to Whitman for his accomplishments: the patients on whom he has performed transplants and reconstructive surgeries in the United States and Third World countries, the children he has cared for who were brought to the university from overseas, the doctors from around the world he has trained and mentored.
“The Whitman experience opened my eyes,” he said. “It’s kind of like getting a Hubble telescope when you have been looking through binoculars. It is the expansion of imagination that comes from the total experience.”
Dr. Gordon Tobin met his wife, Elisabeth, when she was teaching him microbiology at medical school. They live in Louisville, Ky., and have two grown children.