In Memoriam: George L. Blackburn, MD, PhD

| March 1, 2017

by Daniel B. Jones, MD, MS, FASMBS, and Angela M. Saba

Daniel B. Jones, MD, MS, FASMBS, is Professor of Surgery, Harvard Medical School; Vice Chair, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Boston, Massachusetts. Angela M. Saba is Managing Editor, Bariatric Times.

Bariatric Times. 2017;14(3):10–11.


It is with heavy hearts that we say goodbye to our colleague, mentor, and friend, George L. Blackburn, MD, PhD, who passed away on February 20, 2017, at his home in Boston, Massachusetts. We remember his immeasurable contributions to many medical disciplines made throughout his career as well as the impact he had on every life he touched.

Early life and career. George L. Blackburn, MD, PhD was born on February 12, 1936 in McPherson, Kansas to George and Betty Blackburn and siblings Peggy and James. He graduated from the University of Kansas with a BA degree in Chemistry in 1958 and then earned his medical degree from the University of Kansas in 1965, graduating Alpha Omega Alpha. He completed his surgical residency on the Harvard (Fifth) Surgical Service at Boston City Hospital, where he also served as a research fellow in the Sears Surgical Laboratory.

In 1973 he received his PhD in Nutritional Biochemistry from MIT. Dr. Blackburn was first appointed as an Instructor in Surgery at the New England Deaconess Hospital in 1971 and has been a member of the department for 45 years.  Since 1998 he held the S. Daniel Abraham Professorship at Harvard Medical School, served as the Director of the Study of Nutrition Medicine at BIDMC, and the Director of the Feihe Nutrition Laboratory in the Department of Surgery.

Dr. Blackburn, together with his collaborator Dr. Bruce Bistrian, was among the very first to recognize in the 1970s that up to 50 percent of hospitalized surgical patients suffered from moderate to severe malnutrition. To address these challenges, he pioneered the development of intravenous hyperalimentation formulations, introduced novel formulations containing branch chain amino acids, and established the first multidisciplinary Nutrition Support Service in the United States for the safe delivery of total parenteral nutrition.

Dr. Blackburn and colleagues also recognized that poor nutrition also contributed to a growing epidemic of obesity in the United States. He performed the first Roux-en-Y gastric bypass procedure in New England in 1973, and spearheaded best practice standards for weight loss surgery, with emphasis on patient safety and quality of care. In 2005, he was the Vice-Chair of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Betsy Lehman Center for Patient Safety and Medical Error Reduction Expert Panel on Weight Loss Surgery. This panel made evidence-based recommendations for best practices in weight loss surgery. In 2009, he chaired the expert panel that updated the recommendations for best practices.

Dr. Blackburn was an original investigator in the Look AHEAD (Action for Health in Diabetes) study, a multi-center, randomized controlled trial that began in 2001, designed to determine whether intentional weight loss reduces cardiovascular morbidity and mortality in overweight individuals with type 2 diabetes. Look AHEAD is the largest and longest randomized controlled trial of behavioral intervention for weight loss, and has continued with The Look AHEAD Extension (LA-E).

Dr. Blackburn’s work has encompassed basic, clinical, and translational research in areas of critical importance to public health. It has resulted in over 400 publications in peer-reviewed journals, many review articles, over 100 textbook chapters, multiple patents, and a mass market book published in 2007 titled, Break through Your Set Point: How to Finally Lose the Weight you Want and Keep it Off.

A researcher to the end, Dr. Blackburn was recently studying the neurocognitive correlates of diet and physical activity patterns in lean and obese subjects with the Berenson-Allen Center for Noninvasive Brain Stimulation. He also highlighted a novel link between diet and cancer, demonstrating that reducing dietary fat intake improves disease-free survival among breast cancer patients.

A passionate educator. Another important part of Dr. Blackburn’s life and work was education. He has trained over 100 fellows and countless residents. Dr. Scott Shikora, Director, Center for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, Massachusetts, was one of his surgical residents and a nutrition fellow. When Drs. Ben Schneider and Daniel Jones took over the Bariatric Surgery program at BIDMC in Boston, George was their mentor. In 2008, the BIDMC honored him with a mentorship award. His teaching also included directing the Harvard Medical School CME program, International Conference on Practical Approaches to the Treatment of Obesity for 25 years (1986–2011).

As Associate Director of the Division of Nutrition at Harvard Medical School, he played an active role in the development of curriculum and the tutoring of our medical students, and provided our minimally invasive surgery fellows with guidance on their research projects.

In 2014, the Department of Surgery at BIDMC honored Dr. Blackburn by naming the Bariatric Surgical Service the Blackburn Service, a very fitting honor for one of the pioneers in the field.

In his personal time at his beloved Racing Beach in Falmouth, Massachusetts, Dr. Blackburn loved his many moments surrounded by members of his immediate and extended family, especially his grandchildren and great grandchild. Dr. Blackburn will be remembered with love and admiration by his family, and also by hundreds of friends, colleagues, doctors, and scientists he mentored.

Since news of his death spread, colleagues and friends have shared their condolences, memories, and general “thank you” to a man who will forever be etched in medical history.

Editor’s Note: Information for this memoriam came from the following sources:
•    Obituary: George L. Blackburn. The Boston Globe. February 21, 2017.
•    Letter to Faculty from Elliot Chaikof, MD, PhD, Surgeon-in-Chief Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC)
•    Jones DB. The Department of Surgery at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center honors Dr. George Blackburn. Bariatric Times. 2014;11(12):14-15.

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Category: In Memoriam, Past Articles

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