William Martin Abbott, MD, former president of the Society for Vascular Surgery (SVS), died peacefully in his home Jan. 9 after a brief illness. He was 86.
Abbott grew up in San Francisco and graduated from Stanford University and Stanford Medical School. He completed his surgical training at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and served in the Navy during the Vietnam War.
As one of the early true surgeon-scientists, he embarked on an extensive laboratory effort while maintaining and practicing the high standards of clinical vascular surgery at the MGH. His myriad contributions to his specialty resulted in his appointment by then Chair of Surgery W. Gerald Austen, MD, as the first chief of vascular surgery at the MGH, a position he held for 22 years and subsequently his SVS presidency in 1998. Abbott’s investigative work was at the intersection of multiple scientific disciplines. His research and clinical contributions touched upon all of the salient advances that have allowed vascular surgery to evolve to its highly regarded stature as a surgical and interventional specialty addressing some of the most complex human diseases.
Abbott worked on the development of experimental and autologous vascular grafts, as well as the biologic and physiological determinants of graft behavior, allowing clear scientific underpinnings to predict how vascular grafts should be engineered or constructed to optimize their behavior in the human vasculature. He married clinical observations to cutting-edge work in the cell biology of vascular interventions and for many years headed a multidisciplinary National Institutes of Health-funded lab as well as served on numerous NIH study sections which he found to be a wonderfully collegial and intellectually stimulating experience. In collaboration with labs and universities around the world, the MGH scientific effort in vascular disease was a huge attractant for other scientists and surgeons interested in the evolving specialty of vascular surgery.
Abbott published in the area of noninvasive diagnosis and new radiologic techniques for surgical selection and planning. As chief of vascular surgery, he was at the cusp of the endovascular revolution ensuring that the MGH vascular division was a cornerstone investigator as the era was launched. The division’s reputation today as a globally leading endovascular center expands on his legacy and initial engagement at the forefront of change.
Abbott was also an instrumental contributor to the policies and educational advances that have made vascular surgery a prominent field. He advocated for the responsible adoption of new techniques, the expansion of scientific and multidisciplinary approaches to vascular disease to ensure higher quality patient care and the establishment of vascular surgery as an independent specialty with its own boards and accreditation. The MGH vascular fellowship was formally established on his watch, gaining prominence for the training and further education of vascular surgeons. Many of the division’s visiting surgeons and fellows to the MGH were or became leaders in their own right in their respective countries. The vascular fellowship established by Abbott has remained one of the eminent vascular fellowships in the world, producing many future chiefs of vascular surgery, and chairs of surgical departments.
With vision and prescience, Abbott’s view of the practice of medicine went well beyond the scope of vascular surgery. Throughout his career he spoke to the issues of quality assurance, time for reflection and excellence in work as well as in personal life balance. He was an early and fierce advocate for examining indications and outcomes in the treatments for vascular disease. In his post-surgical life, his intellectual curiosity and desire to contribute to his community found him in the role of a counselor for those suffering from substance-abuse, and he tackled this role and responsibility with as much fervor and joy as he did throughout the earlier part of his professional life as a surgeon.
Abbott is remembered by all of his friends as a shining intellect, a visionary leader of surgeons, an educator and mentor, and an individual for whom the right values, decency and integrity were paramount. His legacy is found within the walls of the MGH, and around the world.
He is survived by his wife, Cynthia (Davison), his son, William W. Abbott, and his wife, Katherine of Barrington, Rhode Island, and their two daughters, Annabelle and Allison. He is also survived by his daughter, Sarah L. Abbott of Westminster, Colorado, and her son, Morgan. There will be a celebration of life in the spring of 2023.
Jonathan Gertler, MD, is a former associate professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital. This is an edited version of an obituary originally written for Massachusetts General Hospital. It is reprinted with permission.