John Lockwood Ochsner, MD, (1927-2018), a world-renowned heart surgeon, will be remembered as a charismatic and skilled surgeon, a dedicated teacher, a loving father, and a role model for the hundreds of surgeons he trained.
Dr. Ochsner was born in 1927 in Madison, Wisc., but was raised in New Orleans. and received his medical degree from Tulane University. He started his surgical residency at the University of Michigan but was drafted into military service during the Korean War. He then completed his residency at Baylor University and received his cardiac training under Michael DeBakey. MD,. Dr. DeBakey was a close family friend who had studied under John’s father at Tulane and had worked in the original Ochsner Clinic. John was very close to Dr. DeBakey, who was also John’s babysitter in early life.
Dr. John, as he was known, grew up in shadow of giants, including his father, Alton, who founded the Ochsner Clinic, and Michael DeBakey who was a protégé of Alton. As John was finishing his training with Dr. DeBakey he was asked to stay on in Houston as a member of Dr. DeBakey’s team. The Ochsner Clinic was expanding rapidly in New Orleans, however, and everyone was desirous of having John return. John initially planned to stay with Dr. DeBakey until the director of the Ochsner Clinic flew to Houston to meet with John to convince him to return to New Orleans. His argument was, “John, you will be a great surgeon wherever you practice, but there is only one hospital that has your name on the front of it!” John returned to the Ochsner Clinic in 1961, where he spent the next 57 years.
John Ochsner was revered as an innovative, energetic and talented surgeon, performing over 12,000 operations, including the first cardiac transplant in the Gulf South. He always said he was happiest in the operating room, and loved teaching young resident surgeons. He believed that “surgery is an art as much as a science. … You have to improvise almost every case — no two cases are the same – and that’s where the fun of surgery comes in, making something new that particular moment that you’ve never seen before. … It’s like opening up a package; it’s always a little different.”
He authored more than 300 peer-reviewed publications and gave innumerable scientific lectures around the world. He served as President of the International Society for Cardiovascular Surgery as well as the American Association for Thoracic Surgery. Over his career, he was elected president of more than 10 medical associations.
John, like his father, was active in many aspects of New Orleans life. He was an avid golfer and tennis player, and was always ready with a joke. He lived life with humor and enthusiasm, and was a member of multiple social clubs, developing lifelong friends from around the world. He was particularly thrilled when he was chosen as Rex, King of Carnival, in 1990, following in the royal footsteps of his father, who was King of Rex in 1948. Both of his granddaughters were presented as Maids of the Rex organization.
John is survived by his wife of over 64 years, Mary Lou Ochsner; a sister, Isabel Mann: two sons, Dr. John Ochsner, Jr., and Frank Ochsner, and two daughters, Joby Ochsner and Dr. Katherine Isabel Ochsner; he has two grandchildren.
Larry H. Hollier, MD, Professor of Surgery, Chancellor, Louisiana State University Health Science Center at New Orleans