Behind most significant awards, you usually find a human story of outstanding character, singular achievement, and lasting influence. That is especially the case this year with the Society of Vascular Surgery’s highest honor, the Lifetime Achievement Award, bestowed Thursday on Dr. Alexander Clowes.
“Dr. Clowes may be considered the most prominent vascular surgeon scientist of our era,” noted SVS President Peter Lawrence.
Clowes was nominated by numerous Society members who cited his many contributions and unparalleled impact on the art and science of vascular disease management. Dr. Clowes has been a professor of vascular surgery at the University of Washington for 35 years. Throughout his life, he has stood out – as a surgeon, as a researcher, and as a caring person.
Dr. Clowes is the scion of a prestigious family of scientists, which included his grandfather, G.H.A. Clowes, a chemist who joined Eli Lilly Co. in 1919 and oversaw the development of numerous important pharmaceuticals, including insulin, and Alec Clowes’ father, Dr. George Clowes, Jr., a surgeon and researcher who taught at Harvard Medical School for two decades, and who isolated a peptide that contributes to muscle wasting.
With that background, noted Dr. Alec Clowes in an interview late last year, “I had said I was going to do nothing but science. But as I got into…vascular surgery I realized I simply liked taking care of people one by one.”
As a surgeon and researcher, stenosis has always been one of his recurring frustrations. After surgery, “one in three of those patients will get into trouble with excessive scarring and re-narrowing of the reconstruction,” he said. “If within one year of reconstruction you are back to square one, you can imagine how frustrating that is.”
His research over the years has led to many advances, such as applying medicines to stents. “You can’t eliminate stenosis but you can reduce and regulate it,” he said, “and that is the goal.”
Dr. Clowes more recently had been researching the possibility of a genetic basis for vein graft failure.
He is revered for his deep involvement in the careers of young investigators who have studied under him at the University of Washington. Several have become division chiefs and chairs and have mentored numerous subsequent trainees. He also played an important role in the development of a formal basic science curriculum for vascular surgery fellows.
“I am very proud of the young investigators I have trained over time,” he said, “and that they in turn have been successful.”
“He is a titan,” said his friend and colleague Dr. Ben Starnes. “And he is selfless.”
A little over a year ago, Dr. Clowes was diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer.
Dr. Starnes remembers the exact day, June 23, when he found out his friend was very ill. “I went over to his home,” Dr. Starnes recalled. “We sat out on his deck and had a beer looking over the Puget Sound. I told him I wanted to make a documentary of his career – he said we could start immediately.”
That video, produced by the UWTV, can be viewed at http://vsweb.org/AClowes.
Dr. Starnes also set up a schedule for faculty to take Dr. Clowes to his medical appointments and radiation.
“This was particularly useful for Alec and the junior faculty because it gave them one-on-one time with him for 2.5 to 3.5 hours straight,” Dr. Starnes added. “We also set up visits from other staff members to visit Alec at his home. These visits brought our staff closer to Alec and Alec very much enjoyed and appreciated his time with the junior faculty. A chance for him to continue to mentor as well.”
I think we made the most of this time with him and did not ignore the situation. Alec has never once complained about his current condition.”
Dr. Carlos A. Pellegrini, Chair of the UW Department of Surgery, believes the illness has spurred Dr. Clowes to focus on what is most important to him. “I think he has turned this into ‘what else can I do, so long as I am able to do things, to continue to help humankind?’” Dr. Pellegrini said.
The SVS Lifetime Achievement Award also recognizes an individual’s outstanding and sustained contributions both to the profession and to SVS, as well as exemplary professional practice and leadership.
Dr. Clowes has held important leadership roles in the SVS and other vascular societies. Most notably, he served on the Board of Directors of the SVS Lifeline Foundation from 1994 to 2003 and played a critical role in two initiatives that have had a longstanding impact in the area of vascular research: the jointly sponsored SVS Foundation/NHLBI Career Development Award program and the Research Initiatives in Vascular Disease conference (now VRIC).
He also served as the treasurer of the ISCVS North American Chapter and as the chair of the SVS Fellows Council for two terms. A long-standing member of the Western Vascular Society, he served as its president in 2007. He played a critical role as an advocate for vascular surgery within the American College of Surgeons, serving as Chair of its Research Committee and establishing the current ongoing partnership with ACS in the jointly funded K award program. This program has been a model for other surgical professional societies. Based on his signature interest in vascular biology, he has also made significant contributions to the American Heart Association and the North American Vascular Biology Organization.
While on the faculty of the University of Washington, he served 12 years as division chief of vascular surgery, contributing to the clinical and scientific training of numerous students, residents, and fellows. His tenure has also included serving as acting chair of surgery, vice-chair for research, and associate director of the MD-PhD program since 2006.
His highly productive laboratory was a fertile ground for the training of many successful clinician scientists who have gone on to prominent careers in the United States and around the world.
As a clinician he has focused his interests and educational efforts on vein graft surgery, carotid surgery, and noninvasive diagnostics. What is perhaps least known about him is that he is a highly respected and talented clinical vascular surgeon in his own community.
Dr. Starnes was able to accumulate all of Dr. Clowes’ 237 manuscripts and have them bound into six volumes with his family crest on the cover.
During his illness, Dr. Clowes has pursued his professional interests to the best of his abilities, and continued writing a biography about his grandfather.“I would not like to die with a mind full of regrets,” Dr. Clowes explained in the video. “I would like to deal with the issues that are still pressing me in real time, and do them before that moment comes.”
For Dr. Clowes, however, his family has been his greatest gratification. He and his wife Susan have three granddaughters. “And [they are],” he said, “really the joy of my life.” VC