The Legacy of Dr. Harwell Wilson

Harwell Wilson, AB, MD, FACS was born in Lincoln, Alabama on May 23, 1908. His grandfather, Dr. J. Tinsley Harrison, a rural general practitioner, influenced him greatly in his decision to enter medicine. The Dr. Tinsley Harrison of Dr. Wilson’s generation was Dr. Wilson’s cousin and was Professor and Chairman of Medicine at the University of Alabama. Dr. Wilson received his BA in 1928 and his MD (AOA) in 1932 from Vanderbilt University. He studied under Dr. Barney Brooks and worked with Dr. Alfred Blalock in the early study of shock. Dr. Dallas B. Phemister asked Dr. Wilson to be a surgical resident at the newly created Department of Surgery at the University of Chicago. Dr. Wilson studied for seven years, one of which was spent in research and surgical pathology. He was Chief Resident and Instructor in Surgery at the University of Chicago, 1938 – 1939. With the onset of World War II, Dr. Wilson joined the Vanderbilt Unit of the 300th General Hospital. Serving in the Mediterranean Theater, he rose to Chief of Surgery of the 225th station hospital and then he became Surgical Consultant to Dr. Edward Churchill in the Theatre. After the war, Dr. Wilson came to Memphis to establish his private practice. He was soon asked to assume the Chair in Surgery at the University of Tennessee College of Medicine. He directed the evolution of a one-man volunteer department to a large multi-specialty, modern University Department during 1948 – 1974. He was an outstanding teacher, a good administrator and a master of tact and consideration in dealing with other physicians, families, and hospital personnel. He made many contributions to surgery, but the most important was in instilling in young surgeons warmth, kindness, courtesy and compassion in addition to surgical skills. Many of his junior faculty and residents have gone on to major academic and clinical posts. He was a critical, curious observer and prolific writer, publishing over a hundred national articles, building many exhibits, and producing several motion pictures. He was a pioneer in vascular surgery and contributed to the fields of carcinoid and carotid body tumors and colonic volvulus. He was active in medical organizations, serving as officers in many surgical groups. He was Treasurer of the American College of Surgeons (1962-1967) and President of the Southern Surgical Association, Southeastern Surgical Congress, and Society for Surgery of the Alimentary Tract. He was First Vice-President of the American Surgical Association when he died. He received many honors, including the Legion of Merit in 1945 and the distinguished service award from the University of Chicago, Memphis and Shelby County Medical Society, Tennessee Medical Society, and the Southeastern Surgical Congress. However, he felt his greatest honor was the the establishment of the Harwell Wilson Surgical Society in 1973 by his former residents. Dr. Wilson died at home, as was his wish, on October 10th, 1977, after a long courageous illness. The surgical profession, thousands of grateful patients and family and friends will forever be in debt to this scholar, Southern gentleman and surgeon.
– Adapted from Obituary published in 1978