The go-to surgeon when miracles were needed, Dr. W. Hardy Hendren was affectionately known as Hardly Human, a nickname that paid tribute to his superhuman endurance during operations that lasted more than 24 hours and to his ability to heal patients who couldn’t be cured anywhere else in the world.
For Dr. Hendren, who taught medical residents to always put the patient first, his devotion to surgery was its own life lesson.
“What was important was that you do a good job in the operation,” he once said. “You never walk away from the table knowing that you had not done well.”
Dr. Hendren, the chief of surgery emeritus at Boston Children’s Hospital who in 1969 led the team that performed Boston’s first surgery to separate conjoined twins, died Tuesday in his Duxbury home. He was 96 and his health had been failing.
“If there was a Mount Rushmore for pediatric surgery he would be on top,” said Dr. Patricia K. Donahoe, who is director of the Pediatric Surgical Research Laboratories at Massachusetts General Hospital and trained with Dr. Hendren years ago.
As a mentor and a surgeon, “his philosophy was to make a definitive fix,” said Dr. Joseph P. Vacanti, the John Homans professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital.
Dr. Hendren, who pioneered operations that repaired complex genitourinary defects, “did not believe in halfway solutions,” said Vacanti, who began training with him in 1974. “Dr. Hendren believed that you look at the big picture, figure it out, and do the definitive fix.”
In 2012, the American College of Surgeons honored Dr. Hendren with the Jacobson Innovation Award, praising his “innovative developments” that had “revolutionized the practice of pediatric surgery in reconstruction of the urinary and genital tract in patients with severe urogenital abnormalities.”
“Starting with bad tissue, or with misplaced or missing organs, or with tissue mutilated by someone else, Hendren is a man for whom nothing is too weird or too hopeless,” G. Wayne Miller wrote in “The Work of Human Hands,” his 1993 book about Dr. Hendren.
“If medicine were law,” Miller added, “Hendren’s operating room certainly would be the court of last resort.”
Born in New Orleans on Feb. 7, 1926, William Hardy Hendren III was the second of three children.
His mother, Margaret McLeod Hendren, was a pianist. His father, William Hardy Hendren Jr., had worked in film advertising in New Orleans and ran a film company in Kansas City, Mo., when the family moved there in 1933.
From boyhood “I knew I wanted to be a doctor,” Dr. Hendren said in a 2006 oral history interview for the Pediatric History Center of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “In fact I knew I wanted to be a surgeon.”
An Eagle Boy Scout, Dr. Hendren graduated from Woodberry Forest School in Virginia in 1943. While there, he met Eleanor McKenna at a school football game.
At a chapel service the following day he “heard Eleanor singing the hymns. She had a beautiful singing voice,” he said in the oral history. “And I thought to myself, ‘My, that’s an attractive girl.’ "
They married on his 21st birthday.
By then he had headed to Dartmouth College, where he studied briefly before leaving to serve in the Navy for three years. He had enlisted as a Navy aviation cadet, at the age of 17, in Kansas City and was called to active duty in November 1943.
He earned his wings as an aviator on Oct. 4, 1946, and, upon returning to Dartmouth with Eleanor, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1948. Dr. Hendren completed the college’s then two-year medical program in 1950 and transferred to Harvard Medical School, from which he graduated in 1952.
In the fall of his senior year, Dr. Hendren and other medical students disagreed with a new plan that had been created to match graduates with their top hospital choices for internships.
Creating an alternate approach, Dr. Hendren drew scorn from the medical school’s dean, but gratitude from medical students across the country, who overwhelmingly voted to use his method. It has remained in use nationally from then on.
After training at MGH and Children’s Hospital, Dr. Hendren returned to MGH and founded the department of pediatric surgery. He was chief of pediatric surgery at MGH in 1982 when he was named chief of surgery at Children’s Hospital.
Dr. Hendren performed surgery on patients in more than 60 countries, according to his family. Often, doctors in other nations sent patients to Boston to be treated by him.
“I say to young people, ‘Tell me any other areas where a person goes to work eagerly on Monday morning,’ ” he said in the oral history. “I looked forward to Monday mornings when I was operating, much more I think than the banker looks forward to getting back behind the teller’s cage, so to speak.”
Dr. Hendren’s 52 years as a surgeon — he retired in 2004 — spanned an era when improvements in anesthesiology made longer operations possible and safer, Vacanti said, and that helped Dr. Hendren to pioneer innovative treatments.
“He became known around the world as someone who was willing to take on the insoluble problems and succeed,” Vacanti said.
Dr. Hendren “was a storyteller,” he added. “He had lessons to teach and he often did that through stories. If you were in the operating room for 30 hours with him, you heard those stories.”
Donahoe, the emerita chief of pediatric surgery at MGH and Marshall K. Bartlett professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School, called Dr. Hendren “a legend in the pantheon of American surgeons and pediatric surgeons.”
“He had tremendous compassion in the care of his patients,” she said. “He actually loved his patients and they developed incredible bonds.”
Dr. Hendren, the Robert E. Gross professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School, said in the oral history that as he looked back at age 80, “the accomplishment that I’m most proud of is having joined with Eleanor, and having our family of five wonderful kids.”
Along with founding and running a women’s sportswear company, Eleanor made sure breakfast was ready at 5:30 a.m., the family’s opportunity to gather for a meal before he left for work each day.
“He just plain loved my mom,” said their son David of Medfield.
“Without her, he might have accomplished a lot, but would never have achieved what he achieved in life. And he knew it,” said David, who founded a venture capital firm, and whose three brothers are physicians. “She was his life’s love — and the rock and foundation upon which all things were built.”
In addition to Eleanor and David, Dr. Hendren leaves three other sons, Douglas of Harrisonburg, Va., William of Duxbury, and Robert of Goshen, Ky.; a sister, Carol Robb of Kansas City, Mo.; 11 grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.
The family will hold a private service in St. John the Evangelist Church in Duxbury. A public memorial service will be announced.
Dr. Hendren’s daughter, Sandra McLeod Hendren, a teacher and nurse, died in 1984 of complications of diabetes, a disease the legendary surgeon could not fix. Her death troubled him the rest of his life.
“As his death approached, we talked openly about his reunion with her,” David said, “and I prayed to her to take good care of dad when he joined her.”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.