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Dr. W. Gerald Austen, MGH surgeon and legendary leader in Boston medicine, dies at 92

Dr. Austen, the former longtime chief of surgical services at MGH, spent nearly seven decades as a surgeon and in leadership roles.Massachusetts General Hospital

At age 53, and well into his 29-year tenure as chief of surgical services at Massachusetts General Hospital, Dr. W. Gerald Austen took a moment to aim his diagnostic eye at himself. A heart surgeon, he knew well the toll of too much stress but was unconcerned by his work days, which often stretched past 12 hours.

“I haven’t seen any evidence that working hard hurts you in any way,” he told the Globe that February day in 1983, propping his feet on his desk and smiling as he leaned back in his swivel chair. “What hurts you is when you let it get the best of you, when you’re unhappy in your job.”

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As at ease as any physician could be in multiple, high-profile roles, Dr. Austen rose from being a rising star in Boston’s medical community in his 30s to become a founder of the Partners HealthCare system and the founding president and chief executive of the Massachusetts General Physicians Organization, a multi-specialty medical group.

Nearly 70 years after beginning his residency at MGH, Dr. Austen died of complications from metastatic melanoma Sunday in the hospital that was his career-long home. He was 92 and had lived in Boston.

In a joint statement, Dr. David F.M. Brown, MGH’s president, and Dr. Marcela del Carmen, president of the Massachusetts General Physicians Organization, praised Dr. Austen’s “immense contributions to the field of cardiac surgery, his unwavering dedication to improving the health and well-being of his patients, his steadfast commitment to training and supporting the next generation of clinicians, and his deep support and love for each and every MGHer.”

En route to becoming one of the most significant physicians in the hospital’s history, Dr. Austen was at 36, the second-youngest faculty member to become a full professor at Harvard Medical School. At 39, he was named MGH’s chief of surgery.

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A past president of the American Heart Association, he was a life member of the Corporation of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he had trained to be an engineer.

A prolific researcher with a lengthy resume of scholarly articles, books, and book chapters, he pioneered surgical techniques and played a key role in designing and creating a heart-lung cardiopulmonary bypass machine and the intra-aortic balloon pump.

In those pursuits, his bachelor’s degree from MIT came in handy.

“My field in engineering was fluid mechanics, and what could be better, it turned out,” he told the Globe. “Fluid mechanics is fluid flow through pipes, and cardiovascular surgery is also fluid flow through pipes and pumps.”

Among Dr. Austen’s countless patients were some whose illnesses made news: Henry Kissinger, the former US secretary of state; TV news anchor David Brinkley; and the actors John Wayne and Kirk Douglas.

“Don’t give the impression that Jerry Austen is a doctor of the stars. He is just a fabulous doctor to everyone who comes under his care,” Brinkley told the Globe in 1983, adding that among his own personal physicians, “I’m just totally devoted to him.”

The youngest of four siblings, William Gerald Austen, who was known to all as Jerry, was born in Akron, Ohio, on Jan. 20, 1930.

He was a son of Bertha Jehle Arnstein and Karl Arnstein, a prominent Czechoslovakia-born engineer who was in charge of engineering for Goodyear Aerospace Corp.

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During World War II, the Arnsteins’ daughters suggested their younger brothers would benefit from having a more American-sounding name. Bertha was fond of Jane Austen’s novels, so Jerry and his older brother, Frank, became Austens.

Dr. Austen graduated from Western Reserve Academy in Hudson, Ohio, and headed to MIT, intending to follow his father into engineering.

After graduating in 1951, however, he went into medicine instead, rooming for a while at Harvard Medical School with his brother, Dr. K. Frank Austen of Wellesley, who became a professor of respiratory and inflammatory diseases at the school and a much-honored physician and researcher at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Upon completing his residency at MGH, in lieu of military service, Dr. Jerry Austen spent two years conducting research at what was then the National Heart Institute in Bethesda, Md.

Then he returned to stay at Mass. General, where he met Patricia Ramsdell, a nurse. They married in 1961 and had four children. He credited her support with allowing him to pursue an energetic, hectic career.

“I have a terrific wife who understands me and what I have to do,” he told the Globe in 1969, when he became chief of surgery at MGH, “and that helps make it possible.”

Their son Christopher, of Concord, said that “his magic was his great awareness of people: their strengths, weaknesses, and motivations. He was a great listener and people knew he was deeply interested in them.”

Dr. Austen “instilled his value system in all his children: the importance of hard work, caring for others, the valuing of respect over money, integrity, and using all of these things to help other people,” said his son Karl, an entertainment attorney who lives in Westwood, Calif.

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“He was always supportive, gave incredible advice, and kept us laughing,” added Dr. Austen’s daughter, Dr. Elizabeth Austen Lawson of Chestnut Hill, a physician and researcher at MGH who teaches at Harvard Medical School.

Dr. Austen was the Edward D. Churchill distinguished professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School, which established a chair in surgery in his name.

Honored by MIT and MGH for his service as a trustee at each institution, he also served as a fellow, as a member, or in leadership roles in organizations including the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American College of Surgeons, and the American Surgical Association.

In a nod to his upbringing in northeastern Ohio, Dr. Austen also served for many years, including as chairman, on the board of the Knight Foundation, which was launched by John S. and James L. Knight of the Knight Ridder newspaper chain.

“There wasn’t a conversation with him that I didn’t come away from better,” Alberto Ibargüen, the foundation’s president, said in a tribute on the organization’s website. “He would listen with care and then say to me, and others, ‘We’re on the same page. I just have a few questions,’ and then go on to make much better whatever had just been presented to him.”

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In addition to his wife, Patty, their children Karl, Christopher, and Elizabeth, and his brother, Frank, Dr. Austen leaves another son, Dr. Jay Austen of Beacon Hill, who is chief of plastic, reconstructive, and burn surgery at MGH; and 10 grandchildren.

The family will hold a private service, and a celebration of his life will be announced.

“Dr. Austen was the most important physician at the MGH in the second half of the 20th century,” Dr. Roman DeSanctis, director of clinical cardiology emeritus at MGH, said for a hospital publication when his colleague was honored years ago.

“He also was a wonderful physician, loved by his patients,” said DeSanctis, who had worked with Dr. Austen to save Kissinger’s life in 1982. “In his commitment to the MGH, Harvard, teaching, research, administration, patient care, and development, I know of no one equal to Dr. Austen in the half-century that I have been here.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.