American College Of Surgeons - Inspiring Quality: Highest Standards, Better Outcomes

Frank C. Spencer, MD, FACS

Frank C. Spencer, MD, FACS <br>(Photo credit: Oscar & Associates, Chicago, IL)

Throughout his remarkable career, cardiothoracic surgeon Frank C. Spencer, MD, FACS, former President of the American College of Surgeons (1990 to 1991), has distinguished himself as an advocate for the American College of Surgeons, practicing surgeons, and surgical patients. Over the course of his career and his 54-year membership in the American College of Surgeons, Dr. Spencer has actively served the surgical community in a variety of leadership capacities.

A native of Haskell, TX, Dr. Spencer started as a college freshman, at North Texas State College, at the age of 15. He entered medical school, Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, Nashville, TN, at age 17, receiving a medical degree in 1947.1 After completing an internship from 1947 to 1948 at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore, MD, he embarked upon a year of laboratory investigation. From 1949 to 1951, he served as assistant resident in surgery at the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Medicine, under William Longmire, MD, FACS, in the school’s then-newly developed department of surgery.

Dr. Spencer’s residency training was put on hold by his service in the U.S. Navy during the Korean Conflict. During his two years of service to the U.S. Navy Medical Corps, Dr. Spencer’s knowledge of artery repair led him to request permission from the Navy to attempt repair of injured blood vessels in the legs. The practice Dr. Spencer suggested was in strict contrast to the course of treatment at that time (arterial ligation of the injured vessel), which often resulted in gangrene and amputation. In spite of a denial of his request to change treatment protocol, he took the initiative with performing the repairs anyway, which resulted in Dr. Spencer facing court martial. However, with more than 150 repairs being performed and an 80 to 90 percent success rate, Dr. Spencer was not court-martialed, but awarded the Navy’s Legion of Merit Award for exemplary service. Of his recognition, Dr. Spencer said “…arterial repair in Korea benefited more people than anything I’ve ever done.”1 He returned to his surgical training at Johns Hopkins in 1953, completing his residency in 1955.2

Through distinguished academic appointments at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine; the University of Kentucky College of Medicine, Lexington; and New York University School of Medicine, New York City, Dr. Spencer honed his ability to teach, twice earning the Distinguished Teacher Award from New York University School of Medicine, as well as being the recipient of the Great Teacher Award from the Alumni Federation of New York University.2 Moreover, there is a surgery professorship named for Dr. Spencer at the Cardiac and Vascular Institute of New York University’s Langone Medical Center—the Frank C. Spencer Professor of Surgery.

In the 1960s, it was Dr. Spencer’s work, at New York University, in techniques such as coronary artery bypass grafting that served as the basis for what is now modern cardiac surgery. In 2010, Dr. Spencer was given a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Association of Thoracic Surgery (AATS), which is given to an AATS member who has made outstanding contributions to the specialty of thoracic surgery that permanently impact future generations of surgeons.1,3

As a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons, Dr. Spencer has vigorously contributed to the College’s work. In 1980, he became a member of the ACS Board of Regents, serving on the Board’s Education Committee, Central Judiciary Committee, and Professional Liability Committee. During his nine years as a Regent, he served as the Board’s Chair and as Chair of the Regents’ Professional Liability Committee. He also served as Chair and a member of the Surgical Forum Committee, a member of the Program Committee, and a member of the Cardiovascular Committee, and served two three-year terms as a member of the College’s Board of Governors. In 1979, he delivered the John H. Gibbon Jr., Lecture at the ACS Clinical Congress.2

In addition to having been President of the ACS, Dr. Spencer served as president of the American Association for Thoracic Surgery and the American Surgical Association.

A strong proponent of dedication to patients, “The Vital Role in Medicine of Commitment to the Patient” was the subject of Dr. Spencer’s ACS Presidential address in 1990. In the speech, he discussed his view that although he did not have “easy solutions to the serious, complex problems facing surgery” at that time, his attitude about the future of medicine was in strict contrast to the “gloom and doom” of others. “I remain as enthusiastic and excited about the pleasures and opportunities of surgery and medicine as in my early house officer days. My attitude is a blend of confident optimism with pragmatic realism.”4


  1. Shemin RJ. Lifetime Achievement Award: Frank Cole Spencer, MD. J Thorac Cardiovasc Surg.2010; 139: 1-3.
  2. College News: Dr. Spencer inducted as ACS President. Bull Am Coll Surg. 1990;75(11):28-29.
  3. History of Firsts. New York University Cardiac and Vascular Institute website. Available at Accessed 3/14/12.
  4. Spencer F. Presidential address: The vital role in medicine of commitment to the patient. Bull Am Coll Surg. 1990;75(11):6-19.

ACS Archives Highlights is a series showcasing the vibrant history of the American College of Surgeons, its members, and the history of surgery. For further information on our featured highlights, search the Archives Catalog or contact the ACS Archivist.