08 Oct 2022

Remembering Hans G Borst

Dr Hans Georg Borst died on 8 September 2022, aged 94. 
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Hans Georg Borst, MD – A European Surgeon

Axel Haverich

Dr Hans Georg Borst died on 8 September 2022, aged 94.  As President of EACTS in 1995, he addressed the Annual Meeting in Paris on the topic: “A European surgeon´s odyssey” (1). This characterises both his academic life and his devotion to his mother continent. It also reflects Hans´ intense desire for international partnership, far beyond cardiothoracic surgery. Like Odysseus, he did not trust in travelling alone. To strengthen his new discipline, cardiothoracic surgery, he founded two scientific societies together with peers: the German DGTHG in 1971, and EACTS in 1986. To enhance scientific communication, both societies launched their own journal and Hans became the editor-in-chief for both.

Becoming a cardiothoracic surgeon

 Hans Borst was born on October 17 in 1927 as the son of Max Borst, late Professor of Pathology at Munich university. In early 1945, he was drafted into the Luftwaffe, the German Air Force and subsequently spent 6 months in a British POW-camp. Upon returning home, he continued his studies and graduated in 1947. As a requirement before starting medical training at Munich university, Hans Borst had to work for six months as a construction labourer. After completing his preclinical training, he was granted a stipend to study at Harvard Medical School in the US, where he graduated in 1953. Supported by Frank Gerbode, a pre-war assistant in his father´s institute in Munich, he became an intern in the Department of Surgery at the old Stanford Hospital in San Francisco, before completing a two-year fellowship at the Department of Physiology, Harvard School of Public Health in Boston.

Returning to Germany in 1956, he moved to Rudolf Zenker’s clinic in Marburg  and was given responsibility for operating the heart-lung-machine, including the first time it was used successfully to close an atrial septal defect in Germany on 18th February 1958.

Borst and his juvenile Transplant team, 1986 from left: Axel Haverich, Thorsten Wahlers, Kwabena Frimpong-Boateng, Borst, Hans- Joachim Schaefers

Borst with his successor Axel Haverich, 1988

As the possibilities offered by heart surgery unfolded, Hans became convinced about the enormous potential of heart surgery for the treatment of conditions such as coronary artery disease and the management of heart attacks, which were the most common causes of death in western countries even at that time.

Borst (seated), visting Japanese Aortic Surgeons, 1994 (from left Okita, Kasuji, Ueda)

In 1968, he was appointed Professor of Surgery at the Hannover Medical School. This was the time when Christian Barnard hit the headlines internationally with the world’s first heart transplant operation. Borst visited the Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town with a Munich delegation to familiarise himself with Barnard’s surgical procedures and treatment protocols. Not least because of this experience, Hans Borst saw a future surgical field in organ transplantation.    

Science based innovations

Borst was constantly devising techniques and important surgical innovations to improve patient outcomes.  Inspired at congresses, read in magazines or born out of his own creativity, Hans Borst always had the urge and courage to design and carry out better interventions.. For some procedures, the risk halved during his time as a surgeon, for others, such as bilateral lung transplantation, it fell to a fifth.

His spirit and innovative strength were transferred to his younger colleagues. He constantly encouraged dedicated assistants to examine this and test that, or to visit other centres.

Surgical teacher and mentor 

He entrusted inexperienced co-workers with graduated steps of the surgical procedure under his supervision and left the responsibility to younger ones if he left the operating table early. Whether through impatience or by design, that concept worked.

Loss of a leader

With the death of Hans Georg Borst, his students have lost a charismatic teacher and a role model whose uncompromising responsibility for the wellbeing of individual patients in clinics and research are written in letters of gold. His tireless commitment to the medical and academic advancement of his staff has given many the opportunity to adopt his high standards for their own surgical work.

With Hans Georg Borst we are all losing a leading figure in European surgery of the last century.

For the community of surgeons, even during his lifetime, he was a monument at a special time.

Hans, we will not forget you, we will keep the memory of you and your legacy with honour.