After some 50 years, Basil Pruitt rules the field of burn surgery through his vision, grit and leadership.
David Jayne, then 30 years old, was mapping the terrain in Guatemala for an international geodetic survey in 1959 when his gas tank leaked and the helicopter he was piloting exploded and rolled over. He was burned across 65 percent of his body, and wasn't transported to San Antonio's U.S. Army Burn Center until two weeks after the accident.
By the time he arrived, Jayne had gangrene on his hands and face. Basil Pruitt Jr. (M'57) was a staff surgeon at the burn center, where Jayne had 29 operations and spent three-and-a-half years on and off. Miraculously, the pilot went back to flying helicopters for eight more years. In 1970, Jayne retired in his mid-40s to attend law school and start his second career, where the San Antonio attorney became known for representing burn survivors. His path and Pruitt's have crossed again and again.
"Colonel Pruitt, as I like to call him, and other burn doctors who worked with him were instrumental in my recovery," Jayne says. "He is the most revered burn doctor in the world. I've seen it firsthand from him working on me and then from other things I have witnessed over the last 40 years."
Regarding the scale of Pruitt's fame, Jayne recalls attending a conference at the National Institutes of Health where Pruitt was asked to speak: "There were more than 300 doctors from almost every continent, and they hung on every word he had to say. They crushed him after each speech with questions, and he couldn't break away for 30 to 40 minutes."
On the move
If you want to reach Pruitt at home, it helps to be nocturnal. That is because six days a week, including Saturday, the internationally renowned burn surgeon is at his office by 9 a.m. at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, where he is a clinical professor of surgery and edits the Journal on Trauma. He doesn't return home until 10 or 11 p.m. "You can call me in the evening when I get back," he tells a reporter cheerfully. "I'm up late!"
That is, when he's even in town. Between accepting every imaginable award in and around the world for his surgical skills and scholarship, lecturing and speaking from Taipei to Cairo to Ankara to Buenos Aires, being a member of 38 professional societies, presiding as president-elect of the Shock Society, attending meetings as a senior member of the American Board of Surgery, and often conducting rounds at the U.S. Army Burn Center at Brooke Army Medical Center, Pruitt's plate is as full as they come.
As editor of the Journal, he receives a staggering 1,600 to 1,800 academic papers a year. "I read thousands and thousands of reviews a year," he notes. An equally prolific writer, Pruitt has authored or coauthored 444 papers and 170 chapters in major textbooks. "I have some others cooking," he mentions casually. If you want to read Pruitt's bio, you will see that he has served on 11 editorial boards alone.
Throughout his career, he has conducted clinical and laboratory research that has dramatically improved the treatment of burns, and he has published papers in all areas in which advancements have been made. Elected president of 10 surgical or burn associations, he has mentored and influenced other eminent burn physicians. Imagine this: In the U.S. Army Burn Center, a bronze bas relief of Pruitt stands in tribute to his achievements.
Burns weren't always Pruitt's field of interest. After graduating from Harvard College in 1952, he spent a year at his alma mater's graduate school pursuing a master's degree in geology. But then, just one course shy of his master's requirements, he opted for medicine at Tufts instead. "I decided I was more interested in the life sciences than in scratching rocks the rest of my life," he recalls. Still, he did gain a gem that year: a student in his geology program introduced him to her college classmate, Molly, now his wife of 53 years.
Pruitt left Harvard to enroll at Tufts, and has had no regrets. It was while interning at Boston City Hospital that Pruitt was introduced to the field of burns as well as to the Army—two areas that became lifelong passions. "It just seemed to me that burn patients had so many problems, and there was a disturbance of so many organ systems that you could always find something that would be exciting to work on," muses Pruitt.
Pruitt makes rounds at the Brooke Army Medical Center at Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas.
As a medical student, Pruitt, like all physicians in training, was subject to the government's Berry Plan, which was a draft for doctors. Established during the 1950–53 Korean War, the Berry Plan (named for Frank Berry, the assistant secretary for health affairs) allowed physicians to be deferred from military service while they trained in civilian medical hospitals. They could then use those specialties during military service.
In that era, most new M.D.s were drafted right after their internships to serve as general medical officers or at troop clinics. Pruitt received a partial deferment and was able to finish a surgical internship and his first year of a surgical residency. On a cardiothoracic rotation, he met a CT fellow named Harry Soroff who had just spent two years fulfilling his Army requirement at the San Antonio Burn Center. He told Pruitt he thought it might appeal to him, too.
Yet, when it came time to decide where to serve his country, Pruitt's approach was a bit unorthodox. That is, he had been reading The New York Times Sunday travel section and came across an article about Taiwan. The piece said it was a wonderful place to visit, and because it was also one of the choices for Army assignments, he impulsively checked it off. "It sounded so great. But there was just one position, and I didn't get it," Pruitt recalls. His second choice was the burn center in San Antonio. "They picked me, and that determined the rest of my professional life," he explains. (continued)
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Profile written by Sally Abrahms
Photos by Alicia Wagner Calzada
This story ran online on June 18, 2007. It originally appeared in the Spring 2007 edition of Tufts Medicine.