Museum logo
Museum logo

Photo Record

  • Email This Page
  • Send Feedback
Collection Vertical File Photos
Catalog Number VF36
Object Name Print, Photographic
Description Robert Milton Zollinger (1903 - 1992) was one of the giants of American Surgery. With a career that spanned much of the 20th century, Zollinger was respected by his peers, feared by his students and loved by his patients. Zollinger had a knack for being successful at whatever he did. He was the president of almost every society he belonged to, including the American Board of Surgery, the American Surgical Association, the American College of Surgeons and even the American Rose Society.

As a young man, Zollinger wanted to attend West Point. That dream faded when he decided to become a surgeon, even though he hated the sight of blood. When he told his parents his plans, his father gave him one piece of advice, "If you're going to be a doctor, be a good one." His parents always expressed an absolute confidence that he and his brother Richard would be successful at anything they attempted and they instilled this belief in their sons. This was a trait that Zollinger carried into his adult life, always expecting the best from everyone and keenly disappointed when he did not get it.

Showing early on that he was not afraid to do things differently, Zollinger was the first person from his high school to attend college. He graduated from the Ohio State University in 1925 with his B.A. and earned his M.D. two years later. After graduation, he was offered an internship at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital (PBBH) in Boston, under the tutelage of another surgical master, Harvey Cushing. Cushing sent Zollinger to Western Reserve in Cleveland for six months before he began his internship to work with one of Cushing's favorite pupils, Elliott C. Cutler. Their association would span the next twenty years and Cutler would become one of the great influences in Zollinger's life. At Western Reserve, Zollinger worked in the dog labs as a voluntary assistant. His main job was classifying Cutler's collection of brain tumors. This work led to his first publication, an article in the April 1929 issue of The Ohio State Medical Journal.

Zollinger returned to PBBH in 1928 to begin his internship. There he was regarded as a country boy from that "cow town" Columbus. He was determined to know the answer to every question in order to prove that his education was every bit as good as his Ivy League peers. This endeavor proved time consuming, but provided Zollinger with a strong core knowledge of his subject matter. When his internship was over Zollinger renewed his association with Cutler by returning to Western Reserve in 1929 for his residency. That same year he finally married Louise Kiewet; while he had been at PBBH interns were forbidden to marry. Louise supported the couple in their early days of marriage by teaching, since Zollinger was only making $50 dollars a week as a resident.

Cutler returned to PBBH to take over for Cushing as the Moseley Professor of Surgery in 1932. Zollinger went with him as his chief resident and by 1939 he was an Assistant Professor of Surgery. During their time together at Harvard and PBBH, Zollinger and Cutler would publish the first of nine editions of the now famous Atlas of Surgical Operations. Zollinger did much of the work on the text, yet Cutler's name appeared first on the cover. When Zollinger asked him whose name should be first Cutler had responded that they should be listed alphabetically.

Zollinger joined the Army in 1941, when war seemed imminent for the United States. In so doing, he gave up a thriving practice and four years with his family. He felt that if he joined the Harvard Unit so would many of his younger colleagues. Zollinger hoped to be commissioned as a colonel and the commanding officer of the unit. Instead, he was made a Major and the Assistant Chief of the Surgical Service. Immediately upon reaching camp in Ireland he called upon his early farm experience and began planting a garden. He had gathered money from everyone in the unit and purchased seeds before they left the United States. Because of this foresight he was soon appointed the Post Beautification Officer, a job which allowed him to nurture another of his passions, roses. Over the next four years, Zollinger would rise to the rank of Colonel and the command of the 5th General Hospital. He would also earn the Legion of Merit Award, for the development of mobile surgical teams, and Battle Stars for Normandy, Northern France and Rhineland.

Zollinger returned to Harvard in 1946 and was soon offered a position as a professor of surgery at The Ohio State University. Within a year he became the chairman of the Department of Surgery at his alma mater, beginning a nearly thirty year reign. In 1955, working with Edwin Ellison, he discovered the Zollinger-Ellison Syndrome, which dealt with the relationship between non-beta islet cell tumors of the pancreas and diseases of the gastrointestinal tract. He also started the medical illustration division as a part of the Department of Surgery.

Zollinger was the editor-in-chief of the American Journal of Surgery from 1958 to 1986. He traveled the country lecturing on Zollinger-Ellison Syndrome and received numerous awards for his efforts. He was the recipient of honorary degrees from the University of Lyon, France (1965) and held honorary fellowships in the Royal College of Surgeons of England (1965) and the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh (1966). The American Medical Association bestowed their highest honor, the Sheen Award, upon him, recognizing him as the Outstanding Doctor of Medical Science in the United States for 1977. Zollinger was even offered the presidency of The Ohio State University, but turned it down. He felt that he would not have any time left for surgery. Besides, he reasoned, "There are a lot more out of work college presidents than surgeons."

Zollinger was a difficult taskmaster who expected nothing less than perfection from himself and his colleagues. On rounds he was known to fire a resident on the elevator for some misdemeanor, only to rehire them by the time they had reached the 7th floor. As hard as he was on his students, he was equally kind to his patients. He believed that they should always be the top priority of a surgeon. When he felt that his staff was moving away from that principle, he often felt the need to remind them. He once had a large chart made showing the golf handicaps of each surgery department member, clearly showing where he felt that their priorities lie.

Outside of surgery, Zollinger was a man of many interests. He raised prize-winning gourds. He loved roses and was an accredited rose judge. He constantly grumbled that his frequent lecturing and travel kept his roses from winning first prize. He also developed a passion for photography, which he indulged every winter on Sanibel Island.

Despite his numerous honors and international recognition, Zollinger never rested on his laurels. Even after his retirement in 1974, Zollinger continued to lecture around the world. He remained involved in the Department of Surgery as Professor and Chairman Emeritus. His quest for excellence continued up until his death in 1992 from pancreatic cancer. Perhaps he is best described in his own words. Once, when asked how he would like to be remembered he replied, "They should write on my tombstone: teacher, surgeon, soldier and farmer. And my wife may remember that she says I'm an amusing fellow to live with."
Title Robert Milton Zollinger (1903 - 1992)
Copyright COPYRIGHT RESTRICTIONS

The copyright law of the United States (Title 17, United States Code) governs the making of reproductions of copyrighted material. Under certain conditions specified in the law, libraries and archives are authorized to furnish a digital reproduction. One of these specified conditions is that the digital reproduction is not to be "used for any purpose other than private study, scholarship, or research." If a user makes a request for, or later uses, a digital reproduction for purposes in excess of "fair use," that user may be liable for copyright infringement.

This institution reserves the right to refuse a reproduction order if, in its judgment, fulfillment of the order would involve violation of copyright law.

By requesting a digital reproduction of a photograph, you agree to indemnify and hold harmless The Ohio State University, its agents and employees against all claims, demands, costs and expenses incurred by copyright infringement or any other legal or regulatory cause of action arising from the use of these photographs.