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he first state-level medical history society to have a website.  Our goal is to promote interest, research, and writing in medical history, and we are dedicated to the discussion and enjoyment of the history of medicine and allied fields.


George J. Hill, M.D., D.Litt. Surgeon’s Journey: A Venturesome Life, Foreword by Alan J. Lippman, M.D., FACP, and Sandra Moss, M.D., M.A., Berwyn Heights, Maryland: Heritage Books, 2023. Paperbound, xvi+565pp, illustrations. ISBN 978-0-7884-4422-7

Reviewer: Karen M. Reeds, PhD, FLS

January 16, 2024

In 2014, the Journal of Cancer Education reported that George J. Hill, M.D., a “stalwart of the… American Association of Cancer Education,” had died the previous year. That news came as a surprise to Dr. Hill, who was still far from finishing the book under review (see p. 439) and who has had eleven more books published in the meantime (several reviewed on this website). The journal made an apologetic correction in 2015.

The title of Dr. Hill’s autobiography neatly encapsulates his career and passions. Surgeon’s Journey echoes the World War I memoir, From a Surgeon’s Journal, 1915-1918, by his hero, Harvey Cushing. Surgeon identifies his specialty as a physician, operating on more than a thousand patients. Journey captures his lust for seeing as much of the world as possible. Venturesome simultaneously reflects Dr. Hill’s own intellectual curiosity and – through the sobriquet of his seventeenth-century ancestor, “Venturesome James” (p. 477n52) – his lifelong interests in history and genealogy. In 2023, the book won a well-deserved Finalists Medal in the memoirs category of the 2023 Indie Book Awards.

Surgeon’s Journey conveniently includes a curriculum vitae for every stage of Dr. Hill’s career in academic medicine, each with a growing number of research papers and massive books. “Never shy about accepting other responsibilities” (p. 32), he took on posts in many professional, charitable, and civic organizations (including the Medical History Society of New Jersey). Dr. Hill also chronicles a very full family life: two working parents, four children, many overseas trips, mountain treks, squash, church, Scouting, music, acting, photography, ballroom dancing, pancakes most Sundays (his recipe, p. 475n48).

How has Dr. Hill managed to pack so much into his nine decades of life?

It helped to start young: Dr. Hill thanks an eighth-grade history teacher and a small-town Iowa family doctor for arousing his enthusiasm for both history and medicine. As a Boy Scout with a First Aid badge, he treated his first surgical patient, a fellow Scout who had cut himself badly with a hatchet. (“Be Prepared!” and the other Scouting precepts have continued to guide him throughout his life.) He raced through school, entering Yale at 16 and Harvard Medical School at 21, interning in surgery at NY Hospital-Cornell Medical Center at 25.

There followed residencies at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital; a clinical and research appointment in infectious diseases, immunology, and cancer with the U.S. Public Health Service Reserve at the National Institutes of Health; and then faculty positions in Denver, St. Louis, Huntington, West Virginia, and finally Newark. Several moves were made to enable his wife, Helene Zimmerman Hill, Ph.D., to continue her own biomedical research. Concurrently, he served in the Naval Reserve, culminating in a Pentagon posting. After his retirement from the New Jersey Medical School in 1996, Dr. Hill earned M.A. and D.Litt. degrees in history and turned both thesis projects into books.

Because Dr. Hill documents details of 20th century American medicine and social history that might otherwise be hard to come by, his memoir should be of special interest to historians of medicine. Some examples from the 1950s and 60s: he was the first person at Yale to carry out successful embryological tissue cultures – as an undergraduate lab assistant. While Senior Resident in Surgery at Brigham (1963-66), he objected vigorously to the callous way a late-term abortion was performed on a patient referred from a psychiatric hospital. In 1960, he became aware of autism decades before most physicians when a friend from med school days came to dinner and on the spot diagnosed the puzzling behavior of one of the family’s children: “[he] has autism” (p189). In 1958, the sudden death of a 40-year-old man during surgery for lung cancer convinced Dr. Hill to stop smoking instantly “although at that time no one had told us that smoking was the major cause of lung cancer” (p. 171); more than twenty years later, he helped the American Cancer Society start lobbying against tobacco products. And, in the case of his most famous patient, Abraham Flexner (1866–1959), Dr. Hill saw the successful application of an ancient treatment. Flexner had come to the New York Hospital’s ER for reassurance about “a large purple spot on his face … probably a hematoma.” But “no blood was there. He had put leeches on it, and they had done their job. The characteristic marks of leech bites were still visible on his face” (p. 171-172). 

Dr. Hill does not shy away from recording the darker side of the academic world: rich Yalies’ disdain for students like himself who relied on scholarships and part-time jobs; antisemitism at the Harvard Club in Boston and Denver’s University Club; racism at New York Hospital – unlike Bellevue, “no smelly patients, and no Blacks” admitted (p171). At the New Jersey Medical School, in two tenure-denial cases that smacked of both racism and sexism, he successfully led a Faculty Council fight to reverse the administration’s decisions. Dr. Hill is equally perturbed by incidents of unethical behavior he has witnessed: student cheating, faked CVs, cover-ups, and plagiarism in a National Cancer Institute grant application. (In a forthcoming memoir, The Crying Window, and two earlier books, Dr. H. Z. Hill recounts her own dismaying efforts to report scientific fraud.)

Dr. Hill shares one productivity tip: “My goal for many years has been to write one page per day. I begin by re-reading what I wrote on the previous day, and then write a new page” (p. 465). Happily, despite a stroke in 2012 and a bout of COVID contracted at his Harvard Medical School 65th reunion in 2022, Dr. Hill has maintained that routine. He has just published an even longer sequel: Postscript to Surgeon’s Journey: “My Green Valley” and Other Essays (Heritage Books, 2024). I look forward to reading it – and hope that this time there’s an index!

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