SUS Lifetime Achievement Award Recipient, Alden Harken, MD


The SUS Board of Directors is pleased to announce [the 2012] Lifetime Achievement Award winner Alden H. Harken, MD, Professor and Chair at the University of California-San Francisco East Bay Department of Surgery. Though a native of Boston, Dr. Harken’s career has taken him all over the country and he is a Past President (1986) of the SUS.

“I am overwhelmed, honored, and in a delightful phase of shock over receiving this honor,” Dr. Harken said.

Dr. Harken, MD states he “got all his education within walking distance of Cambridge, Mass.” Following college at Harvard University, he graduated from Case Western Reserve Medical School in 1967 and completed surgical and pediatric cardiovascular surgical residencies at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital and Boston Children’s Medical Center. He was drafted after medical school into the U.S. Army and spent three years as an investigator at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research.

“They needed surgeons during the Vietnam War, so instead of drafting me as a general medical officer, they would defer me every year. Incredibly enough, most of those years, they would promote us as well. So after five or six years, they ended up with a whole bunch of doctors who went through basic training. My basic training lasted all of about six days, and we outranked the people who were training us.

“I had a very pleasant time in the Army, though I didn’t expect that. They had a research institute with a lot of equipment, but we had no direction, however, a bunch of us caught the research bug from that experience.”

Dr. Harken then joined the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania. He found it a stimulating environment, having his office “next to people who were fascinated by asking questions—so much so that during his eight years there he published more than 100 scientific papers, was awarded two NIH grants, and was quickly advanced to the rank of Professor of Surgery.

In 1983, he accepted the position as Chairman of the Department of Surgery at the University of Colorado’s Health Sciences Center. After two enormously successful decades in Denver, he accepted his current position as Professor and Chairman of the University of California San Francisco – East Bay Department of Surgery.

Dr. Harken’s interest in and contributions to the field of cardiac electrophysiology began early in his career when, as an Assistant Professor of Surgery he, along with Drs. Mark Josephson and Leonard Horowitz, performed seminal work in mapping and surgical ablation for ventricular tachyarrhythmias. The fruits of this ground-breaking labor formed the cornerstone of our current understanding of the pathophysiology of ventricular tachycardia and have provided the basis for today’s methods of ablative treatment of ischemic ventricular tachycardia. He was one of the early investigators in the implantation of implantable tachyarrhythmia devices and became one of the foremost experts in the surgical treatment of supraventricular tachyarrhythmias. For this, he received the award as the Pioneer In Cardiac Pacing And Electrophysiology 2009 award from the Heart Rhythm Society

Dr. Harken has authored more than 500 scientific publications, been awarded 10 NIH grants and has served as the Director of the American Board of Surgery and the American Board of Thoracic Surgery, a Regent of the American College of Surgeons, and President of the Society of University Surgeons and the Association of Academic Surgery.

“I got involved in the AAS and SUS very early on. In that era, you had to be under 40 to join AAS, and under 45 to join SUS. A friend appointed me to the Membership Committee of the AAS, and I worked my way up to become President in 1981. The logical next step was to become part of SUS. AAS was a fairly pedestrian organization back then, and I am amazed to see the magnitude of what’s happening right now with the coalescence of the AAS and SUS. My secretary ran the AAS and their annual meeting back then out of our office. She did the same with the SUS, and she also organized the Tripartite Meeting in Salzburg, Austria. This occurred every three years and brought together the SUS, the European Surgical Congress, and the British Surgical Research Association. About two dozen SUS surgeons would attend, and my secretary and her husband attended as well.”

Dr. Harken loves how the SUS has grown and expanded its mission and services over the years. He attends the Annual Meeting nearly every year.

“It’s so exciting to see what the SUS is doing right now and how it is fusing interest and enthusiasm among a young group of surgical investigators,” he said. “It has been a tremendous help to my career. You meet all the people from all the different academic surgical departments who become active in the NIH Study Sections and the various review groups. I get calls all the time from colleagues who refer great residents and faculty members to me. It is a constructively collegial group. Now, I also get calls such as, ‘My daughter tipped her kayak over in the mountains and is in the hospital; can you go see her?’ It’s an extended family.”

In addition to his clinical and research accomplishments, Harken is the consummate teacher, educating generations of students, surgical residents, and electrophysiology fellows in the pathophysiology and treatment of cardiac arrhythmias. He has been the recipient of teaching awards in every institution he has attended, including the distinguished Lindback Award at the University of Pennsylvania in 1983 and the Julia Burke Outstanding Teacher of the Year in both 2005 and 2006.

“The fun part for me is helping aspiring academic surgeons get involved in these activities I find so gratifying, to watch them develop from college student to medical student to surgical resident to junior faculty member. We have a research conference every Tuesday morning at 6:00 a.m. and it’s a very dynamic and active group. Everyone presents what they did last week and what they plan to do next week, and we critique them. If they get through that, speaking at a national meeting is a piece of cake. Many of the people that are currently active in SUS I first met as college students.”

“The conference is a wonderful stimulus, and I think the discipline of asking very focused questions makes you a vastly better clinical surgeon, even if you never do any more investigation. It permits you to sort through complex medical problems in much more logical fashion, to the huge benefit of the patient,” he said.

Dr. Harken has been very active in community life, particularly working to help the homeless. He served on the Board of the Denver homeless center for both men and women, where he helped create New Genesis, an organization that works with the Presbyterian Church to help people with drug and alcohol addictions. The program took people out of jail and put them into rehab. He has served on the Board of the largest shelter in Oakland for ten years; the shelter just built a 125-bed facility at a cost of $8.2 million. He has also been active in a group called Operation Access, which provides medical services for the working poor—people who make too much money to qualify for free treatment, but who can’t afford most medical treatment. In 2000, he was awarded one of the University of Colorado’s highest honors, the Thomas Jefferson Award, for his excellence and commitment to academic ideals and for his participation in humanitarian activities.

Dr. Harken’s energy, insight, enthusiasm and innovative work have created a legacy that will influence the treatment of cardiac arrhythmias for many years to come. He has clearly been a pioneer in the field, and has been a true role model for his colleagues in the SUS and AAS.