As a surgeon, researcher, and educator, Dr. George L. Blackburn led the way in studying how poor nutrition contributed to the nation’s growing obesity epidemic, and pioneered gastric bypass surgery for weight loss in New England.
“It has taken 61 years — from the start of weight loss surgery until today — to acknowledge obesity as a disease,” he wrote in an essay in the medical journal Bariatric Times published in 2015.
“Dramatic increases in population-wide obesity have led to a global public health crisis that demands the best that those of us in the fields of science and medicine can offer to treat the disease, and alleviate the pain and suffering of those afflicted by it,” he added.
Dr. Blackburn, who spent nearly his entire career at what is now Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, died of cancer Feb. 20 in his Boston home. He was 81.
“He just kept working. He was fixated on solving major health problems,” his daughter Amy of Natick said. “What was quite clear to us these last few weeks was just how much my dad loved life. He just could not get enough time.”
Dr. Blackburn, who was the S. Daniel Abraham professor of nutrition at Harvard Medical School, directed the Center for the Study of Nutrition Medicine at Beth Israel, where he also directed the Feihe Nutrition Laboratory.
At his memorial service last month, his friend and colleague Dr. Elliot Chaikof said in a eulogy that “it is simply impossible to do justice to the enormous contributions that Dr. Blackburn made over his long career to medicine, to the fields of surgical metabolism and clinical nutrition, and to our department of surgery at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.”
Chaikof, who chairs the surgery department, added that “if George Blackburn taught us anything — it was the Power of One”: a single teacher who can “touch a generation of students at home and abroad”; a single surgeon who can “advance a field” and not himself; a single clinician who can “improve the health and well-being of a nation.”
Dr. Blackburn, however, “also taught us that life was not a solo act,” Chaikof said. “He taught us the power of teamwork, and partnership, and collaboration. He taught us the power of building bridges — across departments, across disciplines, across cultures, and to leaders outside the walls of the university.”
At the outset of the 1970s, working with Dr. Bruce Bistrian at what was then New England Deaconess Hospital, Dr. Blackburn codirected the groundbreaking Nutrition Support Service, a dedicated multidisciplinary team “of surgeons, physicians, nurses, pharmacists, and dietitians,” he wrote in the Bariatric Times essay.
“At the time, protein-calorie malnutrition was widespread,’’ Dr. Blackburn wrote. “Our research showed that it affected 50 percent of medical and surgical patients in municipal hospitals, an outcome that drew attention to the issue and changed the practice of nutritional support around the world.”
Dr. Blackburn pioneered intravenous ways to deliver nutrients to patients.
His science and research were foundational for professional organizations for which he was a founding member or leader, including The Obesity Society and the American Society of Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition.
He also was among the first investigators for the Look AHEAD — for Action for Health in Diabetes — clinical trials that were part of his research until his death.
In 1973, he performed the first gastric bypass for weight loss surgery in New England, he recalled in a 2008 interview with Bariatric Times.
When he had trained as a physician and surgeon, “Obesity was not part of medical education at that time,” Dr. Blackburn said.
“What was known about both medical and surgical treatment was misdirected; the focus was on the elimination of all excess body weight,” he added. “The physiology and metabolism of obesity were essentially unknown.”
The youngest of three siblings, Dr. Blackburn was born in McPherson, Kan., and grew up in Joplin, Mo., a son of George Blackburn and the former Betty Warick.
Dr. Blackburn’s father for a time ran a company that sold equipment such as tractors and was known as “the only person in Joplin who read the Wall Street Journal daily,” Amy said.
Dr. Blackburn graduated from the University of Kansas with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and served in the Navy before attending the university’s School of Medicine so that he could use the GI Bill to help pay for his graduate studies. “He was very adamant that he pay his own way,” Amy said.
After receiving a medical degree from the University of Kansas and training in surgery at Boston City Hospital, Dr. Blackburn used a National Institutes of Health fellowship to pursue additional graduate work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He graduated with a doctorate in nutritional biochemistry.
As the field of weight loss surgery began to grow rapidly, Dr. Blackburn was a leader in setting best practice standards to curb the risk of medical errors.
He cochaired the state’s first expert panel on weight loss surgery through the Betsy Lehman Center for Patient Safety and Medical Error Reduction.
At Harvard Medical School, he directed a continuing medical education program in practical approaches to the treatment of obesity. That program evolved into an international conference that bears his name.
His many honors included receiving the Grace Goldsmith Award from the American College of Nutrition in 1988 and the Goldberger Award in Clinical Nutrition from the American Medical Association in 1998.
A prolific author of scholarly articles who also wrote the mass-market book “Break Through Your Set Point: How to Finally Lose the Weight You Want and Keep It Off,” Dr. Blackburn had a legendary work ethic. “We’d get e-mails from him at 4 in the morning,” Amy said. “You just knew this guy never rests.”
Dr. Blackburn’s first marriage, to Dona L. Seacat, ended in divorce. Along with their daughter, Amy, they have two sons, David of Needham and Matthew of Denver.
In 1986, Dr. Blackburn married Susan Kelly, with whom he had a daughter, Vali Blackburn Udin of Maryland.
A service has been held for Dr. Blackburn, who in addition to his wife, four children, and former wife, leaves 10 grandchildren and a great-grandchild.
“George always had a plan,” Chaikof recalled in his eulogy. “Actually, he had black binders full of plans. I received one the day I arrived at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and received many since. His plans were always spot on.”
In a note to Dr. Blackburn’s family, Chaikof added that his friend passed along enough binders and assignments “not only to keep me busy for the next few years but likely the next two or three chairs of surgery and probably a dean or two at Harvard Medical School. . . . His loss will be felt by all of us for a very long time. It will be a hole we will not fill.”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. George L. Blackburn, 81, pioneering weight-loss surgeon