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Dr. Burkey “Mickey” Syphax, Pioneering Surgeon and Educational Pillar

WASHINGTON (July 19, 2010) — Dr. Burke “Mickey” Syphax, a pioneering surgeon and an educational pillar who helped steer Howard University College of Medicine through one of its most difficult periods, died Monday, July 19, 2010, at Howard University Hospital. He was 99.

Dr. Syphax, one of the first medical residents trained in the Howard University Department of Surgery, was a faculty member under Dr. Charles R. Drew in 1950 when Drew, a medical giant who revolutionized health care through his system of storing blood plasma, died following an automobile accident.

Dr. Syphax is credited with helping keep the medical school’s faculty, staff and students together following the untimely loss of Drew, then chair of the Department of Surgery.

“That was an unthinkable loss,” Syphax, then 98, told Howard Magazine in 2008.  “He was just that significant that some wondered how we’d continue.  But we just picked up and went on.  More or less, you do what you’ve got to do. You don’t think of it as insurmountable.  You just think about what you need to do and keep going.”

Dr. Syphax was chief of the Division of General Surgery from 1950 to 1970, where he was primarily responsible for directing the general surgery residence program.  He was professor and chairman of the Department of Surgery from 1958 to 1970.

During those periods, Dr. Syphax personally trained 61 surgeons and helped train over 90 percent of the surgeons in the metropolitan Washington. In his years at Howard, he taught some 5,000 medical students and helped train approximately 275 general surgeons. Because of his superb diagnostic acumen, clinical judgment and technical dexterity, Dr. Syphax earned the moniker “Master of the Abdomen.”

He received the Department of Surgery’s first Distinguished Surgeon’s Award, the department’s highest honor, in 1974.  In 1978, the College of Medicine’s annual Charles R. Drew Lecture renamed the Drew-Syphax Lecture and Seminar, to honor two of the department’s most outstanding faculty members.

In 2008, the University and Howard University Hospital renamed the minimally invasive, bariatric, surgical endoscopy and colorectoral cancer service as the Syphax Service in his honor.

Dr. Edward Cornwell III, surgeon-in-chief at Howard University Hospital and the chair of the Department of Surgery at the College of Medicine said Dr. Syphax was one of the cornerstones of medicine at Howard University.

“He has been part of the Howard family for over 80 years,” Dr. Cornwell said.  “Dr Syphax’s stabilizing influence--following the presence of three Chairs in seven years from 1950-1957 is a seminal feature in the history of this Department.  His impact on our craft through his clinical mastery, research and teaching and training of generations of medical students and surgical residents is incalculable.”

Dr. Syphax was born Dec. 18, 1910, the youngest of three children, to William “Cus” and Nellie Burke Syphax in the District’s historic LeDroit Park neighborhood. His neighbors included Ralph J. Bunche, the first African American to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, Gen. Benjamin O. Davis, Sr., the first African-American general and commander of the World War II Tuskegee airman; poet Paul Laurence Dunbar and pianist and composer Duke Ellington.

Dr. Syphax received his Bachelor’s of Arts degree in 1932 from Howard and his Medical Degree from the University in 1936.  He interned at Freedmen’s Hospital, now known as Howard University Hospital, and under the direction of Dr. Edward L. Howes in 1937 became the second general surgical resident in the newly formed surgical training program.  He completed the program in 1940.

It was during this time that he met and married his wife, Sarah Juanita Jamerson.  They had three sons.  In 1941, he served as a Rockefeller Fellow in Surgery at the Strong Memorial Hospital at the University of Rochester in New York.

Dr. Syphax returned to Howard in 1942, working with Dr. Drew. He distinguished himself in 1944 as one of the first African-American surgeons to become certified by the American Board of Surgery. In addition, He was a fellow of the American College of Surgeons, member of the Washington Academy of Surgery, the Society for Surgery of the Alimentary Tract, the National Medical Association and the Medico-Chirurgical Society.  He was also a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity.

After 1970, he served as the senior professor in the Department of Surgery and in 1974 was elected honorary member of the Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Medical Society.  Dr. Syphax retired in 1978, but continued to aid the department until December 2001.  In 1990, he was honored as one of the “Magnificent Professors” of the College of Medicine, an honor bestowed on retired professors.

Dr. Syphax is survived by three sons, Michael Burke Syphax, Gregory Custis Syphax Stephen Wyatt Syphax, all of the District of Columbia; six grandchildren, and one great granddaughter.

Services will be held 11 a.m. Monday, July 26, at the Dunbarton Chapel at Howard University School of Law, 2900 Van Ness Street, NW. The viewing will be at 10 a.m.

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