Thomas D. Reese, M.D.
Dr. Thomas D. Rees, 86, a giant in our great specialty of plastic surgery, died in the early evening of November 14, 2013 at his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico. His legacy will live on in the countless number of surgeons and patients he helped by sharing his knowledge and experience, and equally important to him, Flying Doctors of East Africa and the African Medical Research Foundation, which he founded along with Sir Archibald McIndoe and Dr. Michael Wood.
Dr. Rees trained in general surgery and plastic surgery at Genesee Hospital in Rochester, New York followed by New York Hospital Cornell Medical Center on New York’s Upper East Side. Upon finishing his plastic surgery residency, Dr. Rees was granted a Marks Plastic Surgery Fellowship at Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead, Sussex England under the tutelage of Sir Archibald McIndoe.
Sir Archibald and Dr. Rees became fast friends during the Fellowship. During the winter of 1956, Sir Archibald invited Dr. Rees to accompany him to East Africa to visit his farm near the base of Mount Kilimanjaro. While there, Dr. Rees met Dr. Michael Wood who had completed Sir Archibald’s Fellowship the year before and had settled in Kenya to start his practice.
I remember well Dr. Rees recounting his first trip to Kenya when he encountered a Maasai warrior holding his intestines in place with a dirty old blanket after being gorged by a rhinoceros. Dr. Rees had few instruments, no drugs nor anesthesia, and no plane available until the next day to evacuate the warrior from the tiny clinic in the bush. Dr. Rees stuffed the man’s intestines back inside and closed his abdomen. The man lived. This event permanently altered Dr. Rees’ life direction.
Also, during that first visit to Kenya, while sitting on the porch enjoying “sundowners” and watching the animals at Sir Archibald’s farm, the three surgeons conceived the idea of the “Flying Doctors”. Its mission would be to take medical care to thousands of people living in primitive conditions. At that time, most of their medical care was being administered by “elders” and “witch” doctors. Over the next few years, the “Flying Doctors” set up multiple bush “clinics,” providing care with limited resources. The surgeons were challenged to perform very complicated surgical procedures, often achieving excellent results. When necessary, they could transport patients to Nairobi for more extensive medical care. The first plane owned by the Flying Doctors of East Africa was donated by Arthur Godfrey, a well-known radio and TV personality, who was a close friend of Dr. Rees. The Flying Doctors gained the support of Nobel Prize Winning Scientist Albert Schweitzer, the Aga Kahn, renowned journalist Edward R. Murrow, numerous celebrities, and other benefactors who wanted to participate in this charitable project.
It was well known in New York and among his patients around the world that Dr. Rees would not be performing aesthetic surgery during the month of February, as he would be in Africa. Today AMREF is Africa’s largest NGO Health Organization. It is based in Nairobi and has offices in eleven countries in North America and Europe. AMREF employs more than 1,000 healthcare professionals and 97 percent of whom are African. Ninety percent live in the communities in which they work. In 2005, AMERF was awarded the Gates Award for Global Health.
During the period that Dr. Rees was creating The Flying Doctors, he was also beginning his private practice in New York. At the time he began his practice, there were few plastic surgeons in New York and aesthetic procedures were looked upon with distain by most of the medical profession and many in the general population. Dr. Rees was one of the first surgeons to open his operating rooms to teach the art and science of aesthetic surgery, an area which had previously been shrouded in secrecy. His six textbooks, one hundred and forty three scientific publications and thousands of lectures had a profound impact on the specialty. Dr. Rees was generous with his time and loved teaching Residents and Fellows in attempt to advance their work and improve the results for patients. He remained close friends with many of his trainees for years after they left New York, often receiving phone calls for advice from “The Professor”.
Dr. Rees was the Chairman of the Department of Plastic Surgery at Manhattan Eye, Ear & Throat Hospital from 1975 to 1992. Under Dr. Rees’ direction, the MEETH Plastic Surgery Department and Aesthetic Surgery Fellowship, which he began, became one of the leading aesthetic surgery services in the world. Dr. Rees was Professor of Plastic Surgery at New York University and an Attending Surgeon at the Institute of Reconstructive Plastic Surgery, New York University. He was President of the American Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery and a former Director and Vice Chairman of the American Board of Plastic Surgery.
Dr. Rees retired from the practice of plastic surgery in 1992 and moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico for eight months of the year. He returned to his home in Quogue, Long Island, New York each summer, where he kept his sea going boat docked in his backyard. He was fond of salt water and deep-sea fishing and, as well, was an avid fly fisherman. He was a skier and until very recent years, was frequently riding one of his horses. He loved jazz and was a great jazz saxophonist. He played in a jazz band in college to earn extra money and for enjoyment. He had the opportunity to play with some of the great saxophonists in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Dr. Rees played the sax with the orchestra and sang a solo he wrote and dedicated to his wife, Nan at their combined 80th Birthday party in Santa Fe, New Mexico, June 1, 2007.
In 1979, Dr. Rees started an Aesthetic Surgery Symposium, which has continued as The Cutting Edge Aesthetic Surgery Symposium. Now in its 34th year, Dr. Rees remained Co-Chairman until he passed away.
After retiring to Santa Fe, Dr. Rees became an avid and accomplished sculptor. His work primarily represented the animals and people of East Africa. At the time he died, he had three works in progress in his studio. His works have been exhibited and sold in the galleries in Santa Fe.
Dr. Rees and his wife Nan Bowes Rees were married for sixty-three years. Nan was a fashion model with the Ford Agency in New York, who graced hundreds of magazine pages and covers. Dr. Rees and Nan were totally devoted to each other, and Nan shared in his love of Africa, the African people and animals. Nan died in May 2012. Their son, David died in 1990. Dr. Rees is survived by his daughter, S. Elizabeth and his son, Thomas Jr. and his brother, J. Richard.
Sherrell Aston, M.D.