Milton Thomas Edgerton, M.D.
1921 - 2018
On Thursday May 17, 2018, Dr. Milton Thomas Edgerton, pioneering plastic surgeon, loving husband, and father of four died peacefully in Charlottesville, Virginia after a three-year struggle with multiple myeloma and malignant melanoma. He was 96 years old.
Milt was born July 14, 1921 in Atlanta, GA to Elizabeth Roddick and Dr. Milton Thomas Edgerton, Sr. After graduating from Emory University in 1941 (B.A. Chemistry), he obtained an M.D. degree from Johns Hopkins University in 1944. Following a surgical internship at Barnes Hospital, Milt joined the army and served at Valley Forge General Hospital for 3 years. His experience there while treating horribly injured GI’s during World War II was formative for him, as he worked with a small band of young aspiring plastic surgeons who performed over 15,000 operations during this time. Their work while treating these patients led to the development of many new reconstructive procedures.
Some of Milt’s most valued professional associations and personal friendships were made during the time he served at Valley Forge General Hospital. This was a defining period for plastic surgery, as many of the future greats in the field worked together at Valley Forge. A few of those who figured most prominently were Dr. Sterling Bunnell, Dr. James Barrett Brown, Dr. Bradford Cannon, Dr. J. William Littler, and Dr. Joseph E. Murray.
Dr. Sterling Bunnell was appointed Special Civilian Consultant to guide and direct the development of the specialized field of Hand Surgery for the U.S. Army, and Valley Forge Military Hospital was designated a hospital treatment center for hand injuries. During World War II, Dr. Bunnell regularly visited Valley Forge to direct the hand surgery program there.
Dr. James Barrett Brown was in charge of the national effort for this new program of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery. He appointed Dr. Bradford Cannon to be Chief of Plastic Surgery at Valley Forge General Hospital. Dr. Cannon was the senior leader of this young group of aspiring plastic surgeons and was admired by all. Milt greatly respected and admired Dr. Cannon, who became a life-long friend.
J. William Littler was another aspiring plastic surgeon, who regularly visited Valley Forge and later became a close friend of Milt’s. Dr. Littler volunteered to reconstruct the hands of many war-injured veterans at Valley Forge after the war.
Another future great in this new field of plastic surgery was Dr. Joseph E. Murray. He and Milt worked together every day at Valley Forge Hospital and became life-long personal, as well as, professional friends. Both had had minimal exposure to the formal field of plastic surgery prior to their opportunity for emersion into it at Valley Forge. In an interview sponsored by the AAPS in 2003, Dr. Murray said, “Milt Edgerton has done more than anyone to develop and advance Plastic Surgery after World War II.”
At the conclusion of the war, Milt returned to Johns Hopkins and completed his surgical training. In 1949, Dr. Alfred Blalock asked him to be the first plastic surgery resident at Johns Hopkins. Milt accepted the offer. Dr. Ed Hanrahan was the Chief of Service at the time—he was also the only Board Certified plastic surgeon at the time.
In late 1949, the Residency Review Committee sent Dr. Jerome Webster to review the new program at Johns Hopkins. He spent three days “shadowing” Dr. Edgerton. On his departure, he offered no information—departing with nothing more than a formal handshake and offering no particular words of encouragement. After what seemed like an interminable wait (two months), word came from the Residency Review Committee that the Plastic Surgery program had been given “strong approval”.
So in 1951 at the age of 29, Milt joined the faculty at Johns Hopkins and found himself as the Surgeon-in-Chief directing the Division of Plastic Surgery for the modest salary of $5,000 per year. He developed the first Hand Surgery Clinic at Johns Hopkins and later recruited Dr. Raymond Curtis, a general surgeon with extensive hand surgical expertise, to join the faculty.
In 1955 in Baltimore, Milt convened with seventeen other academic leaders in Plastic Surgery for the inaugural meeting of the Plastic Surgery Research Council created as an academic organization that would focus on a research-oriented program each year. Dr. Edgerton considered this one of his most significant professional contributions to the field of Plastic Surgery.
In 1962, Milt became Hopkins’ youngest tenured professor—a strong testament to his endless drive, enthusiasm for academia, dedication to his patients, and many contributions to this new, emerging field. During his career, Milt authored over 500 peer-reviewed medical papers and four medical textbooks. He served as President of the prestigious American Association of Plastic Surgeons in 1974 and received numerous awards for clinical excellence and teaching.
In 1970, Milt was recruited to the University of Virginia to found the Department of Plastic Surgery—the very first Department of Plastic Surgery in the United States. He continued to practice plastic surgery at Virginia until his retirement in 1994.
Milt was a master of all types of plastic surgery and a notable pioneer in several. He advanced the field both through research and the design of new surgical procedures. He was comfortable operating on any area of the body and trained his apprentices to master head and neck cancer reconstruction, facial palsy reconstruction, burn reconstruction, hand surgery, microsurgery, breast reconstruction, transgender surgery, cleft lip and palate surgery, ear reconstruction, craniofacial surgery, and cosmetic surgery. He also studied the psychiatric benefits of plastic surgery. He was known for his compassion for his patients and was beloved by them.
Milt was a dedicated teacher of plastic surgery and remained a full-time academic surgeon for his entire career. He trained a total of more than 100 plastic surgeons who expanded his legacy throughout the country—many becoming academic chairmen in other medical schools.
On June 30, 1945, Milt married Patricia Jane Jones. They met at Johns Hopkins Hospital where he was studying medicine and she was working in a biochemistry lab. They were together for 64 exciting and devoted years until her death in 2010. They traveled extensively but found time to relax and recharge with family in Lake Placid, New York each summer.
Outside of the operating room, Milt’s life-long passion was golf, and he sported a single-digit handicap for many years. He was an excellent skier, tennis player, and a crackerjack duplicate bridge partner up until the very end. He always had a welcoming smile for a visitor, and over dinner he loved to discuss, at length, science, politics, and the human condition. His volunteer activities included service at Vellore CMC Leprosy Hospital in India in 1962, consultant at Walter Reed Hospital, member of the Miller Center Governing Council and the Jefferson Area Board of Aging.
A loyal family man, Milt is survived by his four children: Dr. Bradford Wheatly Edgerton (Louise Dungan), William Alton Edgerton (Liza Todd), Sandy Edgerton Bissell (Chip) and Diane Edgerton Miller (Ethan); 11 grandchildren: Todd Edgerton (Tracy), Sage Bissell Ruttan (Stu), Leigh Edgerton, Ford Edgerton (Katie), Zachary Miller (Sara), Catherine Kelleher, Robert Kelleher, Lauren Edgerton, Madeline Miller (Evan), Whit Bissell (Lindsey), Stephanie Miller; 9 great grandchildren: Potter Edgerton, Emory Miller, Sanders Miller, Eloise Ruttan, Truitt Miller, Madison Bissell, Annie Bissell, Kinley Bissell, Georgia Ruttan; and Helen Maupin, his devoted friend,; as well as his beloved pup, ‘Wizard’.
A celebration of life with his friends and family was held for Dr. Edgerton on his birthday, July 14, 2018 at the Farmington Country Club in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Raymond F. Morgan, MD, DMD