William H. Sweet
Dr. William H. Sweet, Emeritus Professor of Surgery at Harvard Medical School and former chief of the Neurosurgical Service at Massachusetts General Hospital, died of pneumonia on Jan. 22, 2001, at his home in Brookline, Mass. He was 90 and had suffered from Parkinson's disease for his last years.
Sweet was born in Kerriston, Wash., graduated from the University of Washington in 1930, and entered Harvard Medical School the next year. In his second medical school year he was awarded a Rhodes scholarship and spent the next two years at Oxford University. He returned to Harvard and received his MD in 1936. His conviction that Germany was going to war led him to join the British Emergency Medical Services in 1941 as a volunteer and he served until 1945. He resumed his career in academic neurosurgery at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School and, in 1961, became neurosurgeon-in-chief following Dr. James White. During more than 60 years of service to these institutions, he made significant contributions to both basic research and clinical care in the field of neurosurgery. His 538 publications reflect his broad range of interests. His many new basic and clinical studies improved the care of patients with chronic pain, disorders of the cerebral vascular system, cerebrospinal fluid disorders and brain tumors. He was one of the first academic neurosurgeons to stress the importance of basic research in a clinical neurosurgical department, and he maintained a life-long interest in neuroscience.
His numerous pioneering research and clinical efforts started in the 1940's when he began investigating biological applications of particle physics and radioactive isotopes. In 1951 he established one of the first brain scan research laboratories and the first such laboratory to be utilized routinely for clinical localization in the diagnosis of focal brain neoplasms. This was the best non-invasive diagnostic study for brain lesions at the time and was widely used until the advent of the CT scan in the 1970s. Other studies led to the application of the proton beam for precise focal treatment of brain tumors and the use of boron neutron capture therapy in the treatment of malignant brain tumors. He remained a strong believer in the medical uses of atomic energy throughout his life. His work on understanding the physiology of cerebrospinal fluid led to a DSc degree from Oxford University. In the field of pain, he pioneered techniques including radiofrequency lesions of the trigeminal nerve to relieve pain associated with trigeminal neuralgia. With Dr. James C. White, he co-authored two monographs that have become classic texts on the management of pain problems. With Dr. Jan Gybels, of Belgium, he later wrote a classic text on facial pain. In vascular neurosurgery, he was a pioneer in the application of hypothermia to the management of brain hemorrhage and developed techniques for treating brain aneurysms. He participated in defining criteria for the diagnosis of brain death.
Not only did his patients benefit from his superb surgical skills, but he taught these skills to neurosurgical residents who are now practicing throughout the country, some of whom are in the international forefront of advances in the field of neurosurgery. He also provided an active fellowship program to help the improvement of neurosurgical care in other countries. In special recognition of this program's contribution to the development and progress of neurosurgery in Japan, he received the Emperor of Japan's Order of the Rising Sun.
He was an active participant in the major national and world neurosurgical and neuro-scientific organizations, serving as the president of some. He was a Permanent Honorary President of the World Federation of Neurosurgical Societies. He was an Honorary Member of the International Association for the Study of Pain. He served on Study Sections and Advisory committees of the National Institutes of Health and was a member of the Scientific and Technology Advisory Committee of NASA's Office of Manned Space Flight. He was a Senior Member of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a Trustee of The Neurosciences Institute (San Diego). He was also a member of the Society for Neuroscience.
Designated by the President to represent Harvard, Sweet maintained an active relationship with Associated Universities Inc. (AUI) for nearly forty years, first as a Trustee and later as an Honorary Trustee. AUI, a non-profit, university-based research management organization, founded and operated Brookhaven National Laboratory, a multidisciplinary basic research facility and, as well, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, the world leader in all phases of radio astronomy. The depth of this relationship was described by a fellow Trustee: "Dr. Sweet was immersed in all aspects of AUI's scientific programs and its governance and policy responsibilities. Despite his demanding professional life, he rarely missed one of the quarterly two-day Board meetings or the annual two-day Visiting Committee meetings of both the Medical and Biology Departments. The Board was composed of very distinguished scientists representing a broad range of disciplines. He was comfortable among his intellectual peers and his interests and participation included not only the medical and biological programs but actively encompassed areas of high-energy particle physics, nuclear physics synchrotron radiation applications and, especially, astronomy and cosmology. This immersion was not merely tutorial but rather, it was purposeful- the purpose, ever in the table, to be supportive of the best interests of the AUI laboratories and of the science community. Diversity, breadth, depth, and purposefulness - an apt description of Sr. Sweet's approach to life."
For his accomplishments, he received the highest awards given in the field of neurosurgery in this country, including: Honored Guest of the Congress of Neurological Surgeons, the Cushing Medal of the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, and the Distinguished Service Award of the Society of Neurological Surgeons. Other honors included Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons (Edinburgh) and honorary degrees from Université Scientifique et Médicale de Grenoble (France) and The Ohio State University.
He is survived by his wife, Elizabeth (Dutton), three children from a former marriage: David R. Sweet of Irving, Tex., Gwendolyn Sweet Fletcher of Boston, Mass., and Paula Sweet Carroll of St. Louis, Mo.; and eight grandchildren.
(courtesy of the World Federation of Neurosurgical Societies)