Obituary: Edward B Diethrich

Edward B Diethrich

Edward B Diethrich, an internationally esteemed cardiovascular surgeon, inventor, and philanthropist, succumbed to complications of a brain tumour on 23 February at the age of 81.

Regarded as a pioneer in non-invasive cardiovascular disease diagnosis and innovative surgical and minimally invasive treatments, Diethrich completed his surgical residency at St Joseph’s Mercy Hospital in Ann Arbor, USA, and the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, after obtaining his undergraduate and medical degrees (1960) at the University of Michigan. He received his thoracic and cardiovascular surgery training at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, where as a member of the academic staff following his residency he played a pivotal role in the development of human heart transplantation with his mentor, Michael DeBakey.

Diethrich moved to Phoenix, Arizona, in 1971 to found the Arizona Heart Institute (AHI), the USA’s first freestanding outpatient clinic devoted solely to the prevention, detection, and treatment of heart and blood vessel diseases. As medical director and chief of Cardiovascular Surgery for the Institute and founder of the Institute’s non-profit Arizona Heart Foundation, Diethrich drew on his foresight and dynamic pioneering spirit to lead both AHI and its research organisation (Arizona Heart Foundation) to levels of prominence in the international medical community.

In addition to his roles at AHI, Diethrich served as medical director and chief of Cardiovascular and Endovascular Surgery at the Arizona Heart Hospital (AHH). At AHH, Diethrich regularly performed open heart surgery and state-of-the-art endovascular procedures using the very latest in intraluminal devices, many of which he helped design and test in clinical trials.

Diethrich’s professional accomplishments were diverse, including the development of the sternal saw used routinely today for open chest surgery, the establishment of the nation’s first outpatient cardiac catheterisation laboratory at AHI, and the initiation of the first heart and heart/lung transplantation program in Phoenix, to name but a few.

From his early days of tinkering with a bubble oxygenator to use in open heart surgery to the present day development of stent grafts for catheter-based treatment of aortic aneurysms, Diethrich was committed to designing the medical equipment needed for the techniques and procedures he and others developed. He founded several medical device companies to bring these innovations to physicians around the world.

Research, education, and training were integral components of Diethrich’s medical practice. He wrote more than 400 scientific papers, several textbooks, and myriad lay publications, in addition to producing hundreds of educational videos and films. He was the first to televise an open-heart procedure nationally in 1983.

At AHI, he trained more than a thousand surgeons and other specialists in cardiovascular surgery and endovascular techniques, he travelled around the globe to demonstrate his techniques and instruct local physicians. His Translational Research Center on the AHH campus housed facilities for researchers to develop and test new minimally invasive technologies and gene/cell therapies. To recognise the close collaboration between surgeons and engineers, he endowed the Edward B Diethrich Research Professorship in Biomedical Engineering and Vascular Surgery at the University of Michigan. Diethrich was the founder and chairman of the Board of the International Society of Endovascular Specialists and the founding editor-in-chief of the Journal of Endovascular Therapy.

Among the innumerable honours Diethrich received were the Frederick A Coller Award, the presidency of the Denton A Cooley Cardiovascular Surgical Society, the Medal for Innovation in Vascular Surgery from the Society for Vascular Surgery, and the establishment by his trainees of the Edward B Diethrich Vascular Surgical Society.

As a leader in the development of minimally invasive vascular procedures, Diethrich was an early adopter of the ceiling-mounted radiographic equipment that made endovascular interventions possible. Despite state-of-the-art radiation protection, his decades of near daily exposure to minute amounts of radiation took their toll on his health, leading to his four-year battle with glioma, a particularly lethal form of brain tumour.

Working in conjunction with the Organization for Occupational Radiation Safety in Interventional Fluoroscopy, Diethrich was the model for a documentary on the ill effects that radiation can have on the human body.

Diethrich recently completed his memoirs (SLED: The Serendipitous Life of Edward Diethrich), in which he chronicled his extraordinary 50-year career, from his early days training and working with the world’s most eminent surgeons to the pinnacle of his international success as a world-renowned cardiovascular surgeon. As he described it, “There are three essential ingredients in my life’s work: medicine, music, and sports.” The book goes on to describe “…the ride through my professional and personal life, threaded with stories that may fascinate or appal. From assisting with my first surgery at the age of 16 to a career filled with world-renowned surgical advancements…It has been quite a ride.”

Personally, Diethrich was a complex, multifaceted, passionate, and charismatic man: a musician, sportsman, scientist, inventor, author, film producer, media personality, businessman, dog lover and family man. Charming and commanding, he was always quick with an idea or a decision. His dexterity, confidence, and technical expertise were as evident in the operating room as on the tennis court or at the helm of a racing yacht. Competitive and driven to succeed, he fought cardiovascular disease with the same vigour, determination, and perseverance that he displayed as the owner of a professional football team. His passion for living made him ageless, long before it was fashionable.

He is survived by his wife of 61 years, Gloria, son Tad, daughter Lynne, son-in-law Joe Jackson, daughter-in-law Terri Diethrich, and grandchildren Danielle Diethrich-Vargas, Courtney, Reese and Trey Diethrich; Mackenzie, Tatum, Peyton and Zack Jackson. His grandchildren were his greatest source of pride.

A celebration of his life will be planned in the near future. Details will be posted at