Obituary: John Gaisford / Surgeon, vet who founded the West Penn Burn Center

June 11, 1915 - April 13, 2014

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John "Jack" Gaisford was serving as an Army surgeon in the Pacific theater when World War II ended with two atomic bomb blasts. While stationed in occupied Japan, he and a friend drove a jeep to Hiroshima out of curiosity.

When they reached the city, Dr. Gaisford was amazed at the devastation. He and his friend stayed in a nearby town for months to help Japanese surgeons treat victims burned by the nuclear blast.

"I think he was hugely affected by seeing what man could do," said his daughter, Carolyn Imbriglia of Ligonier.

Dr. Gaisford of Fox Chapel, a surgeon who founded the West Penn Burn Center, died Sunday of natural causes. He was 98.

Growing up in Chicora, Dr. Gaisford showed an unusual amount of ambition even as a boy, Ms. Imbriglia said. For example, he started a snack bar at a local country club, where he resold soda from his father's drug store for a profit.

In 1943, he married Frances Jacobs Gaisford a few months after being set up on a blind date with her.

After earning an undergraduate degree from the University of Pennsylvania and a medical degree from the Georgetown University Medical School, Dr. Gaisford worked in a mobile army surgical hospital in the Pacific theater. He later wrote a book about his experiences in the war.

"I think it was brutal on those boys, because they had just graduated from medical school," Ms. Imbriglia said. "You either had a million people coming in, and you had to think of who you could save, or you had the lazy times."

After returning to the United States in 1946, Dr. Gaisford became well known for his skill at treating burns and removing head and neck tumors. He traveled all over Western Pennsylvania to help burn victims. Eventually, he realized that they would get better care if the region had a burn center. That led him to found the West Penn Burn Center in 1969.

"He recognized that comprehensive burn care required a team approach, and to do that you needed a facility dedicated to burn patients," said I. William Goldfarb, who practiced with him for about 25 years.

Dr. Goldfarb considered Dr. Gaisford to be his mentor. Unlike many doctors, Dr. Gaisford gave those working under him a lot of responsibility, allowing them to hone their skills.

"He willingly gave me every opportunity to do all the things I was trained to do," Dr. Goldfarb said. "His ego didn't get in the way. That's a big deal."

Outside of his career, Dr. Gaisford cultivated several hobbies. He was a skilled golfer, playing every weekend and hitting balls into a net in his backyard when he got home from work. Over his lifetime, he won several competitions and scored a dozen holes-in-one.

Mike Foster, who played with Dr. Gaisford often at the Fox Chapel Golf Club, described him as a consistent and methodical golfer.

"Jack was not a big man, not a powerful golfer," Mr. Foster said. "He was a surgical -- pardon the pun -- golfer."

Dr. Gaisford also wrote books about his medical experiences and golf, among other things.

Having Dr. Gaisford as a father wasn't always easy, Ms. Imbriglia said: "He was hard to live up to." She has fond memories of playing golf with him, but she never achieved her goal of beating him.

Dr. Gaisford spent the last years of his life listening to music, writing books and chatting with friends.

Today, Dr. Gaisford's portrait hangs in the burn center, next to those of Dr. Goldfarb and Dr. Harvey Slater, who also practiced there for decades.

"I'm really proud that mine hangs next to his," Dr. Goldfarb said.

Dr. Gaisford also is survived by two other daughters, Linda Tedder of Southport, N.C., and Cindy Close of Fox Chapel; six grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

Visitation will be held from 4 to 7 p.m. Thursday at John A. Freyvogel Sons funeral home, 4900 Centre Ave., Shadyside, where services will be at 10 a.m. Friday.

Memorial contributions can be made to West Penn Burn Center, 4800 Friendship Ave., Pittsburgh 15224.


Richard Webner: rwebner@post-gazette.com or 412-263-4903.

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