Thomas Rees, who has been named “one of the fathers of aesthetic surgery in New York” passed away on November 14th at his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, at the age of 86. Dr. Rees committed his life to revolutionizing the arena of plastic surgery in America, while simultaneously spending a great amount of time performing pro bono surgeries on patients in Africa. He was one of the founding members of the Flying Doctors Service of East Africa, a charitable service organization that travels via small aircraft to remote locations in East Africa to provide medical care to patients with severe and even life threatening illnesses.
In 1956, while Dr. Rees was doing a fellowship in London, he traveled to Tanzania to visit a colleague. The experience in Africa was ultimately life changing as he witnessed a man critically wounded after an attack by a rhinoceros. It is reported that Dr. Rees saw the man holding his abdomen, with his intestines bulging out from the gaping wound. Dr. Rees had no medical supplies with him at the time, but felt compelled to help the struggling man immediately as he knew time was of the essence. He knew that air service would not be available until the next day, so he performed an operation on the man, who ended up surviving. Dr. Rees is quoted in a memoir, published later in 2002, as saying, “I wasn’t sure why, but I knew my life’s direction had been permanently altered.” It is obvious this was the case, from the humanitarian efforts of which he later devoted his life.
It was one year later, in 1957, that Dr. Rees joined together with other physicians to found the Flying Doctors Service of East Africa. The charitable organization still operates today, throughout 11 different countries, delivering free medical care to those in need. The plastic surgeons involved often provide surgical assistance to patients with congenital facial anomalies such as cleft palates, or who suffer from rare diseases.
Back in America in the 1960’s and ’70’s, Dr. Rees was apparently one of the first plastic surgeons to teach his craft to other aspiring plastic surgeons in the Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital. Despite some of the public sentiment towards plastic surgery during that particular era as being superficial and unnecessary, Rees looked after opportunities to expand his trade and use media outlets to promote his business. His efforts helped the plastic surgery industry grow, and the public’s semi-negative view of plastic surgery shift to one of positivity.
Dr. Rees ultimately spent years teaching at the New York University School of Medicine and became president of the American Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. By the 1990’s, his talent was so widely recognized that “teenagers were given a ‘Rees nose’ for Christmas,” the doctor wrote in a memoir, referring to rhinoplasty surgery.
He will always be remembered for changing the American public’s view on plastic surgery by portraying it in a positive light. His humanitarian efforts are also a major part of his legacy, and the international organizations he helped to establish will continue to promote his mission.
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