Thomas Rees, Plastic Surgeon Who Treated Africa, Dies at 86
Published: November 22, 2013
Dr. Thomas D. Rees, an innovative New York plastic surgeon who helped found the Flying Doctors Service of East Africa, a charity that employs a fleet of small planes to provide medical care and save lives deep in the African bush, died on Nov. 14 at his home in Santa Fe, N.M. He was 86.
His daughter, S. Elizabeth Rees, said the cause was liver cancer.
New York magazine once referred to Dr. Rees as “one of the fathers of aesthetic surgery in New York,” and he is credited with helping to elevatecosmetic surgery from something one did not really discuss to almost a status symbol. “Teenagers were given a ‘Rees nose’ for Christmas,” he wrote in 1993.
But it was in Africa that he found his neediest patients, an endeavor inspired by a trip he took there in 1956 while on a fellowship in London. A colleague with a farm in Tanzania had invited him down for the warm sun and the chance to see African wildlife.
But while there, as he related in a memoir, he found himself treating a warrior holding his intestines in place with an old blanket after being gored by a charging rhino. Dr. Rees had few instruments with him and no general anesthetic, no antibiotics and no blood plasma. He also had no choice but to operate on the man immediately; there was to be no plane service for a medical evacuation until the next day. The man survived.
“I wasn’t sure why, but I knew my life’s direction had been permanently altered” by the experience, Dr. Rees wrote in the memoir, “Daktari: A Surgeon’s Adventures With the Flying Doctors of East Africa,” published in 2002.
He went on to join Dr. Michael Wood and Dr. Archibald McIndoe in 1957 to found the Flying Doctors. It now operates in 11 countries, offering, among other services, emergency care, vaccinations, surgery to repair congenital deformities and airlift evacuations of critically ill patients.
The Flying Doctors’ founders also set up an umbrella organization called the African Medical and Research Foundation, which has become one of Africa’s largest public health initiatives. In 2005, it was awarded the Gates Award for Global Health.
Dr. Rees wrote 140 medical articles and six medical texts, including “Aesthetic Plastic Surgery,” a two-volume standard. In an interview on Tuesday, Dr. Sherrell Aston, the chairman of the plastic surgery department of Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital, called Dr. Rees “one of the true giants in the specialty.”
Dr. Aston said that Dr. Rees, himself a former chairman of the hospital’s plastic surgery department, was one of the first to “openly teach plastic surgery to other plastic surgeons” in the late 1960s and ’70s. To polish his profession’s image, he also seized opportunities to speak to the news media, an activity more conservative physicians disdained.
“There was a time when cosmetic surgery was looked at as being rather frivolous,” Dr. Aston said.
Thomas Dee Rees was born in Nephi, Utah, on Feb. 3, 1927. His father, Don, was head of the biology and zoology departments at the University of Utah, which Thomas entered at 16. He graduated in an accelerated course when he was 19 and earned his medical degree two years later. He served two stints as a Navy officer, one in 1945 and the other in 1957-58.
Dr. Rees trained in general and plastic surgery at the Genesee Hospital in Rochester and New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center in Manhattan. He was then chosen for a prestigious fellowship in London with Dr. McIndoe, who had advanced plastic surgery with ingenious treatments for injured British airmen during World War II. Dr. McIndoe worked with his cousin Dr. Harold Gillies, considered the father of plastic surgery.
It was during Dr. Rees’s fellowship in 1956 that Dr. McIndoe said he was planning his annual visit to Africa, where he had a farm near Mount Kilimanjaro. He asked Dr. Rees to come along, and maybe see some animals.
“Archie said it was time to escape the beastly English winter and feel the warmth of the African sun,” Dr. Rees wrote.
There, they met up with Dr. Wood, a colleague from London, who was just starting a plastic surgery practice covering a huge section of East Africa by air. Within five years, the organization they founded had drawn support from Albert Schweitzer, the Aga Khan, Edward R. Murrow and Arthur Godfrey, the radio and television personality, who donated its first plane.
For many years, Dr. Rees spent a month in Africa every year, his daughter said.
Dr. Rees was a professor at the New York University School of Medicine and a former president of the American Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. He organized an annual symposium that attracts more than 1,000 plastic surgeons from around the world. This year’s event is scheduled for the first week of December.
Dr. Rees’s wife of 63 years, the former Natalie Bowes, an early fashion model with the Ford agency known as Nan Rees, died last year. His son David died in 1990. In addition to his daughter, he is survived by his son Thomas Jr. and his brother, J. Richard.
Dr. Rees retired to Santa Fe in the mid-1980s because of osteoarthritis. He became a sculptor, finding inspiration in African people and animals.