Alton Ochsner

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Living the Legacy: Who Was Alton Ochsner and Why Are We Living His Legacy?

Jan. 18, 2011

Alton Ochsner

Our founder, Dr. Alton Ochsner made many contributions to medicine and surgery, but he will always be remembered for exposing the hazards of tobacco and its link to lung cancer. He was the first anti-smoking crusader. Ochsner's tobacco-free initiative is thus called Living the Legacy to remind us of this history and to inspire us in challenging times.

It was in 1939 that Dr. Ochsner and Dr. Michael DeBakey first published their famous research linking tobacco with lung cancer: "In our opinion the increase in smoking with the universal custom of inhaling is probably a responsible factor, as the inhaled smoke, constantly repeated over a long period of time, undoubtedly is a source of chronic irritation to the bronchial mucosa."

At that time, even the idea that lung cancer cases were increasing was controversial. Plenty of physicians just didn't accept or believe the mounting evidence that lung cancer was on the rise. But Dr. Ochsner was seeing more and more lung cancer patients in the operating room, and many of them were heavy smokers. Proving the link between smoking and lung cancer, treating the disease, and finding a cure became the focus of his research and put him at the center of a scientific controversy.

For years physicians belittled his research and called his theories pure speculation, but Dr. Ochsner did not give up. Over the following decade, he recommended removal of a cancerous lung to increase length of survival as well as regular chest x-rays to determine the presence of cancer. He said, "Every type of smoking carries a deadly risk. Tobacco is a loaded weapon. Time pulls the trigger."

Dr. Ochsner also went to great lengths to warn the public about the dangers of smoking. He took an outspoken stance against the tobacco industry. He urged the government to mandate warning labels and place limits on cigarette advertising and for life insurance companies to raise the premiums of smokers.

Check out a Doonesbury Cartoon featuring Dr. Alton Ochsner!

When Alton Ochsner died at age 85 on Sept. 24, 1981, he had performed over 20,000 surgeries. In 1985, Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals created the Alton Ochsner Award, presented annually to individuals and organizations for their efforts to help people stop smoking. In 1986, all of the Ochsner facilities, the Jefferson Highway campus as well as neighborhood health centers, officially became smoke-free.

As of April 1, 2011, all Ochsner Health System property, including the eight medical centers and 38 health centers, will become completely tobacco-free.

Thank you, Dr. Ochsner.

*Content pulled from The Ochsner Journal: Vol. 4, No. 1, Winter 2002 and TobaccoDocuments.org.