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A founding father of craniofacial surgery: S. Anthony Wolfe, MD, 1940-2023

Plastic surgeons are paying tribute to plastic surgery legend S. Anthony Wolfe, MD, who passed away Dec. 26 at age 83. Dr. Wolfe was a disciple of Paul Tessier, MD, and a founding member of the International Society of Craniofacial Surgery (ISCFS).

"Tony was definitely one of the founding fathers of craniofacial surgery," says ASPS and ASMS past President Joseph Losee, MD. "He was a giant in the field of craniomaxillofacial surgery who contributed in a major way. He was always kind, interested and willing to spend time with me. We will certainly miss his friendship and wisdom."

Dr. Wolfe was born in Cleveland on July 30, 1940, to Thomas and Elisabeth Wolfe. He earned his undergraduate degree from Dartmouth College in 1962 and completed medical school at Harvard University in 1965 and worked as a resident in general and plastic surgery in Boston and Miami, respectively.

"When I was a third-year medical student at Harvard, they took us to the Walter E. Fernald State School," Dr. Wolfe recalled in a 2023 interview for ISCFS. "We had a didactic session where they had a number of children and adults who were brought up on stage – here's someone with Apert syndrome, here's somebody with Treacher Collins – we just had 'show and tell.' Many of those children had normal or above-normal IQs and there was no mention of any treatment. That offended my sensibilities. It wasn't until 1973 that I first heard Dr. Tessier speak in Montreal and discussed the treatment for these conditions that I said, 'That's what I'm interested in.' "

At the University of Miami, Dr. Wolfe trained under D. Ralph Millard, MD, who later became his colleague. In 1974, he began a one-year post-residency fellowship in Paris with Dr. Tessier, the father of modern craniofacial surgery. That year, at a Chicago symposium for Dr. Tessier, Dr. Wolfe met Henry Kawamoto, MD, DDS, who had just finished training with Dr. Tessier. Dr. Kawamoto would remain a trusted friend and confidante for the rest of Dr. Wolfe's life.

"Tony and I were the best of friends," Dr. Kawamoto tells PSN. "He had a great mind, a great set of hands and he was lots of fun to be with. I miss him dearly."

James Stuzin, MD, past chairman of the American Board of Plastic Surgery and former co-editor of PRS, served as a craniofacial fellow with Dr. Wolfe, and he says his lifelong friend was one of the brightest physicians he ever knew.

"Tony was fluent in seven languages, translated several of Dr. Tessier's manuscripts from French to English and – for fun – would complete The New York Times crossword puzzle in five minutes during a lunch break," Dr. Stuzin says. "He was a pioneer in many aspects of craniofacial surgery – including the treatment of craniosynostosis, bone grafting for alveolar clefts and the treatment of post-traumatic orbital deformities. His undying devotion to plastic surgery allowed him to practice his art for over four decades as professor of plastic surgery at the University of Miami and Miami Children's Hospital."

Dr. Wolfe lived and worked in Miami until his retirement last year and was active in several medical organizations throughout his career. After helping develop ISCFS in 1983, he began serving as chief of the Department of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery at Miami Children's Hospital, where he trained numerous craniofacial fellows, plastic surgery residents and observers from around the world.

"Dr. Wolfe always advocated for patients and ensured only the highest academic standards in craniofacial surgery," says ASMS First Vice President Anand Kumar, MD.

Paul Manson, MD, past president of the American Association of Plastic Surgeons, ASMS and the Association of Academic Chairmen in Plastic Surgery, calls Dr. Wolfe one of the foremost influences on his own career.

"I can't overemphasize how he treated me as a colleague and a professional – especially when I was someone who was just learning," Dr. Manson says. "Although I became good at what I was doing, it wasn't without his help. His approaches and exposure to tough cases were always relevant, and he was incredibly generous with his time and willingness to help me out. I could call him in the middle of the night and would never hear a harsh word."

Jordan Steinberg, MD, PhD, Dr. Wolfe's successor at Nicklaus Children's Hospital (formerly Miami Children's Hospital), echoes the sentiments of Dr. Wolfe's generosity not only with his time and advice – but also his willingness to share pearls from his time with Dr. Tessier and delve into the history of craniofacial surgery. He notes Dr. Wolfe's dedication to passing on the knowledge of his teachers – something he also published in his book, A Man from Héric: The Life and Work of Paul Tessier, MD, Father of Craniofacial Surgery.

"He gave me support and a sense of confidence that I could continue to run with all of these advancements and technologies and carry on the flame with a lot of his patients," Dr. Steinberg says. "He had a very fatherly instinct and willingness to believe in me. He would take time to sit with me in the office and go over diagrams, patient photos, presentations or just some artifacts from his time with Tessier.

"A lot of people today have this misconception that craniofacial surgery is only about children or children with congenital problems, but he made very clear that Tessier took care of adults all the time," Dr. Steinberg adds. "So did Dr. Wolfe. There are children who had the same problems that just grew up and still needed care – whether it was the result of trauma or something else. He practiced the full range of craniofacial surgery and wanted people to recognize that there truly was a broad focus to it. We should use those principles to help in whatever way we can."

ASMS President Reza Jarrahy, MD, says Dr. Wolfe's impact on craniofacial surgery – and the field of plastic surgery at large – will endure for generations.

"He was one of those rare figures who impacts everyone who practices cleft, craniofacial and maxillofacial surgery," Dr. Jarrahy says. "People use the term 'larger than life' so much that it kind of loses its meaning, but he really earned that moniker. I had the honor and privilege of visiting him as a fellow, and those three days in Miami had the weight of three years in terms of inspiration and being able to witness how he worked and treated patients. I carry so many lessons from that brief time into my practice today.

"As ASMS president, I know I truly stand on the shoulders of giants – and I feel a profound sense of duty to honor the legacy of people like Tony Wolfe," he continues. "He was one of the giants who laid the groundwork for the work we do today and the progress we will continue to make."

Dr. Wolfe is survived by his children, Andrew (Hie Jung Yoon), Julia (Eric Moore), Johanna (Thorsten Wagner), Olivia (Neel Shah), Erin, Thomas, Laura (Erika Parjus), Conor, Anthony and Max; eight grandchildren; as well as his sister, Ellen Brewerton; and his brother, Tim Wolfe.

This article includes biographical information from an obituary written by Erin Wolfe, MD; Johanna Wolfe; Andrew Wolfe, PhD; and Julia Wolfe.