A legend and forefather of microsurgery: Berish Strauch, MD, 1933-2023
The specialty lost a microsurgery pioneer on Dec. 24, when Berish Strauch, MD, passed away at age 90.
"Dr. Strauch was a legend in the field of microsurgery well before I trained with him in the Bronx," says The PSF past President Bernard T. Lee, MD, MPH, MBA. "He had high expectations of his residents and always pushed us to be better. As a mentor, he influenced every important decision that I've made in my career and life."
Dr. Strauch, was born Sept. 19, 1933, and grew up in the South Bronx with his mother, Anna, and his father, Herman, who was a tailor.
"He always knew he wanted to be a doctor from a young age," says Dr. Strauch's son, Robert Strauch, MD, an orthopedic surgeon at Columbia University Medical Center, New York. "He came from an immigrant family in the South Bronx and not too many people became doctors, so I don't know how much they believed him, but he did it. He sold encyclopedias over the summer in college to help support his education – and he actually became the regional sales champion."
After graduating from Columbia Medical School, Dr. Strauch completed a general surgery residency at Montefiore Medical Center, then a hand surgery fellowship with William Littler, MD, at Roosevelt Hospital. However, his son notes that with tensions flaring in Vietnam in the 1960s, Dr. Strauch suspended his training to enlist in the U.S. Army. He served as a captain in Fort Bragg, N.C., and Sagamihara, Japan. After completing his service, Dr. Strauch took his family to Palo Alto, Calif., for further plastic surgery training under the mentorship of Robert Chase, MD, at Stanford University. It was during this time that he began his pioneering work in microsurgery.
Returning to New York, he joined the Division of Plastic Surgery at Montefiore Medical Center, then run by Michael Lewin, MD. Dr. Strauch became division chief in 1978, and during his leadership, he not only turned the division into a full-fledged surgical department, but Montefiore also became the first replantation center in the Northeast. He served as chair of plastic and reconstructive surgery at Montefiore/Albert Einstein from 1987 until 2007.
Among his accomplishments, Dr. Strauch pioneered the toe-to-thumb transplantation technique and spearheaded research and advancements in microsurgery and peripheral nerve surgery. He founded the Journal of Reconstructive Microsurgery in 1982 and served as its editor-in-chief for 25 years. He published numerous books and articles, including The Encyclopedia of Flaps ("That early work selling encyclopedias stuck with him," notes his son), The Atlas of Microvascular Surgery, The Atlas of Hand Anatomy and Clinical Implications and The Encyclopedia of Body Sculpting After Massive Weight Loss.
Dr. Strauch patented the widely used "Strauch Clamp" to help surgically restore male fertility post-vasectomy, and he conducted research in the field of pulsed electromagnetic fields to improve healing and lessen postoperative pain.
"Even later in his career, he was still so enthusiastic about plastic surgery, microsurgery and training the next generations of microsurgeons," notes Christine Rohde, MD, MPH, chief of plastic and reconstructive surgery at Columbia University Medical Center, New York, who trained under Dr. Strauch. "He was a tremendous advocate for his residents. He always had our best interests at heart, and that meant a lot. He was so proud of the people that he trained and, as a result, we all were very familiar with people who he trained over the years, and their accomplishments."
Dr. Rohde adds Dr. Strauch also worked tirelessly to improve diversity in plastic surgery, hiring people from different backgrounds and advocating for more women in the specialty.
Elizabeth Hall-Findlay, MD, the first female resident in Dr. Strauch's program who trained from 1980-82, says that as a Canadian female who hadn't yet completed full general surgery training, she knows she wasn't a typical candidate for his program.
"I owe him an awful lot," Dr. Hall-Findlay says. "He took a chance on me – and I had a wonderful experience in that program. Microsurgery was still new when I was training, but what truly stayed with me was his sense of curiosity. That's what makes plastic surgery so much fun – the orthopedic surgeons may get to put the puzzle together, but plastic surgeons get to design the puzzle. He taught us all to maintain that curiosity."
Dr. Strauch also took great pride in his work with ASPS and The PSF, serving as chair of the Maliniac Lecture Selection Committee for more than 20 years, taking the responsibility of honoring Dr. Maliniac's wishes to heart.
Dr. Strauch served as the first president of the American Society for Reconstructive Microsurgery, president and a founding member of the American Society for Peripheral Nerve, president of the International Society of Reconstructive Microsurgery and president of the New York Society for Surgery of the Hand (NYSSH), for which he and Robert remain the only father/son duo to have served as president of that organization.
NYSSH President Renata Weber, MD, another of Dr. Strauch's residents, says her time training with Dr. Strauch ultimately steered the direction of her career.
"I was a burn fellow at Jacobi Medical Center, and that's where I first met Dr. Strauch," she recalls. "He took me on as a resident and gave me the opportunity to work in the research lab. As a resident, you're kind of in your own little world and you don't always see the bigger picture. I remember it wasn't until I went to my first microsurgery meeting where I was presenting – and he literally knew everybody – that it was this huge eye-opener of who I was training with and just how enormous his impact was upon our specialty.
"He was always a visionary," Dr. Weber adds. "When I was trying to decide between craniofacial and hand surgery, he was the one who sat me down and said not only that I should go into hand surgery – but specifically nerve surgery, because nerve transfers were the wave of the future. He had this innate ability to know what was on the horizon and go into that. Almost every 10 years, he seemed to reinvent himself on what proved to be the next big thing."
Robert Strauch says having a father who was a pioneer in plastic surgery helped his own medical aspirations, but Dr. Strauch never tried to influence his kids' career paths.
"He was happy if we were happy," his son says. "I can remember he had a model of a hand that came apart on his desk at home, and that's probably what captured my imagination and steered me toward orthopedics. I'm not as artistic as he was, but it was a treat to be able to discuss cases with him. You know the saying, 'If you love what you do, you never work a day in your life?' That was him. He loved going in and he loved doing what he did."
Dr. Strauch was preceded in death by Rena, his loving wife of 68 years, who passed just eight weeks before her husband. He is survived by his son, Robert (Laura); his daughter, Laurie (David); and his grandchildren, David, Kimberly (Philip), Carolyn (Gabriel), Alexandra, Matthew, Julia and Jason.