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UAB honors memory of Arnold Diethelm, pioneering transplant surgeon

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Arnold G. Diethelm, former chair of the Department of Surgery and a leader in transplantation surgery at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, died Jan. 28, 2021. Diethelm was a native of Baltimore, Maryland. His career at UAB began in 1967 when he joined the UAB Department of Surgery, upon the completion of his two-year fellowship at Harvard, at the invitation of John W. Kirklin.

Diethelm took on the challenge of building a nationally recognized transplantation program from the ground up at UAB. The first kidney transplant in Alabama took place in 1968, followed by the first heart transplant in the Southeast in 1981. These milestones were followed by the first liver transplant in the state in 1983, the first simultaneous pancreas/kidney transplant in 1988 and the first lung transplant in 1989.

Diethelm was the author or co-author of more than 210 publications in peer-reviewed journals, served as a member of 26 surgical societies, as well as the chair of the UAB Department of Surgery from 1982-1999, and was honored with numerous memberships, awards, visiting professorships and appointments. He was president of the American Society of Transplant Surgeons, the premier organization for transplant surgeons across the nation, from 1991-1992, using this platform to advocate for improved education and training, sharing of knowledge, and equitable organ sharing.

“Dr. Diethelm was a pioneer and leader of transplantation at UAB and across the nation,” said Jayme Locke, M.D., director of the UAB Division of Transplant and Comprehensive Transplant Institute. “But, to those around him, he was known more for his humility and kindness. He was always quick to give credit to his team before himself.”

As chair of the Department of Surgery, Diethelm catapulted the department into the elite group of top five institutions for National Institutes of Health funding. The NIH is the largest public funder of biomedical research in the world, investing more than $32 billion a year for research.

“Dr. Diethelm set the standard of excellence in research, education and patient care for the Department of Surgery and for transplant across the nation,” said Herbert Chen, M.D., chair of the Department of Surgery. “He announced to the world that our department would be a leader in the field of transplantation, and our incredible faculty, staff and trainees continue to carry out his legacy every day.”

Under Diethelm’s leadership, UAB’s renal transplant program became one of the largest and busiest in the nation. In addition, he helped develop the Alabama Organ and Tissue Procurement Centers, expanding supply of critical tissues for bone allograft transplantation. The UAB School of Medicine awarded Diethelm its highest honor by naming him the Distinguished Faculty Lecturer in 1994. He was also inducted into the Alabama Healthcare Hall of Fame.

The Department of Surgery founded The Arnold G. Diethelm Lectureship in Surgical Sciences to foster the type of pioneering vision and dedicated work for the betterment of medicine that he exemplified. Memorials to his life and work can be directed to the UAB transplant fund or to the UAB Comprehensive Transplant Institute.

(Published January 29, 2021)