Dr. Bradford Cannon, a plastic surgeon who helped pioneer a new treatment for burns and used it on victims of the deadly Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire of 1942, has died at 98.
Cannon, who died Dec. 20 of pneumonia at his daughter's home in Lincoln, was the first chief of plastic and reconstructive surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital and was credited with saving the lives of soldiers maimed during World War II.
As a young doctor, he used a new method he developed with another surgeon to treat survivors of the fire that killed nearly 500 patrons of Boston's Cocoanut Grove.
He wrapped victims' burns with petroleum-coated gauze containing boric acid, which preserved skin. The technique eventually became a standard treatment for burns, replacing a more invasive method that used tannic acid, which destroyed skin.
"Plastic surgery nowadays is seen as simply cosmetic nip-tuck kind of work. But he was a pioneer in the under-recognized and incredibly challenging field of reconstructive surgery — in particular for burn victims," Dr. Atul Gawande, assistant professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, told The Boston Globe.
More than 50 years after the Cocoanut Grove fire, a coincidence reunited Cannon with one of the victims he treated, Shirley Freedman-Harris. Her son was a pilot whose co-pilot was one of Cannon's sons.
In 1994, Freedman-Harris, then 72 and living in San Diego, wrote Cannon a letter of thanks.
"I realize that medical science contributed much, but I honestly doubt that it would have worked so well without my will to survive — and your intelligence to bolster that will," she wrote. "Your compassion, your caring, I believe, did save my life."
Cannon was a Cambridge native who graduated from Harvard College in 1929 and Harvard Medical School in 1933. He served in the Army during World War II.
He used cadaver skin as a temporary graft to treat one of his patients, a fighter pilot with severe burns on his head and hands. The technique, now standard, was considered radical at the time, though Cannon was not the first to use it.
He is survived by three sons, a daughter, a sister, 14 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.