About W. H. Hendren, M.D.

Video of Dr. W. Hardy Hendren being honored as an Icon in Surgery by the American College of Surgeons

W. Hardy Hendren III, M.D., one of the leading surgeons, educators and medical writers of his time, renowned for his pioneering ability to correct seemingly intractable anatomical conditions, was born February 7, 1926, in New Orleans.

Dr. Hendren passed away on March 1, 2022.

The only son of a film-industry executive and his wife, Hendren and his two sisters moved with their family in 1933 to Kansas City, Missouri, where he spent much of his childhood. Hendren excelled in his studies, sang in the church choir and became an Eagle Scout, an experience he would later credit for much of his success. He discovered what would be his lifelong passion, surgery, while dissecting a tadpole -- and watching the death of a boyhood friend from a congenital defect that defied cure at the time.

After graduating from Woodberry Forest School in Virginia, in 1943, Hendren enrolled briefly at Dartmouth College. America was at war, and Hendren took leave from Dartmouth that June at age 17 to enlist as an aviation cadet and he was called to active duty in October. He earned his wings as a naval aviator and was carrier-qualified, though peace would come before he could be sent into combat. Hendren returned to Dartmouth after three years of active Navy duty -- but not before marrying Eleanor McKenna, in 1947. Hendren earned his bachelor’s degree from Dartmouth in 1948 and in 1950, completed Dartmouth’s two-year medical program. He then transferred to Harvard Medical School, from which he graduated cum laude in 1952. As a senior at Harvard Medical School he had a very active role in setting up the National Internship Matching plan, which has worked successfully since 1952.

After serving as an intern and assistant resident at Massachusetts General Hospital, Hendren from 1955 to 1956 was a senior surgical resident at Children’s Hospital Boston, where he trained under the pioneering pediatric surgeon Robert E. Gross. Gross first demonstrated successful heart surgery for a child in 1938 while he was the Chief Resident in Surgery for Dr. William E. Ladd. Hendren served in 1958 as Chief Surgical Resident at Mass. General Hospital under Dr. Edward D. Churchill, and then as Chief Surgical Resident at Children’s during the 1959-1960 year. After completing his eight years of surgical training, Hendren was named Chief of Pediatric Surgery at the Mass. General by Dr. Churchill. It was while serving in that capacity from 1960 to 1982 that he began to specialize in the repair of conditions that had previously been thought to be beyond hope. In 1969 he became the first surgeon in Boston to successfully separate conjoined, or Siamese, twins.

During his years at Mass. General, Hendren also achieved groundbreaking success in the surgical correction of complex genito-urinary defects, such as cloaca, a defect involving multiple abdominal organs and systems that generations of surgeons before him had pronounced impossible to fix. He also demonstrated that patients -- both children and adults -- who had been treated by diversion of their urinary tracts to empty into a bag, can be reconstructed in most cases and function normally post-surgery. He termed this “undiversion.” The American College of Surgeons recently stated, “This pioneering and innovative development revolutionized the practice of pediatric surgery.” Megaureter repair was another of Hendren’s contributions that became a staple of reconstructive urology. Some of these operations lasted 18 hours or more, earning Hendren the nickname of Hardly Human -- a term used endearingly by friends, and fearfully by some of the house staff he trained. But his patients never called him that: with gratitude, they called him a healer.

By 1980, pediatric surgery at Mass. General had grown to thirty personnel: residents, laboratory fellows, and research scientists. Drs. Bruce Henderson, Samuel Kim, and Patricia Donahoe were recruited. Dr. Donahoe began her landmark research in developmental biology of the Mullerian Inhibiting Substance. She built a world class lab with consistent National Institutes of Health funding.  She received many honors and presidencies, a chair bearing her name, membership in the National Academy of Sciences, and a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Society of University Surgeons, all a source of great pride for Hendren.

In 1982, Hendren was named to the post once held by Gross: Chief of Surgery at Children’s Hospital. During his 16 years as Chief, Hendren continued training surgeons, many of whom went on to become chiefs of surgery and pioneers in their own right at other institutions. He operated on thousands of patients, attended many associations, and was the first Robert E. Gross Professor of Surgery at the Harvard Medical School. He continued with his prolific writing. He was invited to lecture around the world -- and while on his overseas visits, he would typically be asked to operate, on his own time and at his own expense, on children and adults brought to him after native efforts for cure or correction had failed. He regarded that as a privilege.

These efforts, along with his work in America, where he also lectured and operated in many cities -- and where he also gave free care to patients without the means to pay -- would bring him more than two dozen major honors, including the William E. Ladd Medal of the American Academy of Pediatrics (1983), the Valentine Medal of the New York Academy of Medicine (1985), the Denis Browne Medal of the British Association of Pediatric Surgeons (1991), the Urology Medal of the Urologic Section of the American Academy of Pediatrics (1993), the Bigelow Medal of the Boston Surgical Society, the Arnold M. Salzberg Mentorship Award of the Surgical Section of the American Academy of Pediatrics (2003), and the Distinguished Service Award by the American Pediatric Surgical Association (2007).

A cornerstone of Hendren’s philosophy is that knowledge and expertise gained should be widely shared, so that other health-care professionals may learn and more patients can benefit. This is the philosophy behind this foundation, and the motivation behind Hendren’s extensive writings. Hendren is the author or co-author of more than 200 original scientific articles; author or co-author of over 100 book chapters; and author or co-author of six monographs and books. He is also a medical photographer and filmmaker of note, having photographed for many of his articles and created 20 medical teaching documentary movies.

In 2008, the Hendren Chair in Surgery was established at the Harvard Medical School.  Recently, two Faculty Development Endowed Fellowships in his name, and a third as the Eleanor and Hardy Hendren Endowed Fellowship, were given to the Department of Surgery at Children’s Hospital by grateful families whose children he helped surgically.

One of Hendren’s latest honors -- and one dear to his heart -- is the Distinguished Eagle Scout Award, presented to him by fellow Distinguished Eagle Scout Michael Dukakis, former governor of Massachusetts, on Dec. 14, 2011, at Mass. General Hospital.

As of January 2012, Hendren is the Distinguished Robert E. Gross Professor of Surgery, Harvard Medical School; Chief of Surgery, Emeritus, Children’s Hospital, Boston; and Honorary Surgeon, Massachusetts General Hospital. He is also working diligently on The W. Hardy Hendren Educational Foundation for Pediatric Surgery and Urology, a non-profit organization founded to serve as the memory and educational voice of the medical contributions he has made over a lifetime of clinical practice to a global audience.

Hendren and Eleanor are the parents of four sons: Douglas Hardy, William Grant, and Robert Bruce, all surgeons; and David Fraser, a lawyer. The Hendrens’ daughter, Sandra McLeod Hendren, a teacher and nurse, died of complications of diabetes in 1984. The Hendrens have eleven grandchildren and reside in Duxbury, Mass.

A more comprehensive biography of Hendren appears in the 1993 book The Work of Human Hands: Hardy Hendren and Surgical Wonder at Children’s Hospital, an account of one of his more complicated cloaca cases.