Robert Zollinger a Surgical Giant on Whose Shoulders We Stand


Zollinger (the younger one with the determined demeanor, on the right) was kind to medical students, but once you got that M.D., he was ruthless! The stories that former residents tell are hair-raising and would bring forth all kinds of harassment charges in today’s environment. Nevertheless, he was beloved by his patients, although feared by his residents. He was famous for firing a resident going up the elevator on the third floor and rehiring him by the time they got off on the seventh floor. Zollinger was once asked what he wanted on his tombstone. His answer: “teacher, surgeon, soldier, farmer, and my wife may remember that I’m an amusing fellow to live with.” He won as many awards growing his gourds and roses, as he had accolades as a surgeon.

I have had the privilege of having exposure to several of his former residents as colleagues, and one of them became a UCLA professor who taught me. He too was tough, but nowhere near Dr. Zollinger. His name was Edward Passaro. Zollinger, just to get his goat, would call him “Pissaro,” accent on the first syllable. The poor guy had to tolerate that for five years before all the PC snowflake culture began. Dr. Passaro was a brilliant surgeon and an inspirational teacher for me. His work with Zollinger paid off, despite the abuse, and in my humble opinion because of it.

Zollinger expected perfection from himself and his residents. Once he didn’t like the way his Chief Resident was conducting the operation, so he took his gloves off, grabbed an IV pole, and taped the resident to the pole for the rest of the procedure. His association with Edwin Ellison, one of his residents, led to the discovery of the Zollinger-Ellison Syndrome, a non-beta cell endocrine tumor of the pancreas, that produced gastric, and duodenal ulcers due to the hormone, gastrin, which that tumor secreted.

Dr. E. Passaro discovered the prime area to look for the tumor,  which makes gastrin. It is called the Gastrinoma triangle, but more appropriately Passaro’s Triangle. This was in 1955 and is the first of many other syndromes that opened the door for the discovery of  endocrine tumors and the different hormones they produced,  now described as multiple endocrine neoplasia. Zollinger applied for an internship at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston, under the tutelage of Harvey Cushing. Cushing sent Zollinger to work with Elliott C. Cutler his favorite pupil. That association would span the next twenty years, and the two would produce the now-famous Atlas of Surgical Operations with eight more editions to follow. 

If this is interesting to you, there is much more in my book, We Stand on the Shoulders of Giants, with many  personal stories about the Giants of Surgery available on The revised second edition will be out in a month with more chapters in a hardcover format.