Neurosurgeon Samson named Watson Award recipient

By Jeff Carlton

It was the type of case that Dr. Duke Samson hates to see but loves to take on: a woman pregnant with twins with an especially difficult and dangerous aneurysm in her brain. He called neurosurgeons around the country for advice.

“They all said, ‘She obviously needs to be treated, but please don’t send her to us,’ ” said Dr. Samson, who went ahead with the operation. “I just saw her the other day. The twins are 9 now, and everyone is doing great.”

Dr. Jeffrey Drazen (left), Editor-in-Chief of The New England Journal of Medicine, presented the Watson Award to Dr. Duke Samson during a Nov. 14 visit to UT Southwestern.

Dr. Samson’s willingness to tackle the toughest cases – and his success in doing so – helped build UT Southwestern’s reputation as one of the nation’s best hospitals for neurological surgery.  The standard he set as one of the world’s leading vascular neurosurgeons led to his selection as the 2011 recipient of the Patricia and William L. Watson Jr., M.D., Award for Excellence in Clinical Medicine.

Dr. Watson, a graduate of UT Southwestern, and his wife made a donation to establish the award, which is given annually to a clinician whose work exemplifies the medical center’s commitment to outstanding patient care.  The recipient uses a portion of the award to enhance clinical innovation.

Dr. Samson received the Watson Award on Nov. 14, in conjunction with a visiting lecture from Dr. Jeffrey Drazen, Editor-in-Chief of The New England Journal of Medicine.

Dr. Samson has been the Chairman of Neurological Surgery since 1985.

“I think the big question right now for all of us is whether we, the clinical faculty, have the total commitment to achieve the goal of establishing UT Southwestern as a center for clinical excellence. I believe that the only acceptable answer is yes,” said Dr. Samson, Director of the Mobility Foundation Center for Rehabilitation Research.

Dr. Daniel K. Podolsky, President of UT Southwestern, described Dr. Samson as a “physician’s physician.”

“He has been a model of clinical commitment and excellence for his colleagues in the Department of Neurological Surgery and for clinicians across the campus since joining the UT Southwestern faculty,” Dr. Podolsky said.

It’s no coincidence that the department’s rise to prominence has coincided with Dr. Samson’s tenure at UT Southwestern. He arrived in 1977 after medical school at Washington University, a surgical residency at Duke University School of Medicine, a neurosurgery residency at UT Southwestern and a stint in the U.S. Army Medical Corps. He also spent about seven months training in Zurich, Switzerland, under Dr. M. Gazi Yasargil, honored as Neurosurgery’s Man of the Century by the Congress of Neurological Surgeons.

“I find the brain to be incredible, because it’s what you are,” Dr. Samson said. “The brain is an unusual organ. It weighs about a couple of pounds, it’s the consistency of Jell-O that’s been left out all night, and it pulsates a little bit. But when I look at someone’s brain, I think I’m looking at that person.”

At the start of Dr. Samson’s UT Southwestern career, the neurological surgery department had three faculty members and operated out of one room at Parkland Memorial Hospital, four days a week. Today, the department has 14 faculty members operating five days a week out of two rooms at Parkland and four at University Hospital - Zale Lipshy, as well as a busy service at the Dallas Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

This transformation took place under Dr. Samson’s leadership.

“There was an opportunity to build a first-class, referral-based neurosurgery service here. There wasn’t one in the Southwest and there definitely wasn’t one in the Dallas-Fort Worth area,” Dr. Samson said. “I thought if we could assemble the right kind of people to do very complex cases that other people were uncomfortable doing, we could offer a service to the community and to neurosurgery.”

Dr. Bruce Mickey, Vice Chairman of Neurological Surgery, said he was preparing for his fourth year of medical school when he met Dr. Samson in 1977 on neurosurgery rounds at the VA. He said Dr. Samson was “demanding and intense, but also supporting and encouraging” – and hasn’t changed.

 “He always has the patient’s best interests in mind,” said Dr. Mickey, Director of the Annette G. Strauss Center in Neuro-Oncology. “And his goal is to teach everyone involved in that patient’s care how to be better.”

The cowboy-boot-wearing Dr. Samson comes off like a walking Texas archetype – who just happens to be one of the world’s best brain surgeons. He grew up in West Texas and was a football star at Odessa High School, which has a program that shares a town and a rivalry with the high school made famous in Friday Night Lights.

He drives a pickup, speaks glowingly of honky-tonk bars and enjoys target shooting, hunting and fly fishing. He owns horses and used to excel at western horsemanship, until a broken leg suffered in a skiing accident made him hang up the saddle.

At 68, he has made other concessions to age. He traded in taekwondo for tai chi, even though he once finished third in the European championships. He also is stepping down as chair of the department, although he plans to continue seeing patients full time.

He says the thrill and wonder of neurological surgery keep him going.

“It’s amazing when you look at the brain and think what that represents,” Dr. Samson said. “I still feel that way. I’ll quit when I don’t.”


Dr. Mickey holds the William Kemp Clark Chair in Neurological Surgery.

Dr. Podolsky holds the Philip O’Bryan Montgomery Jr., M.D., Distinguished Presidential Chair in Academic Administration and the Doris and Bryan Wildenthal Distinguished Chair in Medical Science.

Dr. Samson holds the Kimberly-Clark Distinguished Chair in Mobility Research and the Lois C.A. and Darwin E. Smith Distinguished Chair in Neurological Surgery.