March 1, 2014 10:26:06 PM
Henry Laws, the son of a Columbus drugstore owner who went on to graduate from Harvard Medical School and become a nationally renowned doctor who a colleague dubbed a "surgeon's surgeon," has died.
Laws died Tuesday at his home in Mountain Brook, Ala., according to his brother, Albert "Chance" Laws of Columbus. He was 81.
"He was my rock," Chance Laws said of his older brother. "He was someone I leaned on for advice, but also someone I looked up to and admired."
After graduating Harvard Medical School in 1956 -- five years after receiving his diploma from Lee High School in Columbus -- Henry Laws began his pioneering career.
Across the United States today, roughly a half-million small incision gall bladder operations are performed annually. Those surgeries typically take place through one-inch incisions. Before Laws and a small group of surgeons developed the technique used today, the incisions could be 10 inches long.
In the late 1980s, he developed a weight-loss surgery procedure that was the first of its kind. It became known as "the Laws procedure."
In 1988, Laws is believed to have performed the first life-saving surgery that repaired a left ventricle rupture in a patient's heart.
Throughout his career, he spoke on five continents on the topic of endoscopic surgery.
These are impressive accomplishments. What drove Laws? "Enthusiasm," his brother said Friday.
Henry Laws played fullback for the Lee High School football team. Despite weighing 145 pounds, he made the roster at the University of Mississippi for three semesters. Many years later, his brother, Chance, bumped into a former Ole Miss coach in Florida. When the coach learned Henry Laws was Chance Laws' brother, he said, "Your brother had more enthusiasm than anyone else on the team.'"
Henry Laws carried that passion into everything, Chance Laws said.
After Harvard, he began a private practice in Anniston, Ala. Eight years later his desire to learn and teach led him to join the staff at the University of Alabama Medical Center. From 1982 to 2000, he was director of the surgical training program at Caraway Methodist Medical Center in Birmingham.
After word of his death spread last week, a former student sent one of his family members an email. The student, now a surgeon, remembered doing surgery on a patient for pancreatic cancer. It took six or eight hours, the student said. Laws, he said, could do the same procedure in two-and-a-half hours.
"He was a great doctor with a great bedside manner," the student wrote in the email.
On the topic of Laws' small incision gall bladder surgery techniques, another Birmingham surgeon once wrote that, "The decline in complications and patient deaths through these innovative techniques is beyond measure."
Despite his successes, Henry Laws remained a humble, caring person who had the habit of calling acquaintances, "hoss collar," his brother said.
He retired in 2003. His final decade was spent with his wife at their home and farm in Chilton County, Ala. He developed a love of growing oak trees.
Chance Laws carries memories of his older brother coming to visit Columbus. He always had a spade with him, and would drop to a knee and plant an acorn when the moment struck him.
"For every event in the family, he had an oak tree planted," Chance Laws said. "Everybody in the family had one."
William Browning was managing editor for The Dispatch until June 2016.
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