George Podgorny, MD – Advocate and Architect of Emergency Medicine


Dr. George Podgorny

Editor’s Note: In lieu of flowers, please consider a memorial donation to the Emergency Medicine Foundation. The family will be notified of any gifts received in his memory.

By Brian J. Zink, MD
Author, “Anyone, Anything, Anytime: A History of Emergency Medicine”

November 5, 2013

Life has sweet and sad moments, sometimes too closely juxtaposed. At the October 2013 ACEP Scientific Assembly meeting in Seattle, emergency physicians, residents, medical students, and long-time colleagues were pleased and intrigued to watch Dr. George Podgorny in the premiere of the EMRA Legacy Initiative 24/7/365 documentary, and then to hear him interviewed later that evening and in a panel discussion the following day. Many learned about the key role that Dr. Podgorny played in establishing emergency medicine (EM) as a legitimate US medical specialty through the creation of the American Board of Emergency Medicine (ABEM). At the time of the approval of ABEM by the American Board of Medical Specialties in 1979, Dr. Podgorny was clearly in the mix – serving as both President of ACEP and President of ABEM that year. He was integrally involved in the negotiations that created the approved “modified conjoint” ABEM board after the original ABEM proposal had been roundly defeated in an American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS) House of Delegates vote in 1977. After ABEM was approved, Podgorny was the Chief Examiner for the first ABEM exam. He also became the head of the newly created Residency Review Committee and served in that capacity for 6 years. He tirelessly surveyed and approved residencies, helping to ensure the quality of new emergency medicine residency programs.

Unfortunately, after gracing us with his encyclopedic memory, wit, and insights at ACEP, Dr. Podgorny fell ill after his trip to Seattle and died in Winston Salem, North Carolina on November 5th, 2013.

George Podgorny was born in Iran, but his heritage was Czech and Armenian. His father taught physical education to the children of the Shah of Iran, and his mother wrote children’s books. It was decided that George would come to the United States after high school because the family felt that a US university education would be superior. Podgorny left his family and came alone to Maryville College in Tennessee and decided to go in to medicine. He became enamored with Wake Forest University School of Medicine (then the Bowman Gray Medical School) and its Baptist Hospital, was accepted there for medical school and never left the region. Podgorny excelled as a medical student and was accepted in to the general surgery residency. As a surgery resident he spent a great deal of time in the emergency department, and was struck by the fact that the sickest patients were cared for by the least trained residents who were rarely supervised. He worked diligently to improve care in the ED even as a resident. Podgorny then completed vascular surgery training and was in a cardiothoracic surgery training fellowship when he began to learn more about physicians who were practicing full time in emergency departments (EDs). He attended the 1970 ACEP meeting and met many of the early leaders. After this, he joined with a couple friends to work in the ED of Forsyth Hospital in Winston-Salem. He loved this work, and the possibility of being involved in a new specialty of medicine, and did not return to surgery.

As someone who was academically-oriented and had 7 years of residency training, Podgorny linked with the early ACEP leaders and began to push for formation and approval of a specialty board in EM. His background and connections in the surgical world helped to lend some credibility to the early group, and allowed him to battle the opposition that came from surgical fields. He came across as a unique individual, always sporting a handlebar mustache, with an exotic sounding accent and an eloquent but raspy voice. People paid attention when he spoke.

One of his most important roles came at the “Workshop Conference on Education of the Physician in Emergency Medicine” in Chicago in 1973. Podgorny was an important, persuasive figure in a comprehensive gathering of medical leaders from government, the other medical specialties, and academia. The fate of EM going forward hinged on the early EM leaders convincing others that the field was credible and that residency training and specialists in EM were just as important as in other medical fields. The outcome of the meeting was favorable and Podgorny and other early leaders in EM then made a concerted push, against considerable odds, to get ABEM established over the next 6 years. Podgorny was a key negotiator in the process, particularly in the final compromise that allowed ABEM to be approved in 1979.

George Podgorny continued to practice emergency medicine for many years in Greensboro, North Carolina after his direct leadership in ACEP and ABEM ended. However, he was a constant presence at the annual Scientific Assembly and offered advice and counsel to the new leaders in EM. On a personal level, George loved his Persian heritage, and his home was lavishly decorated with Persian art and furniture. He was a widely read intellectual, and an astute scholar of the history of medicine. He also loved his adopted home state of North Carolina, and was a regular at the local barbeque restaurants.

Dr. Podgorny is one a handful of people who can be considered to have been truly essential to the formation of emergency medicine. Without his forceful, scholarly, and gracious diplomacy, some of the early deliberations of the future of EM could have gone the other way. His loss leaves us greatly saddened, but we can also warmly reflect on how his determination, skill in negotiation, and perseverance made EM become a reality in the US. This is his tremendous legacy. We are grateful to have had the pleasure of seeing and hearing this senior icon of emergency medicine one last time at the ACEP Scientific Assembly 2013.

  1. #1 by Madge Kunkel - December 23rd, 2013 at 22:52

    My late husband, Donald B Kunkel, and George were great friends and colleagues. I will always treasure the early years of EM with so many friends and colleagues working so diligently to create ACEP. They were exciting days creating a new and needed specialty in medicine. George was there for me after Don’s passing in 2000. I will miss him dearly.

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