In Remembrance: J. David Richardson, MD

Kelly M. McMasters, MD, PhD
Ben A. Reid, Sr., MD Professor and Chair
The Hiram C. Polk, Jr., MD Department of Surgery
University of Louisville School of Medicine


Dr. J. David Richardson passed away on September 7, 2021 at the age of 76. He is survived by his wife, Maxine, children Amy, Melissa, and Britt, brothers Ron and Paul, as well as his grandchildren Tasia, Charles, Amelia, Benjamin, and Evelyn Suzanne. He was predeceased by his parents and wife of 50 years, Suzanne.

Dr. Richardson attended Morehead State University and graduated from the University of Kentucky School of Medicine in 1970. He began general surgery residency at the University of Kentucky and transferred to the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio to complete residencies in general surgery and thoracic surgery. His accomplishments included becoming one of the nation's few quadruple board-certified surgeons: in general surgery, thoracic, vascular, and surgical critical care. Dr. Richardson joined the University of Louisville Department of Surgery in 1976 as assistant professor, and by 1982 reached the rank of professor. He served for many years as the Berel L. Abrams, MD Endowed Chair in Surgery, Chief of the Division of General Surgery, and Vice-Chair of the Department of Surgery. He received multiple University of Louisville Distinguished Faculty Awards and was named the Ephraim McDowell Physician of the Year. He received the Distinguished Alumni Award from the University of Kentucky College of Medicine, the Distinguished Service Award from the Southeastern Surgical Congress, an honorary doctorate degree from Morehead State University, and was named an honorary fellow of the Southern Surgical Association, among many other honors and awards.

Dr. Richardson was a prolific scholar, publishing over 375 articles, 58 book chapters, and 1 book. A gifted and popular speaker, he delivered no less than 50 named lectureships and served as visiting professor at 98 additional institutions. He served on many editorial boards and was the long-time Editor-in-Chief of The American Surgeon.

Dr. Richardson was a leader in many surgical organizations. He served as president of the American Association for Surgery of Trauma, the Southern Surgical Association, the Western Surgical Association, and the Southeastern Surgical Congress. He was treasurer of both the Society for Surgery of the Alimentary Tract and the Society of University Surgeons. He served on the Residency Review Committee for Surgery and became vice-chair. He was a long-time Director of the American Board of Surgery and served as chair. Dr. Richardson served in numerous capacities at the American College of Surgeons, eventually becoming chair of the Board of Regents. In 2015, he became the 96th President of the American College of Surgeons.

Dr. Richardson was also well known for his passion and success in thoroughbred racing, horse ownership, and breeding. He raised and sold over 1,000 horses that ultimately won races. Dr. Richardson served as chairman of Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders of America and as chair of its American Graded Stakes Committee. He also served as a long-standing member of the Breeders’ Cup and was a past director of the board. While he was at home rubbing elbows with horseracing’s elite, he was even more at home with those who worked in the stables. He spent a lifetime trying to provide better medical care for those on both the frontside and the backside of the track.

Dr. Richardson was a compassionate physician, a master surgeon, an award-winning educator, a prolific researcher and scholar, a leader in academic surgery, an accomplished horseman, and a devoted family man. This certainly indicates a full life, well lived. Yet to those who knew Dr. David Richardson, he was so much more than the catalogue of his accomplishments.

As a surgeon, Dr. Richardson was the person to whom everyone turned for his sage advice regarding obscure diagnostic dilemmas and impossible patient management decisions. He was one of the most brilliant men I have ever known. He approached complex problems with his penetrating intellect, impeccable logic, and an equal measure of good old-fashioned Eastern Kentucky common sense. His wisdom was legendary. The word “thoughtful” does not do justice to Dr. Richardson’s style of patient care; he cared enough about his patients that he would think, and question, and keep on thinking until he found the answer. On trauma call one night recently, I faced a difficult patient management decision and wanted to call David—he surely would know what to do. Alas, he is no longer available for consultation, which makes all of us a little uneasy. Yet, his words still echo in our ears, his teachings passed on from one generation to the next.

As a mentor and role model, Dr. Richardson was truly exceptional. He was the consummate mentor for residents, fellows, and faculty members. He always took a keen interest in our medical students, and spent countless hours providing them guidance and career advice. He inspired everyone around him to become more than they ever dreamed they could be. He was a staunch advocate for the benefit of broad-based general surgery training and the critical role of general surgeons, especially in rural areas; he is responsible for many choosing this career path.

As a professor, Dr. Richardson always had something to profess, because he never stopped asking questions and seeking their answers. He had a unique intellectual curiosity that led him to question all assumptions and dogma. He revisited fundamental questions that others may have passed by as already settled. He was always engaged in the intellectual battle to improve the lives of our patients.

As a leader, Dr. Richardson was charming, engaging, inclusive, and decisive. He did not suffer fools and always stood up for what he believed was right. He could instantly see through pretense, prevarication, and dissimulation--and cut right to the heart of the matter. His integrity was beyond reproach, and he showed us what a leader should be.

But as a person, David Richardson was much, much more than the sum of these attributes. He was incredibly devoted to his family. He was charismatic and thrived on social interaction. He knew everyone by name, whether at the hospital or the racetrack. Yet he knew much more than their names. He knew their families. He knew their stories. He knew their lives. He was always on the phone talking with friends, family, colleagues, and associates—constantly engaged in the lives of others. Unlike the self-indulgent sun that shines its rays dispassionately on the objects in its orbit, the many in David Richardson’s orbit experienced his intense ability to listen, absorb, and care. His late wife, Suzanne, told him that his greatest fault was that he was always giving unsolicited advice. When he offered such advice, it was always wise to listen very carefully. Many are those, myself included, who have benefitted from his unsolicited advice. If this was his greatest fault, it is easy to forgive.

David Richardson taught me many things.
He taught me about work-life balance--that an avocation could enhance your vocation.
He taught me how to read a racing form.
He taught me how to handicap a horse race by first striking out those that could not win (eliminating the impossible and improbable solutions up front has turned out to be a useful tactic for solving other complex problems).
He taught me that money is for betting, not eating (apparently what he learned at the track when he was young).
He taught me to always box exacta bets.
He taught me how and when to make a toast.
He taught me to be a surgeon.
He taught me to be a leader.
He taught me the importance of family and friends and connection with others.
He taught me how to be a better person.
He taught me what matters most.

Godspeed, J. David Richardson. You have made a profound difference in this world. Like many others, you have made a profound difference in my life. I deeply regret that you didn’t have more time to give me additional unsolicited advice. I will try to remember the advice you have given. I promise I will box all of my exactas from now on.