Remembering Dr. Adrian Flatt, 1921-2017

A message from Terry Light, MD, Past ASSH President

Adrian Flatt

Adrian Flatt was a wonderful friend to many in the hand surgery world.  He was so accomplished yet so understated that his CV was but a single page.   He wasn’t trying to impress anyone, yet his deeds and manner were impressive.   He was always full of encouragement for trainees and colleagues. Dr. Flatt found joy in his work as a hand surgeon and enjoyed stimulating young students and residents.   Each of us, I am sure, has been inspired and influenced by Dr. Flatt in person or through his writings.

Adrian Flatt was born in England and raised in India.  While he attended medical school at Cambridge University, he volunteered at the Royal London Hospital in London during the blitz bombing. After training in orthopaedics and plastic surgery in England, he became a physician in the Royal Air Force parachute rescue team in Sri Lanka.  He made 18 parachute jumps as a young physician.  He first came to the US on a Fulbright Scholarship.  He assumed a faculty position at the University of Iowa in 1956.

Dr. Flatt became an ASSH member in 1958.  He served as ASSH president from 1975-1976 and was the Editor of the Journal of Hand Surgery (American) from 1980-1991.  He trained 50 hand surgery fellows in Iowa City, Norwalk, CT and Dallas.  He was named a Pioneer in Hand Surgery by the International Federation of Societies for Surgery of the Hand.

As a high school student, I read an article in Time magazine about Dr. Adrian Flatt’s work at the University of Iowa where he had developed metal MCP joints.  I used the Time article as the basis of a science project, never supposing that our paths would cross.

As a resident, I read his books on The Care of Minor Hand Injuries, Care of the Arthritic Hand, and The Care of Congenital Hand Anomalies.  Each was practical and highly readable by the novice.  I admired Dr. Flatt from afar as he gave his presidential address at the 1976 ASSH annual meeting. 

As a young attending surgeon at Yale, I was simultaneously delighted and apprehensive when Adrian Flatt moved to nearby Norwalk, Connecticut.  I shouldn’t have worried.  He couldn’t have been kinder and more encouraging to me. He came to journal clubs in my home and shared a perspective that he would soon use as Editor of the Journal of Hand Surgery.  He generously shared his technique for making molds of hands of children with congenital hand disorders.  His hand castings of accomplished individuals now fill the lobby of the Baylor University Hospital in Dallas.

In Chicago, we honored my Loyola mentor, Sidney Blair, by inviting Dr. Flatt to speak to our residents and to our Chicago Society for Surgery of the Hand.  It was a wonderful visit.  He was charming, perceptive and kind to all.

When the ASSH meeting was held in Chicago in 2003, Dan Nagle and I were asked to talk about the History of Chicago Hand Surgery.  We spent the summer editing photos and videos and refining our text. A rehearsal the day before our presentation, while the stage was being constructed around us, was judged “boring.”  We needed to shorten our presentation.  We were despondent.  Overnight we edited out several minutes of video and text.  Our final rehearsal of the new script was held at 6 AM on the morning of the opening ceremony.  When we finished our presentation to an empty auditorium, we heard a lone individual applauding.  When we realized that it was Adrian Flatt, we were ecstatic. He said that he enjoyed our presentation very much. At that point, I felt that if Adrian Flatt liked it, I didn’t care what anyone else thought.  We confidently went forward with our show at the opening ceremony in front of 1500 attendees. The audience vigorously applauded the final presentation – I was most pleased that Adrian liked it.

Dr. Flatt and I corresponded and spoke often over many years.  He was always encouraging, upbeat and insightful.  He often nudged me to write more and share my thoughts with others.   We are all the better since he so willingly shared his knowledge with us all.  

His inspiring teaching of hand anatomy to medical students at Texas Southwestern Medical School earned him the Teacher of the Year honors on 7 different occasions. 

Many years ago, Dr. Flatt anonymously contributed a substantial sum to an AFSH fund that has underwritten the costs associated with the ASSH Residents and Fellows Conference for many years. After several years of prodding, he reluctantly allowed the ASSH to add his name to the conference title.  

I had the pleasure of sitting with Dr. Flatt at lunch with residents and fellows at the 2016 ASSH Annual meeting in Austin.  He had a smile and a kind word for everyone.

He was a remarkable man who lived a full life by any measure.

Click here to read a 2000 interview in which Dr. Flatt recounts important influences and events in his life.

Please pause for a few minutes to watch these short videos in which Dr. Flatt speaks about his experiences making hand casts of famous people.  Treasure the sparkle in his eye as he speaks about his interactions with astronauts, political leaders of the 20th century, as well as artists, actors and sports stars. 

Introduction: The Adrian E. Flatt MD Hand Collection 
Stories behind “These Famous Hands”: Dr. Adrian E. Flatt discusses how his fascination with hands led to his lifelong hobby of hand casting. Dr. Flatt demonstrates his process while creating the casts of football pro Troy Aikman’s hands. (5:27)

Video 1: Dr. Flatt discusses why he began to create hand casts and questions the term “surgeon’s hands.” (1:30)

Video 2: Featuring the hand casts of Walter Cronkite; Roger Staubach; Mike Singletary; Jimmy Doolittle; Tom Landry; Arnold Palmer; Norman Rockwell; Andrew Wyeth; Jamie Wyeth; Mary Martin; Larry Hagman. (4:29)

Video 3: Featuring the hand casts of Wernher Von Braun; Jimmy Carter; Winston Churchill; Margaret Thatcher; Ethel Merman; David Copperfield; Louis Armstrong; Alan Shepard; Gordon Cooper; John Glenn; Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel; Charles Schultz; Walt Disney. (5:17)

Video 4: Featuring the hand casts of Ronald Reagan; Chris Evert-Lloyd; Martina Navratilova; Ruth Jackson, MD; Paul Newman; Joanne Woodward; Willie Shoemaker; Nolan Ryan; Mickey Mantle; “Andre the Giant” Roussimoff. (4:28)

Video 5: Featuring the hand casts of Katherine Hepburn; Corazon Aquino; Dwight D. Eisenhower; Harry S. Truman; Christiaan Barnard, MD; Jonas Salk, MD; Sir Henry OsmondClark MD, FRCS; Willie Shoemaker; Wilt Chamberlain; Neil Armstrong; Arthur Fiedler; Eduardo Mata; and Isaac Stern. (5:15)