John F. Mullan, pioneering neurosurgeon, 1925-2015

Sean Mullan, MD

Sean Mullan, MD

John (Sean) Mullan, MD, was a pioneer in the development of 20th-century neurosurgery. In the 1960s he developed minimally-invasive methods to improve the treatment of cerebrovascular diseases, including novel ways to seal off arteriovenous malformations or aneurysms using electrical currents delivered through a needle, or by packing the abnormality with tiny copper coils, blocking blood flow through the distorted vessel. Variations on techniques he developed are now routinely performed by interventional radiologists and neurosurgeons. He died from lung cancer on Thursday, June 4, surrounded by family members at his home in Hyde Park. He was 90 years old.

Mullan’s efforts “spawned a vast body of work that has culminated in the use of intravascular coagulative techniques for the management of vascular malformations throughout the world,” according to his University of Chicago colleagues Barry Arnason, MD, and Bryce Weir, MD. “Innumerable frightened people have sought Sean Mullan’s counsel. Many have left cured,” they wrote in an article tied to Mullan’s retirement in 1992. “All have left with a better understanding of their problem, and with that intangible commodity — hope.”

In 1983, Mullan and colleague Terry Lichtor, MD, published results from the first 50 cases of another a new procedure — percutaneous balloon compression — in which they inserted a tiny expandable balloon to disrupt severe pain signals involving the trigeminal nerve. The procedure, they wrote, “involves little discomfort and only a brief hospitalization for the patient; it is not associated with mortality and has, up to the present, a relatively low incidence of recurrence.”

The balloon catheter — now known as the Mullan percutaneous trigeminal ganglion microcompression set, produced by Indiana-based Cook Vascular, Inc. — is still in use.

Mullan also developed and popularized the trans-oral approach for surgical problems located near the base of the skull. He devised a minimally-invasive system to retrieve blood clots as a treatment for stroke. And he performed important basic research on the consequences of internal bleeding on the nervous system.

In the late 1950s and 60s, Mullan worked closely with colleagues in the University’s federally funded Argonne Cancer Research Hospital to devise and test a series of novel approaches to treat cancers of the head, neck and spine by inserting radioactive coils, wires or needles directly into or around a tumor.

As an administrator, he was a key player in the creation of the Brain Research Institute at the University of Chicago. He served as its first director from 1964 to 1984. He helped convince the Brain Research Foundation, a group of philanthropists interested in nervous-system diseases, to build the 50,000 square foot facility devoted to brain research that opened on campus in 1978.

“Sean Mullan was a superb physician and mentor, soft-spoken, compassionate, communicative and gentle with patients — who revered him,” said Issam Awad, MD, the current the Harper Seeley Professor, who came to the University of Chicago in large part because of Mullan’s legacy. “His trainees and coworkers attest that he worked long hours, checking on patients in the middle of the night if necessary, but he also managed to get home most evenings for dinner at 7 with his family.”

“When appropriate, however, he could be tough as steel,” Awad said. “He ran a strict, no-nonsense operating room. That was the only place he ever was heard to swear.”

Read more about Dr. Mullan’s extraordinary life and career in our Newsroom.

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