Mohs — The Man, the Surgeon, the Superstar

The esteem that practitioners of Mohs micrographic surgery hold for the founder of the technique, the late Dr. Frederic E. Mohs, can’t be overestimated. Although he died in 2002 at the age of 92, the man and his accomplishments are still so admired that the American College of Mohs Surgery invited his son, Frederic E. Mohs, Jr., to share reminiscences of his father at the college’s annual meeting.

Hundreds of Mohs surgeons filled the conference hall. “Dad would have been totally shocked to walk in here and see this many people,” Mr. Mohs said, because there was a time when the only Mohs surgeons were ones that Dr. Mohs had trained himself. Today there are at least two Mohs professional organizations and thousands of physicians who offer Mohs surgery.

Frederic E. Mohs, Jr. (Photo by Sherry Boschert)

Mr. Mohs is not one of them. He is a lawyer and real estate specialist in the firm Mohs, MacDonald, Widder, and Paradise in Madison, Wisc., where Dr. Mohs lived and practiced for many years. And he is not, it seemed clear, an experienced public speaker. But the attention focused on him by the ballroom full of Mohs surgeons was so intense that you could have heard a pin drop throughout his entire talk. They listened partly out of respect and partly, I think, because our human nature is to want to know more about the people we admire.

Mr. Mohs said he came to talk about his father “as a person.” But he also provided some interesting historical context. The way his father came to be a surgeon and the inventor of Mohs micrographic surgery was “an accident,” Mr. Mohs said. His father had a passion for radio and hoped to become an engineer. To fund his college education, he worked in the University of Wisconsin’s biology department cleaning laboratory animals’ cages. The department chair noticed him and mentored him, explaining the lab’s cancer research and teaching Mohs Sr. to look at slides of skin cancer. It was during this period that Mohs Sr. visualized his now-famous techniques, and the department chair offered him a chance to pursue research as his assistant.

That almost didn’t happen, because Mohs Sr. was reluctant to give up his dream of being a radio engineer. But once he embraced the opportunity, he ran with it. He earned his bachelor’s degree in 3 years and entered medical school while continuing his laboratory experiments and cleaning rat cages. “He was a hard worker,” his son said understatedly.

Some characteristics of Dr. Mohs “the person” seem dated, while others may be inspiring, disappointing, or surprising, depending on your view. “From every account I ever heard, he was an incredibly wild driver” who once got his future wife grounded for a full year by slamming on the brakes and causing the car to spin in a circle in front of his future father-in-law, Mr. Mohs recalled.

Dr. Mohs was a devotee of Horatio Alger’s books, admiring their themes of hard work, ingenuity, and a scientific system of inquiry.

Once married and with a young family, he didn’t spend much time at home, it seems. He would leave home at 8 in the morning, return for dinner at 6 p.m., briefly read the newspaper, then go back to the hospital “every single night” and return late at night or even the next morning, his son said. When the family entertained visitors on weekends, most bored Dr. Mohs, so he would go back to the hospital.

None of that bothered his son. “He was an honest and good man. I don’t have a single complaint” about him, Mr. Mohs said. An older sibling once said that Mr. Mohs and a younger sibling “weren’t raised, you were just turned loose,” Mr. Mohs recalled. “It was true.”

Still, Dr. Mohs imparted his values to his son, who described them as, “Earn your own money, be honest, and don’t disturb property. Anything else is okay.”

The children usually took their school report cards to be signed by their mothers “because Dad was a little scary,” Mr. Mohs recalled. Once when he asked Dr. Mohs to sign a report card, his father signed it without looking at it, and handed it back. “Don’t you want to look at it?” his son asked. “No,” Dr. Mohs replied. “It’s your life. If you screw it up, it’s your own fault.”

Occasionally Dr. Mohs broke out of his routine, joining a geology club in one period, and a church’s board of directors in another. As his techniques gained recognition, he traveled quite a bit to give presentations or trainings, and often took the family with him.

In 1955 when he was invited to demonstrate his techniques in Moscow, he accepted in part out of a desire to improve international relations. Dr. Mohs went so far as to learn Russian and gave his entire presentation in Russian. Thereafter, the Russians “lionized him” and often sent surgeons to Madison to learn from him.

He is still lionized today. But for one hour, his professional descendants got to hear about the human being behind the public image.

Before Dr. Mohs died, he picked a simple bronze plate to mark his grave. “He liked the idea. Mowing was more efficient,” his son said.

–Sherry Boschert

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Filed under Dermatology, IMNG, Oncology, Uncategorized

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