John ‘Sean’ Mullan, the John Harper Seely Professor Emeritus in Surgery at the University of Chicago, died from lung cancer on June 4, surrounded by family members at his home in Hyde Park. He was 90 years old.
Mullan 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.
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 UChicago colleagues Barry Arnason and Bryce Weir. “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 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, 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.”
Sean Francis Mullan was born May 17, 1925, in Dungiven, County Derry, Northern Ireland. He graduated from St. Columb’s College, Derry and Queen’s University medical school, in Belfast. He completed his internship at Royal Victoria Hospital, followed by residency training in Belfast and London, and a neurosurgical residency with Penfield Wilder, a leader in the field, at the Montreal Neurological Institute.
In 1955, Mullan came to the University of Chicago as an assistant professor of neurological surgery. He rose quickly through the ranks to associate professor in 1959 and professor in 1963. He served as section chief of neurological surgery from 1967 to 1992, including two years, from 1970 to 1972, as acting chairman of the Department of Surgery.
During this time he published more than 180 scholarly papers—primarily focused on cerebrovascular issues, pain-relief procedures and the clinical use of isotopes—as well as more than 30 book chapters and a 1961 textbook on Essentials of Neurosurgery for Students and Practitioners.
He received multiple honors. In 1961 he received the McClintock teaching prize in from the University of Chicago. He was the first recipient of the Herbert Olivecrona Award from Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, in 1976. He received the Penfield medal of Canada in 1979 and the Jamieson Medal of Australia in 1980. He served as a visiting professor at universities in Sweden, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Lebanon.
In 1985 he was elected president of the Society of Neurological Surgeons, the field’s most august professional group. He served as assistant secretary (1981 to ‘89), secretary (1989 to ‘93) and honorary president of the World Federation of Neurosurgical Societies.
“His greatness, one of the reasons so many people admired him, was because he didn’t show off,” said his colleague, Javad Hekmatpanah, professor of surgery at the University of Chicago. “He did what he preached. Residents saw him not just as a teacher but as a role model. Those who trained with him tried hard to be like him.”
He met his wife, Vivian Dunn, a former neurosurgery nurse, in Chicago and they married in 1959. They have three children, all physicians. Joan Mullan is an internal medicine specialist at Northwestern University, John is a Minneapolis-based neurosurgeon and Brian is a clinical professor of radiology for University of Iowa Health Care. All three graduated from the Pritzker School of Medicine.
In retirement, Mullan enjoyed spending time at his walnut-tree farm in Michigan and visiting his family’s ancestral land in Ireland. He frequently attended neurosurgery symposia, welcoming visiting professors with his typical insights and wit.
Services have been held.