Pioneering U professor and surgeon dies at 91

Hayley Odom

Richard Varco, a retired regents professor and surgeon, died Monday at age 91. Varco performed the Midwest’s first successful organ transplant at the University in 1963, said Dr. John Najarian, a retired regents professor and current clinical professor of surgery at the University.

Najarian said Varco was an “outstanding surgeon, research investigator and teacher.” Najarian called him a “complete academic surgeon” because Varco excelled in all three areas.

“He’s really one of the nicest people I ever knew,” he said.

Varco worked under Najarian in the surgery department for 15 years until his retirement in 1981, Najarian said.

Najarian said Varco participated in the first direct-vision open heart operation in 1952. He also was the top assistant on the first open heart operation to use cross circulation.

In addition, he was responsible for the Jejunoileal bypass operation, designed to reduce high levels of cholesterol in the blood. The procedure is the basis for obesity bypass operations commonly used today, Najarian said.

Varco received many awards throughout his career, including the Lasker Award in 1955. The award is comparable to the Nobel Prize, Najarian said.

In addition to his academic and professional achievements, Najarian said Varco was also a tremendous family man.

“He had eight children, and had a huge, magnificent dining room table imported from South Africa so they could all eat together,” Najarian said. “His first love was his family.”

Varco also valued the University.

Varco’s love of the University and Minnesota was evident when he helped recruit him to become chairman of the surgery department, Najarian said.

Varco was born Aug. 14, 1912, in Fairview, Mont., and completed his medical and doctoral degrees in surgery at the University. He became a full professor at the University in 1950.

The Star Tribune reported that no services will be held at Varco’s request.