Surgeon, First to Replant Severed Limb, Dies at 70

Ronald Malt, a Harvard Medical School professor who performed the first successful surgical reattachment of a human limb, died of Alzheimer’s Disease on Oct. 5. He was 70.

Malt was the chief surgical resident at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) when he and his team reattached the arm of 12-year-old Everett “Red” Knowles in 1962. Knowles severed his right arm below the shoulder while hanging on the side of a freight train as it passed a stone abutment.

“We never considered replantation before,” said Malt in an interview with The Boston Globe in 1987, “but at the very minute Red came into the emergency ward, we were discussing the possibility of causing limbs to regenerate.”

On the day of the accident, Malt and his surgical team reconnected the arm and restored the blood supply. Four months later they operated again to reattach the nerves. After a period of physical therapy there was one more surgery in which Malt and his team strengthened the arm’s tendons.

Knowles regained the use of his arm within two years. In the following years, he was able to play baseball and tennis, haul beef for a meat packing firm and drive race cars.

The operation brought both Malt and Knowles great renown. Numerous articles were published about the surgery and MGH regularly celebrates the anniversary of the event.

Geraldine Malt, Ronald Malt’s widow, said Knowles had to return to see Malt several times for checkups and the follow-up surgeries. Ten years after the surgery, Knowles made an effort to distance himself from Malt and to lead a more private life.

“One of Ronald’s colleagues tried to write an article on the 40th anniversary of the surgery this past summer but couldn’t because he was unable to reach [Knowles],” she said.

As a result of Malt’s reputation in the medical community, hospitals as far away as China and Iran asked him to teach the techniques of surgical limb reattachment.

“He certainly enjoyed going to China and other places...to help people,” Geraldine Malt said, “but that wasn’t the kind of surgery that he wanted to do.”

Once limb replacement surgery became more standard, Malt “left it to the plastic surgeons,” she said. He was primarily interested in the fields of cancer and vascular surgery.

Malt specifically focused on academic medicine and served as a mentor for young doctors during his 40 years at MGH and Harvard Medical School.

Malt graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1955 at the young age of 23. Whenever possible, he would attend Commencement and march with the school’s faculty.

When he retired in 1997 upon being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease, Malt was chief of gastroenterologist surgery, chief of the Nutritional Support Unit, and surgical chief of the Liver, Biliary and Pancreas Center.

During his career he authored or co-authored over 500 publications, was an associate editor of the New England Journal of Medicine and co-edited the Oxford Textbook of Surgery, published in 1994.

In addition to his accomplishments in the medical field, Malt was a voracious reader, a connoisseur of wine, food and art, an antique collector and an accomplished photographer, according to his family.

His interest in photography once caused him trouble during his travels in China, when he was arrested and temporarily detained for inadvertently photographing a Chinese military installation.

In addition to his wife, Malt is survived by his mother, Ruth of St. Louis; his son, Bradford of Boston; his two daughters, Barbara of Allentown, Pa. and Margaret of Cambridge; and two grandsons.

The Memorial Church will hold a memorial service on Nov. 13 at 1 p.m.

—Staff writer Steven N. Jacobs can be reached at snjacobs@fas.harvard.edu.