Raaf Professorship

Raaf, the Father of Neurosurgical Graduate Education in Oregon

Following a remarkable 50-year career as Oregon's senior neurosurgeon, and a lifetime that spanned nearly the entire 20th century, John E. Raaf, M.D., Ph.D., died at home on April 11, 2000, at the age of 94 following a brief illness.

Raaf was born on Nov. 12, 1905, in Hailey, Idaho, the only child of John J. Raaf, M.D., and Madge Hart. His father was one of two physicians in the untamed mining town of Hailey, long before it became the ski resort Sun Valley. Raaf accompanied his father on house calls that in those days might include surgery in the kitchen or living room with a member of the family administering a chloroform or ether anesthetic.

Raaf earned his bachelor's and medical degrees at Stanford University. Two years of residency in general surgery at the University of Rochester, N. Y., were followed by a fellowship in general and neurological surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. While at the Mayo Clinic, Raaf performed research on tumors of the cerebellum that earned him a doctorate in neurosurgery.

In 1936, at the invitation of Thomas M. Joyce, M.D., chairman of the Department of Surgery at what was then called the University of Oregon Medical School, Raaf moved to Portland to join the medical school faculty and begin a private practice. He taught neurological surgery at Oregon Health Sciences University for many years, rising to the rank of professor. In 1986, Raaf was awarded clinical professor emeritus rank.

Raaf began the first neurosurgical residency program in Oregon in 1947 and was responsible for training generations of Oregon's neurosurgeons. His busy practice, and later teaching, was based at Portland's Good Samaritan Hospital and Medical Center.

In 1938, following the premature death of the first neurosurgeon in Oregon, A.J. MacLean, M.D., Raaf became the only neurosurgeon on the West Coast between Seattle and San Francisco. A large part of his practice involved operating on trauma patients with head injuries. Before World War II, it was thought that trauma patients with head injuries should not be moved, so Raaf traveled by car and small plane all over the Pacific Northwest to care for these patients. He achieved national recognition for his success in saving seriously injured patients with aggressive surgery to relieve pressure from intracranial bleeding. Raaf described his methods and experience at medical society meetings and in numerous papers for medical literature.

Raaf founded and was a member of many professional medical societies in the country. He was the last surviving founder of the American Association for the Surgery of Trauma and also served as its president. Raaf was a founder and president of the American Academy of Neurological Surgery and the Western Neurosurgical Society; founder of the Oregon Neurosurgical Society and the American Trauma Society; president of the Portland Academy of Medicine, Portland Surgical Society and Pacific Coast Surgical Association; and vice president of the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, Western Surgical Association and the American College of Surgeons.

A strong, athletic man, Raaf learned to hunt and fish from his father while growing up in Idaho. His father was an avid sportsman who took a shotgun with him on house calls, often bringing home a pheasant or sage hen for dinner. Raaf said he observed his father bag 40 birds one season without missing a single shot. As a student at Stanford, Raaf excelled in boxing, an unlikely choice for a future neurosurgeon. A golden glove award hangs from his key chain. In Portland he took up rowing on the Willamette, horseback riding and squash, but his greatest love was fly-fishing on the Rogue River in southern Oregon. Raaf's ability to cast a fly across the white water of the Rogue bordered on an art form. Raaf's family and a close group of neurosurgical friends were fortunate to be invited each fall to the annual meeting of the Rogue River Neurosurgical Society, during which the scientific program was replaced by dawn to dusk angling for trout and steelhead salmon, and celebrating success with the famous Rogue River gin fizz.

His patients, friends and colleagues will remember Raaf as a gentle, compassionate, skillful surgeon who was a pioneer in establishing the field of neurosurgery in the Western United States. 

The Raaf Professorship supports research in neurological surgery and neurosciences.