The father of academic medicine in Springfield

Elvin Zook March 31, 1937-Nov. 24, 2020

They call themselves "Zookies," the physicians scattered across the planet who trained under Springfield's legendary plastic surgeon, Elvin Zook.

But Zook was more than an accomplished teacher and brilliant plastic surgeon, he was a father of academic medicine in the capital city, said Ed Curtis, president and CEO of Memorial Health.

Zook came to Springfield in 1973, shortly after Southern Illinois University established its medical school. He didn't just create the plastic surgery department; at first, he was the entire department. Today, Springfield is renowned for the specialty.

"People think a plastic surgery is cosmetic surgery. That's a stereotype. It's very important work, and I'm not saying anything bad about it. But if you're in Iowa City – home of the famous University of Iowa (Hospitals) – and an M-80 explodes in your hand on New Year's Eve, they are going to fly you to Springfield, Illinois, to replant those digits and fingers. It happens all the time," said Curtis.

Curtis said Zook was a man of strong opinions. He hated motorcycles and didn't believe children under the age of 5 should be around dogs. Those opinions derived from treating devastating injuries suffered from motorcycle accidents and repairing wounds of children bitten by canines.

Not only are SIU plastic surgeons known for reconstructing hands, reattaching limbs and saving the lives of burn patients, they are known for training top-tier plastic surgeons who go on to practice and teach in a variety of settings.

Surgeons taught by Zook have gone on to chair Harvard University's plastic surgery department and have joined the faculty of Johns Hopkins University and other major medical institutions.

Zook retired from SIU in 2011 and Dr. Michael Neumeister replaced him as department chair.

The SIU Cleft and Craniofacial Clinic was one of Zook's proudest accomplishments, Neumeister said. Limb and trunk reconstruction, breast reconstruction for cancer patients, neck and head reconstruction and hand surgery are also part of his legacy in Springfield, he said.

"He put, at least in the plastic surgery world, Springfield on the map," Neumeister said.

Zook grew up on a farm in rural Indiana and graduated from medical school at Indiana University. He remained an avid Hoosier basketball fan his entire life.

He also was a passionate outdoorsman who loved to hunt. In fact, he named the Baylis Building on the campus of Springfield Memorial Hospital after the Pike County village near his favorite deer hunting spot.

Zook chaired both the American Board of Plastic Surgery and the American Society of Plastic Surgeons.

But his three daughters may be an even greater legacy in the medical field. Two are doctors, and one is a nurse. Dr. Tara Bennett is a Springfield obstetrician and gynecologist; Dr. Nicole Sommer is an SIU plastic surgeon and Leigh Krueger is a registered nurse in Nebraska.

Zook and his wife, Sharon, were married 60 years.

"The one big thing was that he was happy when he came home," said his daughter, Nicole Sommer. "He never really brought work home. If something upset him or if something wasn't going well at work, he never talked about it. So that was good for his marriage as well as his children. And that's why we all went into medicine. We never heard a negative side about it."

Sommer trained under her father and also proudly claims the title of a "Zookie." At plastic surgery conferences and conventions, those who trained under Elvin Zook routinely gather to exchange stories about their mentor.

Zook was a tireless advocate for mentoring women in a field that has long been dominated by men.

"He may not have been as much of a women's advocate if he didn't have three daughters and saw the importance of supporting them. You know, I think it changed him," said Sommer.

Scott Reeder

Scott Reeder is a staff writer at Illinois Times.

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