Henry Swan II was born May 27, 1913 in Denver, Colorado, to Henry Swan, Sr. and Carla Denison Swan. Coming from two well-established families in Colorado, Swan never thought of becoming anything other than a doctor, eventually extending the five-generation legacy of physicians on his mother’s side. After graduating cum laude from Phillips Exeter Academy in 1931, Swan attended Williams College.
While at Williams, Swan was a member of Phi Beta Kappa as well as the Gargoyle Society, and earned many other honors. His extracurricular interests ran from Sigma Phi fraternity to the Gulielmensian ( Williams College yearbook) Editorial Board, to the Student Activity Council and the Liberal Club. He also played on the Tennis Team for several years, where he had a very intimidating serve. He was one of the first students to complete a combined major of English and History, which then became a standard major at Williams College. He graduated magna cum laude, the valedictorian of the class of 1935.
Following his graduation from Williams, Swan attended Harvard Medical School as a member of the class of 1939: a class that was destined for greatness, graduating several leading professors and surgeons of the time. A classmate described Swan as “a winner among winners,” who graduated top of his class once again. After a brief Pathology Residency at Colorado General Hospital, Swan returned to Boston as a Surgical Resident at the Children’s Hospital and Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in 1942-43.
Swan joined the Army in 1943, quickly becoming Chief of a surgical team. During his time with the army, he is credited with operating on more than 1600 men and saving the lives of many. While in the army, Swan learned to pilot airplanes, a skill he would later find to be a useful and enjoyable adventure. In 1946, he returned home to Colorado, where he took an Assistant Professorship at the University of Colorado Medical School. Within just four years, he was the chairman of the Surgery Department, and the first full- time professor.
One of his first acts as chair was to set up an animal research facility nearby, where he performed more than 400 experiments and surgeries on dogs before perfecting the method of cooling used for many years to perform open-heart surgeries on humans. By cooling the body, metabolism and blood flow are slowed, allowing the heart to stop for several minutes without any brain damage. This discovery allowed a surgeon only six minutes to perform surgery on a patient, a stressful and risky venture at best. Modern medical and technological advances now allow surgeons up to several hours to operate on a patient’s heart. As a pioneer in open-heart surgery, the bathtub in which Swan cooled patients-up to ten degrees below normal temperature-is on display in the Smithsonian.
Swan is credited with bringing the Department of Surgery at the University of Colorado Medical School to life. During his 11-year tenure as chairman, he brought many world-class surgeons to the department, performed one of the first arterial grafts, and developed one of the first artery banks in the nation. He traveled the country and the world, demonstrating his technique, publishing more than 250 papers and articles, and exploring further advances in slowing metabolic functions. For many years, he sought out and researched lungfish from various exotic areas, in an attempt to find and isolate an anti-metabolic hormone he named “antabalone”.
This sort of life proved stressful, however, and Swan retired from the University of Colorado Health services in the early 1960s, as he finalized his divorce, only to take up a position at the School of Veterinary Medicine at Colorado State University where he taught and continued his research for many years. In 1974, he published the results of many years of research: Thermoregulation and Bioenergetics, a book on the chemistry of hibernation.
Swan was named the 1955 Outstanding American Physician of the Year by the International Society of Surgeons and became the first physician from Colorado to be appointed to the American Board of Surgery. His colleagues and students honored him by naming a visiting professorship after him at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, after he retired, and his alma mater, Williams College, granted him an honorary Doctor of Science Degree in 1959.
In addition to his spectacular surgical and academic career, Swan had a lively personality outside the office. Although he never had a private practice, he maintained an office where he read, reflected, and explored various ideas. A good friend fondly remembers interrupting Swan as he gazed out the window with a sextant, pondering the idea of sailing. He eventually fulfilled this dream, sailing his custom-made ship home from Spain along Columbus’ route, after his second marriage. He was an avid sportsman and aviator, surviving three plane crashes. The worst of these, in Mexico, left him with a lasting limp after breaking both ankles and sustaining several other fractures. He lived on a farm in Colorado where he and his family raised lambs, pigs, and vegetables, and he was always ready to go hunting or fishing, or to cook up the results of those ventures.Swan died at home in 1996, after a long illness. He left behind his wife, son, two daughters, five grandchildren, and several great-grandchildren.