Retired Lt. Gen. Leonard D. Heaton, 80, the Army surgeon general from 1959 to 1969 and who gained widespread recognition for his work as the surgeon for notable public figures, including former president Dwight D. Eisenhower, died of cancer Sept. 10 at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
During his more than 40 years of Army service, Gen. Heaton gained a reputation for calm assurance and was known as a dedicated teacher. Long considered one of the Army's most skilled surgeons, he championed the expansion of the service's medical education programs. He was decorated for his work as both a surgeon and administrator for wartime service in both the Pacific and European theaters.
Perhaps Gen. Heaton's most difficult 24-hour period began on June 8, 1956. Reached at a vacation retreat, Gen. Heaton, then commanding general of Walter Reed, was flown back to Washington. President Eisenhower, who only nine months earlier had suffered a major heart attack, was in Walter Reed with what proved to be regional enteritis with an intestinal obstruction.
At 1 a.m. June 9, Gen. Heaton and his quickly assembled team operated. The abdominal surgery was complicated by anticoagulant drugs that Eisenhower had been taking for his heart condition. These drugs might have prevented the surgeons from controlling the bleeding. Yet, one hour and 54 minutes after entering surgery, the operation was over. Gen. Heaton's job had just begun because he had to brief the media and explain the surgery and its success.
The patient not only recovered but became a close friend. In later years, Gen. Heaton became Eisenhower's personal physician, traveled to Europe with him and treated him in his last days before his death at Walter Reed in 1969. Gen. Heaton's other surgical patients included Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and generals of the Army George C. Marshall and Douglas MacArthur.
Shortly before his death in 1964, MacArthur wrote President Lyndon B. Johnson with a last request. It said in part: "I have seen many units of many countries in action, but I have never seen one to surpass in cohesion and efficiency that which has been administered to me under Gen. Heaton. The doctors, nurses and corpsmen have been magnificent. I shall urge Gen. Wheeler to confer upon Gen. Heaton an oak leaf cluster to his Distinguished Service Medal."
Those words were used in the citation of the Distinguished Service Medal, one of four Gen. Heaton received during his career.
During his later years as surgeon general, he led the expansion and deployment of Army medical services for the war in Southeast Asia. He fought for increased numbers of helicopters for medical evacuation operations, explaining to medical colleagues, the public and Congress how best to save lives. He retired from active duty in 1969, the first Army physician to gain three-star rank.
Gen. Heaton, who lived in Pinehurst, N.C., was a native of Parkersburg, W. Va. He received his medical degree from the University of Louisville in 1926 and received his commission in the Army Medical Corps a year later. Before World War II, he served and studied at various military hospitals.
Dec. 7, 1941, found him a major and the acting commander and surgery chief at North Sector General Hospital, Schofield Barracks, Hawaii. During the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Gen. Heaton dodged enemy planes and reached his hospital, the largest Army medical facility in Hawaii.
He ordered his staff to prepare for battle casualties. His surgeons performed more than 200 operations. Thanks to Gen. Heaton's orders to add sulfanilamide to both abdominal and surface wounds, patients treated at North Sector did much better than those elsewhere. Gen. Heaton was awarded the Legion of Merit.
Later in the war, he commanded a hospital and then a group of hospitals in Europe. After the war, he was named surgical chief and then commanding general of Letterman General Hospital in San Francisco. In 1953, he was offered the post of commandant of Walter Reed. He took the post when it was agreed that he would be allowed to continue surgery. In 1959, he was named Army surgeon general. He continued to operate and to assist in operations until retiring.
He was a diplomate of the American Board of Surgery, fellow of the American College of Surgeons and member of the American Surgical Association.
Survivors include his wife, the former Sara Hill Richardson of Pinehurst, and a daughter, Sara Dudley Mayson.