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Remembering Dr. Charles R. Hatcher, founding chair and CEO of Emory University System of Healthcare

Cardiothoracic surgeon Charles R. Hatcher Jr., former Emory vice president for health affairs and director of the Woodruff Health Sciences Center, died March 27. He was the founding chair and CEO of the Emory University System of Healthcare.

Charles Ross Hatcher Jr., MD, former vice president for health affairs at Emory University and  director of Emory’s Woodruff Health Sciences Center, passed away peacefully at Emory University Hospital on March 27, 2021, at the age of 90.

He was preceded in death by his parents Charles Ross Hatcher Sr. and Vivian Miller Hatcher. He is survived by his wife, Phyllis Gregory Hatcher; daughter, Marian Hatcher Thorpe (George); son Charles Ross Hatcher III (Leslie); and grandchildren Charles Ross Hatcher IV, Caroline Hatcher and Catherine Hatcher. He was “Extra Dad” to Andrea Phyllis Slappey, Thomas Henry Slappey (Kari), Holly Pompe van Meerdervoort (Hjalmar), grandchildren Michael and Ella Slappey, and Amalia and Olivia Pompe van Meerdervoort.

Hatcher was born June 28, 1930, in Bainbridge, Georgia, and grew up in nearby Attapulgus, a small shade-tobacco town five miles above the Georgia-Florida line. An only child, for whom perfect grades came easily, he set a course for a career in medicine at an early age.

After graduating in 1954 from the University of Georgia School of Medicine, later renamed the Medical College of Georgia, he chose a career in surgery and accepted an internship and residency at Johns Hopkins. Two years into his residency, during which he served as the Halsted Chief Resident in Cardiac Surgery, he was drafted into the Army and served as a captain in the Medical Corps at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research.

Upon completion of his tour of duty and his residency, he was offered a surgical position on the faculty of Johns Hopkins, but declined the offer. He told his mentor that as an only child, he needed to be near his parents as they grew older, and he wanted to stay in Georgia or a nearby state. “Then you should be at Emory” was his mentor’s sage advice.

Hatcher joined Emory in 1962 as an instructor in surgery in the Emory University School of Medicine and a surgeon in the Emory Clinic. During his residency at Hopkins and then the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston, he trained under the two most talented surgeons of the era — Dr. Alfred Blalock at Hopkins and Dr. Francis Moore at Brigham. 

Hatcher brought all he had learned and more back to Georgia. On his second day on the job at Emory he performed Georgia’s first successful “blue baby” operation, ushering in a new era of open-heart surgery for Georgia. He performed the state’s first double-, then triple-valve replacements and, in 1970, the state’s first coronary bypass, all at Emory University Hospital.

By 1971, Hatcher, then 41 years old, was named chief of cardiothoracic surgery. Emory quickly became one of the country’s largest centers for open heart surgery. In 1976, The Emory Clinic members unanimously elected him director and chief executive officer. 

Atlanta’s first “health czar”

As chief of cardiothoracic surgery, Hatcher had been the driving force behind Emory’s rise in prominence as one of the nation’s largest and most respected heart surgery programs. In 1984, after a year as interim director, he took the reins as leader of Emory’s Robert W. Woodruff Health Sciences Center, named for the legendary leader of The Coca-Cola Company.

At the time, the center consisted of three schools — Medicine, Dentistry (since closed) and Nursing —  a primate research center, and two hospitals. He would quickly transform the center and its components, setting it on the path to become a leading research institution with the state’s largest, most comprehensive health care system designed to meet the needs of the state and region. 

Often referred to as Atlanta’s first “health czar,” in 1994, Hatcher was the founding chairman and CEO of the Emory University System of Healthcare. 

Among his most impactful achievements, of which he declared himself most proud, were the creation of the Rollins School of Public Health, Georgia’s first; the expansion of the Yerkes National Primate Research Center; establishment of a 30-year contract between Emory’s School of Medicine and Grady Memorial Hospital; assistance in the formation and accreditation of the Morehouse School of Medicine; establishment of the Carlyle Fraser Heart Center at Emory University Hospital Midtown; and the establishment of Emory Healthcare, of which he would be CEO.  

Activities and honors 

Hatcher’s storied career as a cardiac surgeon also includes an impressive roster of activity within his chosen field. He served as president of the Georgia Heart Association, the Southern Thoracic Surgical Association, the Society of Thoracic Surgeons and for seven years as finance committee chair for the American Board of Thoracic Surgery. 

He received countless honors during his life, including the Robert W. Woodruff Medal, establishment of the Charles Ross Hatcher Jr. Distinguished Professorship of Surgery, and the Charles Hatcher Jr. Award for Excellence in Public Health, presented annually by the Rollins School of Public Health to a faculty member in recognition of a lifetime of achievement in public health. 

He also received the Distinguished Service Award from Emory University School of Medicine, the Distinguished Service Award of the Emory University School of Dentistry, and the Distinguished Leadership Award from the Morehouse School of Medicine.

In June 1996, on his 66th birthday, Hatcher stepped down as vice president for health affairs, director of the Robert W. Woodruff Health Sciences Center, and CEO of Emory Healthcare. He remained for many years at Emory as director emeritus of the WHSC and senior adviser to the university president and board of trustees, who would not give up access to his wit and astute judgment.

Ronnie Jowers, former vice president under Hatcher, called him a “true Renaissance man who could do it all. A visionary who knew how to lead, he understood, respected and valued everyone, business leaders and staff alike."  And, Jowers added, "his Methodist upbringing, southern-gentleman charm, and his ability to tell a great story was always present.” 

A few months before his passing, Hatcher told long-time WHSC vice president Gary Teal that he would simply like to be remembered as someone who loved Emory University, the Woodruff Health Sciences Center and his home state of Georgia. 

In lieu of flowers, please consider a donation in Hatcher’s honor to Peachtree Road United Methodist Church, 3180 Peachtree Road NE, Atlanta, GA 30305, or to the Emory University Executive Vice President for Health Affairs Office, 1440 Clifton Road, NE, Suite 410, Atlanta, GA 30322, ATTN: Gary Teal. 

A memorial services will be held in Atlanta at a future date.

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