Wolfgang Seeger, 1929–2018
16 April 2019 (online)
Wolfgang Seeger was born on July 13, 1929, in Nagold, Germany, as a Swabian. Even as a young boy he was interested in anatomy, dissecting dead animals and investigating skulls he procured from the local gravedigger. So it was a logical consequence that he would become a medical doctor. He studied in Innsbruck and Tübingen, where he graduated in 1955. His doctoral mentor was the pathologist Prof. Berthold Ostertag (1895–1975), and his research subject was optochiasmal meningeal cysts.
He pursued his interest in the brain and became a resident at the Department of Neurosurgery at Giessen University Hospital, headed by Prof. Hans-Werner Pia (1921–1986). As more of an artist than a tough neurosurgeon, Wolfgang Seeger did not quite fit into the paramilitary system of the department. Nevertheless, he was the first of many successful fellows of Prof. Pia who became chairmen of a university department.
Wolfgang Seeger began his university career in Giessen and qualified for a professorship in 1966. He became an assistant professor and started performing his own neurosurgical methods: anatomically based function-preserving microsurgery. During this period he was already an enthusiastic teacher who taught his residents to understand anatomy and how to operate based on his own drawings.
From 1975 until 1997, Prof. Seeger was the head and chairman of the Department of General Neurosurgery in Freiburg im Breisgau, where he encountered well-established head and neuroscience disciplines. Within a few years and under his leadership, the Freiburg Neurosurgery became a well-known hospital for the treatment of patients as well as an institution for neurosurgical training in the southwest of Germany and beyond.
A credit to his open-mindedness, Prof. Seeger supported and promoted numerous contacts with other neurosurgical departments such as the Zürich Neurosurgery, headed by Prof. Yasargil, in his aim to learn and advance new techniques.
Cooperation was further intensified with neighboring disciplines at Freiburg University. His congenial colleagues included the neurologist Prof. Richard Jung, the neuropathologist Prof. Paul Kleihues, the stereotactic neurosurgeons Prof. Fritz Mundinger and his successor Prof. Christoph Ostertag, as well as the maxillofacial surgeon Prof. Willi Schilli, the eye specialist Prof. Günther Mackensen, and the ENT surgeon Prof. Chlodwig Beck. All were exemplary heads of their departments promoting a climate of cooperation and multidisciplinary research.
Prof. Seeger was a modest chief physician, dedicated to teaching and treating patients. His broad interest beyond medicine made him an attentive listener to people of all generations, irrespective of their social status, underlining his gentle manner and humble personality.
He disliked academic power intrigues and always promoted young talents independently of his personal interests. He was not a person eager to seek attention, and it is fitting that his successful clinic and team bore the name of the city and not his own, “The Freiburg Neurosurgery,” also known as “The Freiburger” among neurosurgeons. It was his hobby illustrating surgical textbooks that really made him well known in the neurosurgical national and international scene. His talent and skills as a surgeon and neuro-anatomist were combined with an unmatched artistic talent as a medical illustrator. This combination is unique and impressively visualized in 20 surgical atlases published by Springer in Vienna. His drawings detailing each step of the various microsurgical procedures have become the hallmarks of a new era of microsurgical neurosurgery.
In 2001 he was awarded the Otfrid-Foerster Medal for his merits by the German Society of Neurosurgery, despite the fact that he was reluctant to attend neurosurgical meetings and congresses.
In retrospect, Prof. Seeger was a very successful university department leader not by purposely planning it but through his personality, by doing the right things at the right time and by motivating his fellows and staff. Apart from consistently pursuing his vision of anatomically based microsurgery, which was a novelty in the 1970s, he favored a leadership style with an open-door policy and discussions frankly addressing surgical errors, mistakes, and misadventures. He taught us fellows to distinguish between assumptions and facts when discussing the diagnosis and treatment of our patients. This and much more was seeded in our brains during daily 1- to 2-hour-long morning grand rounds and afternoon surgical conferences.
Beyond his death on September 24, 2018, the neurosurgical philosophy of Prof. Wolfgang Seeger will live on in his numerous neurosurgical scholars he mentored and in his textbooks. This would please him and attest that personal fame is transitory.