Head of American College of Surgeons Resigns After an 'Offensive' Editorial

After saying semen made a "better gift" than chocoloate, surgeon resigns.

April 18, 2011, 4:26 PM

April 19, 2011— -- Dr. Lazar Greenfield, president-elect of the American College of Surgeons, resigned from his position Sunday after two months of controversy swirled around his Valentine's Day editorial in which he suggested that semen might make a better Valentine's Day gift than chocolate.

"My personal and written apologies were ignored, and my suggestion to use my experience to educate others rejected," Greenfield told ABC News in a statement. "Therefore, rather than have this remain a disruptive issue, I resigned as president-elect of the ACS."

Greenfield's editorial drew on research published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior in 2002 that found college women who had unprotected sex were less likely to be depressed than women who used condoms during intercourse.

But the words he chose in his op-ed offended many.

"So there's a deeper bond between men and women than St. Valentine would have suspected, and now we know there's a better gift for that day than chocolates," Greenfield wrote in the editorial published in Surgery News, where he was the editor-in-chief before resigning in the midst of the storm.

The editorial ignited outrage, particularly among women practicing surgery, a field still heavily dominated by men. Some doctors said that the comments were sexist and continued the age-old boys club mentality among surgeons.

"Dr. Greenfield's comments are unfortunate, doubly so from someone not only in a leadership position but also as one so highly regarded," said Dr. Laurie Kirstein, a breast surgeon at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York. "I don't believe it reflects the position of the [American College of Surgeons]. I do think he needed to resign, however, since antiquated comments such as this should not be propagated. "

The American College of Surgeons, which publishes Surgery News, retracted the editorial and removed the entire February issue from its website because of the backlash.

On Sunday, ACS officials released a statement to its members.

"Dr. Greenfield addressed the board and expressed his deep regret that individuals had been offended by the article," the statement said. "After reaffirming his long-standing support for women in surgery, Dr. Greenfield resigned from his position as an officer of the College."

Highly Regarded Surgeon Resigns

In a statement to the regents, Greenfield said he had mentored women and encouraged them to pursue surgery. When he moved to Michigan in 1987, Greenfield said he promoted surgery as a career choice for women, who now make up roughly half of the faculty in the University of Michigan's department of surgery.

"As the only child of a divorced mother who had to struggle for us in a man's world, I know how difficult it can be for women," Greenfield told the regents.

In support of her colleague, Dr. Diane M. Simeone, a professor of surgery at the University of Michigan, told The New York Times, "There still is a lot of gender bias in surgery, and I have seen it myself on multiple fronts. That was never evident from Dr. Greenfield."

The study Greenfield drew on surveyed 293 college women and found that those who participated in unprotected sex were less likely to be depressed and commit suicide than those who used condoms.

The study also found that the effects were time dependent -- the more time that lapsed since her last unprotected sexual encounter, the smaller the mood-enhancing effect. One possible explanation offered by the researchers was that semen produced this antidepressant effect.

"I accepted responsibility for using scientific material in a lighthearted way to review new biochemical findings in sexuality," Greenfield said in an email to ABC News. "These findings show the remarkable way nature has promoted strong bonding between men and women, a gift rather than something demeaning."

Gordon Gallup, a psychologist at the State University of New York at Albany, led the research. Gallup, along with co-authors, concluded that something in semen's chemistry may have anti-depressant effects in women.

"It's a shame he stepped down as a consequence to [the editorial]," said Gallup. "It may not have been in the most tasteful interest, but there's nothing about what he said that doesn't have some basis in available science."

While study's findings are not conclusive -- it was a self-reported, correlation survey with a relatively small sample size -- Gallup defended Greenfield's remarks because they drew on medical research and were not an intentional burn to women in surgery. He also said that the researchers, and probably Greenfield, did not condone unprotected sex, as the potential harm from such actions could far surpass any psychological benefit.

Science Over Political Correctness, Says Gallup

"The public reaction suggests that science is about political correctness and not about evidence," said Gallup. "It shouldn't be a matter of how you feel about it or your political reaction. I think the reaction is completely overblown."

But while gender discrimination in medicine -- specifically surgery -- has become less polarizing with time, Kirstein recalled her days as an intern when a male superior made a discriminatory comment.

"A senior male surgeon turned to me and said, 'I long for the days when women were barefoot and pregnant,'" said Kirstein. "I was furious but could not respond. It's those kinds of comments which should not be tolerated as an individual or by our representative group.

"As a woman surgeon, we are always fighting to break the barrier of the old boys club," said Kirstein.

Television shows like "Grey's Anatomy," where some of the top surgeons are young women, may help to change the public perception of such a "boys club," but Kirstein said that the sexual relationships and misconduct among the characters on the show "almost negates the progress.

"What I hope to strive for one day is just to be seen as a surgeon, not a woman surgeon or male surgeon," she said.

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