Gregory J. Zipfel, MD, the recently named head of the Department of Neurosurgery at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and neurosurgeon-in-chief at Barnes-Jewish Hospital (BJH), is also now the inaugural Ralph G. Dacey Distinguished Professor of Neurological Surgery.
The professorship was funded by dozens of friends, colleagues and admirers of Dacey, the Henry G. & Edith R. Schwartz Professor of Neurological Surgery. Dacey served as the head of the neurosurgery department at the School of Medicine and neurosurgeon-in-chief at BJH from 1989 to earlier this year.
Zipfel, a noted expert on aneurysms and other disorders of blood vessels in the brain, was installed by Chancellor Andrew D. Martin and David H. Perlmutter, MD, executive vice chancellor for medical affairs, the George and Carol Bauer Dean of the School of Medicine, and the Spencer T. and Ann W. Olin Distinguished Professor.
“I’m honored to recognize both Dr. Dacey and Dr. Zipfel with this professorship,” Martin said. “Under Dr. Dacey’s leadership, the Department of Neurosurgery grew into one of the best in the world, known for cutting-edge research, high-quality and compassionate care, and world-class neurosurgical training. Dr. Zipfel – an accomplished neurosurgeon, teacher and scientist – is an able successor to Dr. Dacey, and I believe he will help build on our momentum of national and international leadership in neurosurgery at Washington University and BJC HealthCare.”
Dacey is renowned for his accomplishments in cerebrovascular research, particularly in regard to diseases of the cerebrovascular system. He also has made myriad contributions to the clinical practice of neurosurgery and to resident training and education.
“This professorship is a true testament to Dr. Dacey’s achievements in medicine and to the high regard in which friends, colleagues and patients hold him,” Perlmutter said. “For many years, if something happened in St. Louis that involved the brain, Ralph was there. If he couldn’t do it himself, he assembled a team of the most talented neurosurgeons in the world to handle it. His accomplishments have elevated the field, the faculty, his students and clinical care to new heights.”
During his three decades at the helm of the Department of Neurosurgery, Dacey promoted an expansion of clinical and basic research efforts, while maintaining the department’s emphasis on clinical excellence and world-class training and education. Nearly 70% of the graduates of the department’s residency program enter academic careers at some of the most highly regarded neurosurgery departments in the country, including several who have become faculty here at Washington University.
In December 1998, Dacey performed the first neurosurgery that used magnetic gradients to direct probes in the brain. He also spearheaded the creation of an intraoperative MRI facility at BJH to allow physicians to scan the brain during a surgery to ensure complete removal of tumors.
“This is the greatest honor of my life,” Dacey said of the named professorship. “I am incredibly lucky to have such generous friends and colleagues. Greg Zipfel is a great researcher, leader and surgeon, and I am confident that under his leadership, the department will continue to thrive.”
Dacey is a former chair of the American Board of Neurological Surgery and has served as president of the Congress of Neurological Surgeons, the American Academy of Neurological Surgeons, and the Society of Neurological Surgeons. He was elected to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, was named an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, and is a recipient of the Harvey Cushing Medal from the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, the highest honor bestowed by the association.
In 2018, the Joint Cerebrovascular Section of the American Association of Neurological Surgeons and the Congress of Neurological Surgeons established the Ralph G. Dacey Jr., MD, Medal for Outstanding Cerebrovascular Research in recognition of his accomplishments in the area of cerebrovascular research, his myriad contributions to neurosurgery, and his unwavering leadership in the area of resident training and education.
“Ralph is the kind of leader who brings out the best in his team,” Zipfel said. “He creates the environment that encourages excellence, recruits talented and dedicated people, and challenges us all to do our best. He is truly a giant, and we all stand on his shoulders. I am honored to be named the first Dacey professor.”
Zipfel’s surgical practice is focused on cerebrovascular disease and tumors that grow near the base of the skull. He is known for his expertise in surgically correcting weak spots in blood vessels, known as aneurysms, and other blood vessel malformations in the brain; removing complicated tumors near the skull base; and creating surgical bypasses around blocked or diseased arteries of the brain to increase blood supply.
Also a professor of neurology and co-director of the Stroke and Cerebrovascular Center at BJH, Zipfel has focused his laboratory research on understanding how aneurysm ruptures cause brain injury. Such ruptures often lead to permanent brain damage or death, even following emergency surgery. Zipfel has helped identify some of the molecular and cellular features associated with brain injury after sudden rupture of aneurysms. This work has led to the discovery of experimental drugs aimed at reducing brain injury after aneurysm rupture, two of which are being evaluated in clinical trials.
Zipfel also studies how altered blood flow in the brain contributes to dementia. By investigating the impact of amyloid plaques – a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease – and stress from reactive oxygen molecules – a common feature of aging – on blood vessels in the brain, Zipfel has advanced the understanding of cognitive decline in Alzheimer’s and aging.
Following his undergraduate studies at the University of Illinois, Zipfel earned his medical degree at Northwestern University and completed a residency in neurosurgery at the University of Florida. During residency, Zipfel spent two years doing postdoctoral research with Dennis Choi, MD, PhD, at the School of Medicine. Zipfel then completed a fellowship in cerebrovascular and skull-base surgery at the University of Miami. In 2004, he returned to St. Louis and joined the faculty of the School of Medicine.