Column: The Legacy of Eddie Kahn

UM neurosurgeon and college hockey star made a name for himself beyond his status as architect Albert Kahn's son
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

Editor’s note: A version of this column was originally published in the Feb. 18, 2013 issue of Michigan Today.

In the Michigan hockey program’s 90-year history, some 600 players have scored more than 10,000 total goals. But the man who scored the team’s very first goal, 90 years ago, might still be the most impressive one of the bunch.

He was the son of legendary American architect Albert Kahn, who built the most recognizable buildings in Detroit and Ann Arbor, almost all of which still stand. He pioneered the new discipline of neurosurgery, serving 22 years as chief of the department at the University of Michigan Medical Center. In his free times, he liked to fly planes, speak half a dozen languages, and hang out with folks like Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, and Charles Lindbergh.

But to his teammates, back in 1923, Eddie Kahn, MD ’24, was simply an exceptional college hockey player.

When he was in high school, however, you would have been wise to predict none of this. Certainly, his famous father didn’t.

More than half a century after Eddie Kahn’s father passed away, Albert Kahn remains on the short list of great American architects. He designed over two thousand buildings, including almost every architecturally significant structure in downtown Detroit: the Fisher Building, the Belle Isle Casino, the Detroit Golf Club, the Detroit Athletic Club and the Grosse Pointe Country Club, Detroit Police headquarters and the homes of The Detroit News and The Detroit Free Press. 

In Ann Arbor, Kahn designed such iconic buildings as Burton Tower, Angell Hall, West Engineering, the Natural Science Building, the graduate library, the hospital (Old Main), not to mention the Ann Arbor News building, the Delta Gamma sorority and the Psi Upsilon fraternity. Plus his personal favorites, the Clements Library and Hill Auditorium.  So farsighted was his vision that nearly every one of those buildings is still fulfilling its original purpose.

His son, however, was an entirely different matter.

Eddie Kahn admired his father immensely, but his first day interning at his father’s firm was such a disaster, “I put on my hat, left the office, and never returned again,” he wrote in his autobiography, “Journal of a Neurosurgeon.”

After Kahn graduated from high school with “a most undistinguished record, scholastically and otherwise,” he writes, “it was decided that a post-graduate year in a preparatory school before I went to college couldn’t make things worse.”

After eight weeks at Phillips Andover Academy in Massachusetts, Kahn was failing fifteen of his 22 credits, when he learned discipline through study, and confidence through sports. In a baseball game against arch-rival Exeter, “I was as tense as could be. An easy fly came to me, and I was shaking as I caught it. It was the same with the next one. But from then on, I had complete confidence and everything seemed easy. That afternoon, I pulled in seven flies, including some rather difficult chances.

“I cannot overstress how much confidence simplifies the task of the conscientious, competent surgeon. On the other hand, overconfidence is very dangerous for any surgeon.” Brain surgery may be woefully complex, but some of the qualities needed to do it well are best learned on a field of grass or a sheet of ice.

Kahn took these lessons with him when he enrolled at Michigan in 1918, living in a beautiful brick home his father designed across Washtenaw Avenue from “The Rock.” Kahn got through both his undergraduate and medical training in six years, working in the very hospital his father had also designed.

Eddie spent his limited free time playing on the informal hockey team, then on the varsity team after Coach Joseph Barss – who was also a medical student – launched the program. The team’s second season, 1924, was undoubtedly the first and only year in college hockey history when a team’s captain and coach were medical school classmates.

“My dad talked about Eddie Kahn quite a bit,” Barss’s son told me. “I know they were good friends who respected each other a great deal.”

On the eve of the program’s opening night in Jan. 12, 1923, The Michigan Daily wrote, “Kahn is probably the fastest man on the team and is a hard fighter.” The student writers later gushed that Kahn, “played a furiously aggressive game from start to finish. He was knocked out twice but stayed in the lineup and performed sensationally.”

And so he did. Kahn scored or assisted on at least half of his team’s goals that season, often by skating the entire length of the ice with the puck. In 1924, Kahn’s last year in medical school, the diminutive forward became the team’s second captain, then went on to become an internationally acclaimed neurosurgeon.

Despite Kahn’s demanding career and intense work ethic, he was able to mix in some adventure, too. After graduating, he spent some time practicing in Vienna and Russia, where he met with Ivan Pavlov, the scientist who won the 1904 Nobel Prize for his famous discovery that ringing a bell before each meal eventually caused dogs to salivate at the sound of the bell alone, a phenomenon now known as the “Pavlovian response.”

After he returned to the States and started working at UM’s hospital, he volunteered for the Army medical corps from 1940 to 1945, for one dollar a year. He entered France via Normandy’s Utah Beach just a few weeks after D-Day, mended soldiers at the Battle of the Bulge, and was among the first to arrive in Paris when the Allies liberated the City of Light.

“Kahn knew Europe well,” says Rudy Reichert, who played for Michigan in the early 1940s and went on to become chief of staff at St. Joseph’s Hospital in town. “He knew Gertrude Stein and Hemingway personally. When the Americans entered Paris, it was Eddie who brought the U.S. generals into the city, because he knew his way around and knew about a million languages, so he could show them where to go.”

Shortly after he returned to Ann Arbor, Kahn ran into Harry Bennett, Henry Ford’s infamous union buster, at a cocktail party. Bennett asked Kahn if he wanted to go flying the next day. With Charles Lindbergh.

Lindbergh, who tested planes at nearby Willow Run during the war, maneuvered the aircraft with an ease that Kahn, who was a licensed pilot himself, could only admire. “I have never seen a man so relaxed or so much part of an airplane,” Kahn writes.

When Bennett dared Lindbergh to buzz the Huron River, however, the plane didn’t have nearly enough power to clear the riverbank in front of them. “I could only think that at least I as going to go down in good company,” Kahn writes. As they flew closer to the side of the bluff, Lindbergh suddenly veered the plane to the right, gracefully avoiding disaster – with a grin.

Kahn replaced his mentor at the University Hospital, Dr. Max Peet, as the head of the Neurosurgery Section in 1949, a position he held for 22 years until he retired in 1971. Along the way Kahn completed two editions of “Correlative Neurosurgery,” an essential textbook for generations of doctors.  It does not, however, make for light reading. Some of Kahn’s chapters include, “Papillomas of the Choroid Plexus of the Fourth Ventricle,”  “Section of the Ninth Nerve for Glossophyaryngeal Neuralgia,” and the always popular, “Lipomas of the Conus Mdullaris and Cauda Equina.”

You get the idea. This really is brain surgery.

“Great empathy for his patients, honesty, humility and a fine sense of humor were his hallmarks, in addition to his skillful hands,” said his former colleague, Dr. Richard C. Schneider. “No physician was more deeply admired and loved by his patients.”

Eddie Kahn was an original. He hated mundane tasks like lab work; he resisted playing all the holes of Barton Hills Country Club in numerical order; and because he was already independently wealthy from his father’s fortune, he insisted on working for a salary of one dollar a year. “But he never had any money on him!” Reichert recalls. “You’d go down to the cafeteria, where it was 35-cents for a meal, and he’d say, ‘Geez, do you have 35 cents for me?’ The guy was just oblivious to money.

“People would surround him at the cafeteria just to hear his stories of all these famous people, and he knew ‘em all. But he was also an extremely modest guy, didn’t like drawing attention to himself. He wouldn’t even go down to pick up his plaque when he was voted into the Deker Hall of Fame. I picked it up for him.”

But Kahn stayed close to Michigan hockey. Although he was heard to remark that the game just wasn’t the same “since all the boys started playing inside,” he attended at least one game every season, with the exception of the war years.

During his 22 years as chief of neurosurgery, Kahn trained 44 residents, 16 of whom became the heads or assistant heads of their own university neurosurgery departments. If Albert Kahn is still on the short list of great American architects, his son is still on the short list of great American surgeons. Although surgical advances aren’t as obvious a legacy as architectural landmarks, Kahn invented enough surgical tools and innovations to be named president of the Society of Neurological Surgery, the field’s first and foremost organization.

“He wanted to be known as Eddie Kahn,” longtime protégé Dr. Dave Dickenson said, “and not as Albert’s son.”

It’s fair to say, when he died in 1985 at the age of 85, that Dr. Kahn’s lifelong quest to make a name for himself was a success.

Thinking back on his old friend and mentor, Rudy Reichert says, “He was just a remarkable guy.”

About the writer: Ann Arbor resident John U. Bacon is the author of “Bo’s Lasting Lessons” and “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football” – both national bestsellers. His upcoming book, “Fourth and Long: The Future of College Football,” will be published by Simon & Schuster in September 2013. You can follow him on Twitter (@Johnubacon), and at

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