Press Release

Leaving a Legacy from Siberia to USC

Scot Macdonald January 31, 2022
Dr. Zelman
Dr. Vladimir Zelman

More than 40 years ago, USC gave Dr. Vladimir Zelman an opportunity. Today, he is giving USC an opportunity.

Professor of anesthesiology, emeritus professor of USC, and longtime Keck School supporter, Dr. Zelman recently created and endowed the Vladimir Zelman, MD, PhD, Professor and Chair in Anesthesiology at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.

“For me, it was a dream,” he said about coming to USC. “How do I thank USC for the opportunity this university, this school, this department gave me? I’m always looking back and saying thank you.”

An Extraordinary Life

Dr. Zelman’s extraordinary life has been marked by adversity and shaped through resiliency. He was born in 1935 during a famine in Ukraine. His mother was told he would be sick and weak with little chance of survival. She bravely gave birth to Dr. Zelman at home, and miraculously he survived. Crucible moments in his life led him to thrive.

In June 1941, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union (USSR). As Dr. Zelman and his family fled the Nazi armies just two days before the Germans captured his city, his mother and brother were wounded and he lost hearing in one ear when they were caught in bombardments. The Nazis murdered 23 members of his family in the Holocaust.

Having survived birth and poverty, famine and war, Dr. Zelman had come to believe that “knowledge was the most powerful tool to overcome adversity.” Having seen so much death and devastation, the knowledge he most wanted was how to heal others. He wanted to be a doctor, but antisemitism in Ukraine made it impossible for him to pursue a medical education in his native land. He applied to medical school in Novosibirsk, Siberia, which was among the few schools that accepted Jews. Dr. Zelman was accepted and graduated, earning a MD and the first of two doctorates.

In 1976, while professor and chair of anesthesia and intensive care at the Institute of Neurological Disease and Neurosurgery at the Academy of Medical Sciences of the USSR, he treated Occidental Petroleum CEO Armand Hammer during an illness. Hammer was so grateful that he asked Dr. Zelman to be his personal physician. Dr. Zelman declined, so Hammer instead sponsored him to come to America. Dr. Zelman had a choice: apply for political asylum or wait for a visa. Had he applied for asylum, the Soviets would have retaliated against his family, so Dr. Zelman waited. He stayed at Hammer’s villa in Rome as he waited for his visa and prepared for the exam to practice medicine in the U.S. Once he moved to the United States in 1977, Dr. Zelman completed a residency and fellowship in anesthesiology at UCLA, so he could get up-to-speed with the latest American advances in the field and specialize in neuro-anesthesiology.

After his fellowship, he heard about an opportunity at Los Angeles County Hospital. His mentor at UCLA said the salary was low and dismissed it as just a county hospital. Dr. Zelman said, “I believe we have an opportunity to build a bigger program, a historic place, a chance to leave a legacy, not just work in a place that is already developed.” In 1981, Dr. Zelman joined USC. He quickly learned that anesthesiology at USC was already well known for its advanced clinical research and care.

During his more than 40 years at USC, Dr. Zelman helped develop techniques to improve surgeries for epilepsy and movement disorders, and brain, nerve, and spine surgeries. He has published more than 170 papers, 25 book chapters, and made 450 presentations. His techniques are now used around the world. His knowledge and expertise is widely recognized. Presidents, movie stars, professional athletes, and thousands of people have sought him out to place their lives in his hands during surgeries.

Giving Back

Anesthesiology is the foundation upon which almost every other medical field and surgical procedure rests.

“In anesthesiology, your knowledge can benefit many areas of medicine, such as critical care, pediatrics, [and] neurosurgery,” Dr. Zelman said. “Anesthesiology is the glue that holds all of the other medical fields together.”

This belief in the importance of anesthesiology led Dr. Zelman to endow and name the Vladimir Zelman, MD, PhD Professor and Chair in Anesthesiology at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. Dr. Zelman’s gift ensures that USC continues to be a leader in the field.

The Department of Anesthesiology at Keck School of Medicine of USC attracts doctors from around the world to learn from its experts. The department’s prominence developed with Dr. Zelman’s critical contributions – and those from world-leaders in other sub-fields. Dr. Zelman said, “It is on track to be one of best in the state and then the country. In terms of international influence, it is already number one. It is a united and powerful department of anesthesiology. I am proud to be a USC professor. Overseas, people have heard of USC and it is a great honor to belong to it.”

“Dr. Zelman has spent his career in the service of patients and their families, students, and the international medical community,” said Holly Muir, MD, chair and professor of the Department of Anesthesiology at the Keck School. “His research, mentorship, and dedication to collaboration have advanced medicine in immeasurable ways.”

Since diseases have no borders, Dr. Zelman believes that doctors should have no borders. In addition to his recent gift to establish the chair, Dr. Zelman has been instrumental in sustaining the Zelman Lecture Series, which, he says, is designed “to connect the brain and the heart.” The annual lectures widen doctors’ knowledge of the world. The lectures have included presentations by Nobel Prize winners, members of the Council on Foreign Relations, poets, playwrights, astronauts, and Pulitzer Prize-winning photographers. Given his fierce belief in the value of exchanging knowledge, he also helped found the Zelman Center of Distance and International Education, which has made USC a pioneer in distance learning for medicine— and is especially critical now with COVID-19’s restrictions on large gatherings and international travel.

A Legacy Stretching from USC to Siberia

Dr. Zelman’s generosity goes beyond USC, and the borders of the United States.

“I believe everybody, with no exceptions, should be sensical to when somebody or an organization gives you an opportunity,” Dr. Zelman said. “I really appreciated Novosibirsk. I came from a poor family. My parents couldn’t even write. I was the first in my family to graduate high school. Novosibirsk gave me an opportunity to become a doctor.”

Once it became possible to visit the former Soviet Union more freely, Dr. Zelman visited Novosibirsk Medical School and helped by sending books, developing programs, and arranging to bring U.S. experts to present talks. Dr. Zelman helped it become the first independent medical school in the Soviet Union, a significant accomplishment considering that the USSR’s medical schools were under the Ministry of Health, separate from universities. The school sought to be a mirror image of the Keck School of Medicine. The Novosibirsk school was so thankful that the governing board voted unanimously to rename the school the Vladimir Zelman School of Medicine and Psychology.

In addition, he has been instrumental in creating the independent medical school in Novosibirsk, a Center for Neural Biology and Brain Rehabilitation in Moscow, and an interdisciplinary center for brain research in Israel. With partners at USC, he is building a consortium on brain science, which will unite experts in Novosibirsk, Moscow, Israel, and Los Angeles. “Scientists need to work together,” he said, “then we can solve problems.”

A Russian journalist is writing a book about the extraordinary life of Dr. Zelman, a man who is building a meaningful legacy from USC to Siberia.