In Memory of Our Co-Founder Dr. Thomas D. Rees

Remarkable visionary, renowned surgeon and Amref Health Africa co-founder Dr. Thomas (Tom) D. Rees passed away at his home in Santa Fe, NM on Thursday November 14, 2013. He is survived and celebrated by his children Thomas Jr. of Los Angeles and AMREF USA Board Member Elizabeth of New York City; as well as his brother Richard Rees, MD, of Ogden, Utah. Dr. Rees’ beloved wife of 63 years, Nan Rees, had passed away last May.

In 1956 in the shadow of Mt. Kilimanjaro, Dr. Rees and two other surgeons, Dr. Archibald McIndoe, and Dr. Michael Wood had an inspired idea: to take urgently needed clinical and surgical care to the people in East Africa’s most remote and underserved regions.  Their plan was to utilize small aircraft and radios to reach a network of rural hospitals – and thus the Flying Doctors of East Africa was born. In 1957, they started out with a small single-engine airplane, one full-time surgeon, and a handful of adventurous volunteers. As time went on, this initial plan expanded to include health education, training, and public health programs for a wide spectrum of health challenges for the underserved people in remote areas of Africa, as well as urban slums.  Today, that vision is Amref Health Africa, the largest African-led health development organization.

Dr. Rees on an outreach mission with the Flying Doctors of East Africa

After his return to the U.S., Dr. Rees continued what would be a life-long commitment to Africa and its people. He worked tirelessly for Amref Health Africa and for the continent in many ways: serving as the Chair of the Board of the US affiliate of Amref Health Africa, fundraising, and by promoting our work at every opportunity.  His dedication and enthusiasm was contagious.  Almost every year, Dr. Rees and his wife Nan travelled back to Africa, because they cared so passionately about the people of Africa.

Dr. Rees was born and raised in Utah, the son of a University Professor, and a second generation descendent of Mormon Pioneers. After graduating from the University of Utah Medical School and finishing  his  training in Plastic Surgery at the New York Hospital, he completed the prestigious Marks Fellowship in Plastic Surgery at the Queen Victoria Hospital in Great Britain under the tutelage of Sir Archibald McIndoe. He then began a distinguished forty-three year career in New York City as a practicing plastic surgeon, educator, author and innovator in his field. Hailed by New York Magazine as “One of the fathers of aesthetic surgery”, he was a frequent lecturer at medical institutions, symposia, and forums all over the world, as well as an author of more than 140 medical articles and six medical texts, including the two-volume Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, a classic for doctors-in-training, and More Than Just a Pretty Face, a book for the general public. Additionally, he was a Clinical Professor of Plastic Surgery at New York University of Medicine, Chairman Emeritus of the Department of Plastic Surgery at the Manhattan Eye, Ear, and Throat Hospital, and senior surgeon to the Institute for Reconstructive Surgery at NYU.

Dr. Rees’ surgical and academic career and his philanthropic work weren’t enough to occupy his time.  He was also an avid aviator, skier, fly fisherman, horseman, saxophone player, sculptor and author of the book Daktari, a Surgeon`s Adventures With the Flying Doctors of East Africa.  Nan and Tom Rees traveled extensively. The couple lived in New York City and Quogue, NY, before they retired to Santa Fe, NM nearly 22 years ago.

We often hear about how individuals can indeed do something to make the planet a better and more hopeful place.  Tom Rees lived that ideal.

We will miss him tremendously.

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From the vision of three doctors in the shadow of Kilimanjaro to Africa's most respected health care organization, Amref Health Africa's history is a fascinating story.

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In 1956, three visionary surgeons - Dr. Archibald McIndoe, Dr. Michael Wood, and the renowned American surgeon, Dr. Thomas D. Rees - had the inspired idea to take urgently needed clinical and surgical care to the people in East Africa's most remote regions.

A year later they started out with one airplane, one full-time surgeon, and a handful of volunteers. They called themselves The Flying Doctors of East Africa. Today the 'Flying Doctors' are the inspiration and part of Amref Health Africa.

Read more