Portola Valley doctor adept with scalpel and chisel

A sculptor and a surgeon, Burt Brent recalls the impact of reconstructing the ear of J. Paul Getty's grandson

Dr. Burt Brent relaxes at his Portola Valley home, where the Almanac visited him to talk about his role in reconstructing an ear of John Paul Getty III after kidnappers sliced it off and mailed it to his wealthy grandfather. (Photo by Michelle Le/The Almanac)

For Portola Valley resident and notable plastic surgeon Dr. Burt Brent, the letters BG and AG – in the manner of BC and AD – could with good reason be appended to significant dates in his professional life.

BG (Before Getty) would cover events before 1977, the year Dr. Brent reconstructed the right ear of John Paul Getty III, grandson of the oil tycoon J. Paul Getty. In a film now in theaters, "All the Money in the World," director Ridley Scott tells the story of how, in 1973, Italian kidnappers severed the younger Mr. Getty's ear and mailed it to his grandfather in a bid to extort a $17 million ransom from him.

BG would mark Dr. Brent's undergraduate years in Detroit, medical school in Chicago and his three years as a medical officer with the U.S. Army.

AG (After Getty) reflects the dramatic change in his practice after a newspaper story told of his success in rebuilding the younger Mr. Getty's ear. Within a few weeks, he received 200 letters from mothers wanting their children's ears restored, he said. "I was inundated and had to go into private practice," he said.

At 79, he's now retired after a career that included reconstructing some 2,000 ears, much of the work done at El Camino Hospital in Mountain View.

Prior to the operations on Mr. Getty, Dr. Brent had done some 70 ear reconstructions, but his practice then included operations on cleft palates and breast reconstruction. "I knew I wasn't going to be a wrinkleologist," he said in a recent interview, referring to his goals for himself after medical school. "I was going to help people in an artistic way."

Art and science

A comment from a medical doctor, a practicing scientist, about the importance of artistic talent may seem odd, but it is highly relevant in his case. Unless you have real talent as a sculptor, earning a living by excising a piece of cartilage from the rib cage of a patient, crafting with a scalpel a realistic three-dimensional mirror image of that patient's existing ear, and then placing it safely under a flap of skin that you've had to stretch to accommodate the new ear may not be your calling.

Sculptures, mostly of stylized animals, are everywhere in Dr. Brent's house. Birds and mammals are a specialty. At zoos in San Diego and San Francisco, kids climb all over prominent bronzes he has made, including the massive supine hippo and the upward gazing flock of geese at San Francisco Zoo.

Of his half-dozen former colleagues, "all of them do really serious art on the side, sculpture mainly," Dr. Brent said. Cartilage is "just a different medium with terrible rules." Among those rules: preventing the components of the ear from drying out, and ensuring a good blood supply.

During a career in which he typically performed two ear reconstructions a day, five days a week, the nine months and four separate operations needed to complete the process meant that his waiting room sometimes had two or three families there, and sometimes 15 children, he said.

The waiting families could serve as living examples of the various stages of ear reconstruction. Dr. Brent said he could respond to a parent's inquiry simply by calling in an actual patient to show what he was talking about.

A redeeming feature

The kidnappers managed to get a ransom of $2.9 million for Mr. Getty. Dr. Brent said he did not ask Mr. Getty about his ordeal and had been keeping quiet about his role in Mr. Getty's surgery, but one day a reporter from the London Daily Telegraph called to ask about a story about his work on Mr. Getty reported in the National Enquirer.

Aware that the story had become widely known, Dr. Brent said, Mr. Getty told him he was gratified that the trauma of his experience with the kidnappers led to a public good: widespread publicity for the practice of ear reconstruction surgery.

"That was the redeeming feature of this whole business," Dr. Brent said.

In addition to his adept use of the scalpel and the chisel, Dr. Brent is also known to put a banjo pick to good use. He makes and plays banjos and, with the late legendary musician Earl Scruggs, he co-wrote and illustrated a book on how to play the banjo.


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5 people like this
Posted by Dr.Robert L.Brent
a resident of Portola Valley: other
on Jan 12, 2018 at 6:09 am

This is my “baby brother”. He is the most modest person I have ever known considering all of his wonderful accomplishments.
Thanks for the article...well done. His memoir is being written and the chapter describing the Getty ordeal is the best one that I have read. If you can prevail upon Burt to let you read it, you would be very entertained. It is certainly possible that some things in the chapter need to be kept within its confines...

2 people like this
Posted by Sye Linovitz
a resident of Portola Valley: Central Portola Valley
on Jan 12, 2018 at 1:36 pm

Dr. Burt Brent is an old, old friend whose great artistic talents were revealed early in his life. I recognized his talents as revealed when he was the artistic director for the Keidan Shkootzer, a very local humor magazine.

Burt, thank you for all the good things you do in this life.

2 people like this
Posted by gregg brent
a resident of another community
on Jan 12, 2018 at 2:38 pm

Kudos to recognizing this gifted humorous lad. I am proud of him and learned to appreciate nature and animal conservation from such a guardian of our environment and teacher of the sciences. Thank you Burt for your years of hard work helping children of need in such a compassionate manner. I am glad you have been recognized and I'm sure you will be in the future again and again for your talents. Kudos!

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