Korean War Plaque

Korean War veteran Dr. James P. Argires speaks during a Veterans Day ceremony at Veterans Plaza, Friday, Nov. 11, 2016, in downtown Lancaster.

This story was originally published Jan. 8, 2006. Argires died Aug. 13, 2019, and his obituary is here


Neurosurgeon James Argires is a Lancaster icon. At 74, he looks back at the rolling tide of his life and career.

In 1911, a train chugged out of New York City carrying Peter Argires, an immigrant who had followed his youngest brother to America from the Greek island of Kos.

Argires did not speak English. His destination was spelled out in a cardboard sign taped to his chest: “Leave this man off in Lancaster, Pa.”

Done.

Argires later married and had a boy, James Peter Argires, whom he originally intended to name George Washington in honor of his adopted country.

The father cleaned hats at a newsstand at the former Stevens House Hotel.

The son grew up with few hints of the prominent neurosurgeon to be.

“The Fulton Theater was my baby-sitter” from a young age, said James Argires, who recalls Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff lighting up the silver screen.

But it was sport that captured the youth’s interest in those years.

He sneaked into Stumpf Field to watch the Red Roses, and he went on to play halfback for the McCaskey High School football team.

A coaching career in mind, he studied physical education at what was then West Chester State Teachers College but dropped out to fight in Korea.

“It’s the forgotten war,” noted Argires, who said patriotism impelled him to enlist in the Marines.

“War is war,” he found out. “Bullets are bullets. ... I was fortunate to come home.”

He completed his studies at West Chester University in 1956; this past November, the school inducted him into its Hall of Fame for his outstanding contributions to medicine and community service.

Argires had long since become a leading surgeon here.

At age 74, he’s retired now from the operating room but still consults, still relishes working with Lancaster NeuroScience & Spine Associates patients and colleagues, one of whom includes his neurosurgeon son, Dr. Perry Argires.

He reflected on his long career recently in a book-lined conference room at his spacious office on Crooked Oak Drive.

The field has advanced light-years since the 1960s, he said.

“Survival rates are better in major trauma. We’re reducing the calculated risks, there’s no question.”

Argires believes gene therapy is the next step toward solving one of neurosurgery’s most intractable problems, the malignant brain tumor.

But humans will never vanquish such maladies, he predicted.

“Neurosurgery’s an exciting field of medicine. We really deal with life and death. ... That challenge will go on forever.”

The practice

Argires said he became a surgeon precisely because of the thrilling uncertainty of “never knowing what I would do the next day.”

Coincidentally, Lancaster early on became a center for neurosurgery.

Pioneered by the late Dr. John L. Polcyn more than 40 years ago and bolstered by the support of Lancaster General Hospital and St. Joseph Hospital, the field grew rapidly.

“Talent always attracts talent,” Argires said. “We were fortunate these hospitals were so good.”

But Argires never meant to hang his shingle in Lancaster.

In 1954 he married Tasia Koutroulakis, a Birmingham, Ala., native, and he grew fond of the South’s traditional culture and relaxed ways.

He received his M.D. degree from the University of Alabama Medical School in 1962. He was named outstanding resident by the university in 1967.

Polcyn sent a congratulatory message and invited him to stop in and chat when he was in Lancaster.

Much to the chagrin of his manners-minded wife, Argires recalled, “I never answered his letter.”

Later, though, while visiting his father in Lancaster, Argires did dine with Polcyn.

“We had a wonderful chemistry,” said Argires, who registered something else. “Neurosurgery was just exploding in those years.” In Polcyn, he recounted, “I saw a man who was tired and overworked. I felt maybe I would stay a year” before returning to the South.

Dr. Daniel Good joined the practice several years later.

Dr. Polcyn died in 1976.

Somehow, Argires’ 12-month commitment turned into 39 years.

Today, Lancaster NeuroScience & Spine Associates has more than a dozen staff members, including three physiatrists who specialize in pain management, physical medicine and rehabilitation.

The practice has evolved significantly over four decades.

Years ago, Argires explained, in the absence of operating room microscopes, surgeons simply eyeballed patients on the table.

Diagnostic techniques were invasive. Doctors inserted needles into the carotid artery and pumped air into brain cavities to locate suspected lesions or aneurysms.

Today’s CAT scans and MRIs are much safer, Argires said.

The flip side of sophisticated technology is that it can dazzle physicians, luring them away from still-important clinical techniques.

Expensive equipment, of course, also drives up health-care costs, but Argires says that’s the price society must pay for better treatment.

Doctors pay their dues, too, he said.

In the 1990s, Argires became embroiled in the controversy over medical malpractice insurance.

He urged medical specialists, who had traditionally been fiercely competitive, to band together to offset skyrocketing costs.

He warned that soaring rates were driving doctors out of Pennsylvania.

In 2003, to try to stabilize those costs, Lancaster NeuroScience & Spine Associates helped pioneer a physician-owned medical malpractice insurance organization called the Central Pennsylvania Risk Retention Group Inc.

The NeuroScience practice on Crooked Oak Drive has continued to thrive.

Patients come from a large area bounded roughly by Gettysburg, Paoli and Rising Sun, Md.

Hershey Medical Center handles regions north of Elizabethtown, said Argires, who noted that a community typically needs one neurosurgeon per 120,000 people.

Argires hung up his scalpel about 2½ years ago.

“I stopped because of my age,” he said. But he continues to consult, using time-tested methods.

“You have to listen to people and try and understand their problem,” he said. “You need to sit and listen.”

Thanks in part to Argires, many other physicians throughout the county are also prepared to do just that.

Besides teaching clinical practice at the Penn State College of Medicine and Temple University School of Medicine, Argires was a long-time instructor in the LGH family residency program and a clinical instructor for the school of nursing.

Argires’ neurology focus was central in helping LGH become a certified trauma center, said Dr. Bruce Pokorney, the hospital’s senior vice president of medical affairs.

Early on, Pokorney added, Argires also recognized the importance of family medicine as a specialty.

Pokorney said Argires was instrumental in recruiting Dr. Nikitas Zervanos, who became the first director of General’s family medicine residency program and held that post more than 30 years.

“I would guess that the majority of family physicians in our community were trained in this program,” Pokorney said.

Argires’ friend and contemporary, Lancaster County Coroner Dr. G. Gary Kirchner, said, “Jimmy’s a good boy” who built a substantial institution on the foundation laid by Polcyn.

“Jimmy is a dedicated driver. He settles on a project or a passion and he follows it through. ... Jimmy is not a shrinking violet.”

One discipline Argires has embraced in recent years is art.

Sculptor George Mummert, who has been teaching bronze casting to the surgeon, said he’s a quick study who has donated a number of his works to charity.

Within an hour of meeting each other several years ago, Mummert said, “We knew right away we were going to enjoy working together.

“He’s a real people person” who has earned a high profile in the community. “Invariably we’ll see someone at breakfast who says, ‘Hey, you saved my life, doc,’ or ‘You saved my brother’s life.’”

Greatest gift

One little known fact: Argires, the erstwhile sports guy, has a history of operating on sports guys.

He’s treated many of his former coaches, he said.

As a young resident at the University of Alabama, Argires helped the great Bear Bryant recover from phlebitis.

“He was an icon, a very majestic figure,” recalled Argires, who kept in touch with Bryant until his death in 1983.

Argires also operated on Ray Perkins, the captain of the undefeated 1966 University of Alabama football team. “He took a hit in the Orange Bowl and developed a clot on his brain later.”

Perkins recovered nicely and was inducted last year into the Senior Bowl Hall of Fame.

These days, Argires is still a “very strong” Alabama fan.

He also plays tennis with a group of long-time friends who call themselves the Court Jesters.

“We’re talented,” he cracked, “but not as talented as most people.”

Argires typically deflects praise to family, friends and colleagues.

Raised during the hardscrabble years of the Great Depression and World War II, the surgeon considers himself lucky to have been born to nurturing parents.

“That’s the greatest wealth you’ll ever have, that first day,” he said.

His mother died of tuberculosis when he was 5, Argires added, but “I was fortunate I had a father who never left my side.”

Because Peter Argires was not an American citizen at the time, he nearly got deported when he tried to enlist during World War I. He spent the balance of the conflict in a Chester munitions factory before returning to Lancaster.

He died in the 1970s after working 52 years at Stevens House, James Argires said.

Peter Argires felt he’d accomplished his life’s mission when his son received an American education.

The tradition goes on.

Argires said he and his son, Perry, make up one of about 26 father-son neurosurgery teams in the country.

Completing the third Argires generation in the United States are daughters Jenny, a grief counselor in Philadelphia, and Kathleen, a food program director at F&M.

Perry Argires, who, like his dad, received his medical degree from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, also chose to return to Lancaster.

He joined Lancaster NeuroScience seven years ago.

Argires, 42, said he works with, and learns from, his father daily.

“I’m very lucky to have a father like I have. He’s very understanding and receptive” to questions and concerns, added Perry Argires, who has three young children of his own.

They’ll be encouraged to pursue whatever work fulfills them, he said, but “hopefully, maybe one of them will want to go into medicine.”

James Argires is devoted to kin -- he speaks of his wife as “the staying power of our family”-- but his philanthropic and volunteer involvement is also extensive.

A sampling includes the Boys and Girls Club. Fulton Bank. The Fulton Opera House. The Pennsylvania College of Art & Design. YMCA. The former H. K. Cooper Clinic. Easter Seals. Millersville University.

In spring 2005, MU dedicated its new James P. and Tasia K. Argires Science Complex in honor of the couple, who have long supported college science programs.

This spring on Pearl Street, Argires will partner with George Mummert in opening the Keystone Art and Culture Center with an eye toward teaching college and high school students.

It’s a hard world, Argires reasons. “Young people need all the support we can give them.”

And all the wisdom.

One thing the surgeon has learned is that life, like the human body, has its own ebb-and-flow biorhythms.

There are good times and bad, Argires cautions. “You won’t succeed every day.”

Not even if you’re a doctor.

“You have to be physically strong” to perform neurosurgery, which can last up to 12 hours at a stretch, Argires pointed out.

The long, tedious procedures carry risk and probably always will, Argires noted. Yet medical miracles are often perceived as routine by the public.

“People are not as realistic about things as they used to be.”

That said, progress in health and science has been nothing short of phenomenal.

Today, a fit and active 80-year-old raises hardly an eyebrow.

Such a person would have been the exception 50 years ago, according to Argires, who said he’s had the rare good fortune to help advance the trend.

“It’s been a great life and a great adventure for me.”