Bonus Post

This blogger skimmed “Genius on the Edge” by Gerald Imber, MD, published in  2010. This long book describes the career of Dr. William Halsted.

Halsted was born in 1852 in New York City. There was still much ignorance about medicine in his generation. Fatal diseases, such as malaria, yellow fever and tuberculosis were rampant. He developed a passion for medicine at Yale University. The most prominent doctors of his age included Pasteur, Lister, Morse, Hunter, Wells, Koch, Morton, Young and Warren. They spurred progress in sanitation, anaesthesia, and the collection of new information and techniques for treating patients.

In the 1870’s, Columbia College, Physicians and Surgeons didn’t require undergraduate degrees for entry because it was seeking revenue from student tuition. The three-year program was all lectures– no labs, no interaction with patients. In the 1870’s, during Halsted’s internship at Bellevue Hospital, many personnel didn’t wash their hands before operating, and smoked.

In late 1884, Halsted started using cocaine as a local anaesthetic in dentistry. He displayed, “…hyperactivity, rambling speech, inattention, and suspended decision-making ability.” Medical students and their teachers started using cocaine as a pick-me-up. They became addicted. “The drug was readily available in Europe, through Merck, and there was no stigma associated with its purchase.” In late 1886, Halsted went to work at Johns Hopkins Pathological– the “Bell Labs” of medicine. He went to Baltimore because his addiction had wrecked his career in New York. He substituted morphine for cocaine.

It is unclear how much better Halsted could have performed were it not for his addiction. He did have a brilliant career, but there were bouts of irresponsibility, socially and teaching-wise. He missed classes, started surgery at 10am instead of 8 after a while, failed to show up for meetings, and retreated to his country home for almost half the year. One positive side effect of his addiction was that Halsted delegated complete patient care to residents when he had morphine withdrawal symptoms. So the residents got a golden opportunity they would not have had otherwise, to learn their craft.

Side Note (There’s nothing new under the sun.): “As a group, they [nurses] felt themselves underpaid and overworked.” The Training School taught them to cook and clean. They were required to wear brown Oxford shoes.

Halsted experimented on dogs on and off for a couple of years, between months-long stints in drug rehab. He began seeing human patients for surgery in early 1889. He pioneered the medical-school residency program. He instituted the training of surgeons to train other surgeons. Three other doctors at Johns Hopkins who wrought major change in medicine in the U.S. were William Osler, William Welch, and Howard Kelly. Halsted specialized in surgery for breast cancer and inguinal hernia.

Johns Hopkins wanted to remain on the cutting edge of medicine by opening a medical school but it needed money to do so. Female heirs of prominent, wealthy families raised the money and placed conditions on the school’s opening, requiring gender equality. After much controversy, it opened in the fall of 1893.

Read the book to learn how medicine in America changed through the years of the late 19th into the 20th century, and how, according to this book, Johns Hopkins led the way.

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