Great Surgeons in History - Further Reading


selzer quote


As I mentioned in my biography of John Hunter, I have a reall leaning towards the "great man" theory of history. For this exhibit, I wanted to recognize some of the great surgeons of the past. Richard Selzer, a surgeon in Troy, NY, really encapsulated how many surgeons speak about their predecessors in his memoir, "Down from Troy," in hushed, reverential terms. So I wanted to include some links to some nice books about some great or interesting men.

William A. Nolan

Amazon List

The Making of a Surgeon

The Making of a Surgeon

William A. Nolen


I have no earthly idea what kind of a surgeon Dr. Nolan was, but his memoir of his surgical internship at Bellvue Hospital in the 1960's convinced me to become a surgeon. His description of his first appendectomy is one of the reasons I made this website. I would encourage anyone to read this book.


The Mayo Brothers

Amazon List

The Doctors Mayo

The Doctors Mayo

Helen Clapesattle

I grew up in Rochester, Minnesota and my father was a physician at Mayo Clinic. I grew up revering the brothers, Will and Charlie and all of the remarkable things they accomplished in their lifetimes, all while living in a prarie outpost. My son is named after Will. Alas that I never had a second son to name Charlie. (I do have a nephew named Charlie, though, and while he wasn't named after Charles Mayo, I can pretend). One interesting thing. I went to Mayo High School. There is a carved stone monument to the Brothers across from the Principal's office. In 1976 I passed on my finding that the year of Charlie's birth was wrong. My niece, now attending Mayo High School, assures me that this was never fixed. In the 1930's Helen Clapseattle wrote an adoring biography of Will and Charlie. It is a terrific read and I heartily recommend it.


William Stewart Halstead

I was more than a little dismayed a few years ago when a Chief Surgical Resident asked me, "Who's that?" When I mentioned William Stewart Halstead. There is no excuse for a surgeon not being familiar with Dr. Halstead. In my opinion, a reasonable first test of a surgeon's competence is to ask him or her questions about Dr. Halstead. He coined the term "Cancer" He invented the American residency program. He founded the Surgery Department at Johns Hopkins. Surgery starts early across the US because Dr. Halstead was an early riser. He was the first to wear rubber gloves to operate because his surgical nurse couldn't tolerate the phenol on her hands. He was a cocaine addict. Just an extraordinarily interesting man. There is a wonderful recent biography of Dr. Halstead that I've included an Amazon link to.


Ephraim McDowell

The first surgeon to perform an open abdominal surgery. He did it in a back bedroom of his home in Danville, Kentucky. No anesthesia. Found a patient who would lie still and sing hymns while he operated. I visited his home in Danville. It is a great little museum and I mention it in "A brief History of Surgery."


Michael DeBakey

Dr. Debakey may be the last of the giants of surgery. He died recently over 100 years after he was born. He more or less invented heart surgery, and kept right on operating into his 90's. He trained two or three generations of cardiac surgeons. He invented instruments.




Richard Selzer


With William A. Nolan, I wanted to bookend this exhibit with a surgeon writer. I have no idea about him as a surgeon, but he writes beautifully.