Developments in Medicine – Dr. William Halsted

Years ago, I worked for the publisher who produced The Face of Mercy: A Photographic History of Medicine at War. It was fascinating to read about the medical advances made during wartime.

These days, we tend to take for granted the use of sterilized equipment, anesthesia and life-saving surgical techniques. Sure, the problem of hospital-aquired infections is still a big one. The epidural during labor isn’t always 100% effective. And the surgery that’s supposed to irradicate a disease sometimes misses some of the diseased cells. We do have have advantages, though, that weren’t available 140 years ago, when physician William Stewart Halsted was practicing.

Last month, the NPR program Fresh Air featured a fascinating interview with author Gerald Imber. He wrote the book Genius on the Edge: the Bizarre Double Life of Dr. William Stewart Halsted.  Halsted was quite the medical pioneer, starting the first residency program and developing the radical mastectomy (lowering the cancer recurrence rate from 100% to 50%). Halsted was the first medical practitioner to implement rubber glove use – after a nurse developed dermatitis issues from Halsted’s mandate that staff clean their hands with mercuric bichloride. He was the first documented physician to do a blood transfusion, using several syringes of his own blood, to revive his sister who hemorrhaged after childbirth.

Halsted performed the first gall bladder surgery – on his mother, no less. He saved her life – especially since he steralized his tools with carbonic acid, lowering the risk of infection from the operation. He realized the value in steralization and tried to convince New York City’s Bellevue Hospital, where he practiced, to build him a sterile operating room. They laughed at him, so he raised the money himself, building a antiseptic operating tent outside on hospital grounds.

Of course not all his discoveries were healthful ones. Cocaine was known to be a numbing agent, and he experimented with it, trying it first on himself and then on his students and patients. Halsted became addicted, as did his students. However, he realized that anesthesia could be used to numb a larger area of the body, resulting in general anesthesia. His research into anesthesia won him awards from the American Dental Association.

I’d recommend listening to Terry Gross’ interview with author Imber. You can listen on your computer or download it to your MP3 player. Then get the book. It’s now on my reading list.


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