Very few have a biography like that of Dr William Halsted often credited with founding modern American surgery. He was a professor of surgery at Johns Hopkins, and a lifelong drug addict.
Dr Halsted is credited with making his first lasting innovation: the hospital chart.
His technique was impeccable, most doctors at the time noted. He tied off every blood vessel, tried not to damage tissue he could avoid and was adamant about cleanliness.
His obsession with cleanliness was to serve him well through his career.
But his enthusiasm for trying new anesthetics was his undoing. One of the most effective local anesthetics in those days was cocaine, and within a few months of testing it on himself he developed a bad drug habit.
He also soon acquired the addict’s other bad habits: he lied, missed work, made endless excuses. Finally, a medical paper he published on cocaine anesthesia was such gibberish that his career in New York was effectively over.
But Halsted, still only 34, was undaunted. After a long European vacation, he secured him a job at the new Johns Hopkins hospital.
Unfortunately, his cocaine addiction was being “treated” with morphine and, unknown to all that time, he developed double-barreled addiction.
Dr. Imber, a plastic surgeon and clinical assistant professor of surgery, makes the intense strangeness of Halsted’s subsequent career a gripping story.
As a surgeon, Halsted was extraordinary; he soon advanced to chief at Hopkins and pioneered treatments for breast cancer, hernias and gallstones. His knowledge of anatomy and his meticulous technique meant lengthy operations but negligible complication rates, even though antibiotics were still decades away.
Halsted the addict, however, was a mess. He would disappear for long stretches (his summer vacations routinely lasted five months); no one knew quite where he went. His behavior was erratic; friendly to colleagues and patients one moment and hostile the next, he would bow out of operations at the last minute, and his residents pretty much ran his service without him. “The Professor” was often missing in action.
His friend, Dr. Welch, wrote about Halsted’s lifelong addiction. “As long as he lived, he would occasionally have a relapse and go back to the drug.”
Sicker and sicker, Dr Halsted finally crashed due to gallstone complications and died at the age of 69.
His cleanliness of the OT, hospital charts, his mastering the work in Onco surgery and his double drug addiction is a legacy he left behind.
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