Invisible Giants: Fifty Americans Who Shaped the Nation but Missed the History Books

By Mark Carnes | Go to book overview

William Halsted
[23 SEPTEMBER 1852–7 SEPTEMBER 1922]

Every time I or any other American surgeon perform an operation, our technique is guided by principles first elucidated by William Halsted. Over a period of about twenty-five years, he introduced an entirely new approach to surgery, characterized by meticulous attention to detail and a profound knowledge of human biology. Halsted's work abolished the old smash-and-grab methods of his predecessors and taught generations of us that surgery is an aesthetic and intellectual undertaking. It is because of his teachings that I chose it as my life's work.

Paradoxically, I admire him most for what many would believe to be a profound weakness: his contributions were made by a man secretly addicted to cocaine and later to morphine. He managed to soldier on, year after year, so successfully fighting the ravages of his addiction that he left a body of work unsurpassed by any surgeon of his or other time.

Unfortunately, the general public nowadays most commonly associates Halsted's name with his radical mastectomy, the first operation to successfully treat breast cancer. Though it is today known that this extensive and mutilating procedure is rarely if ever justified, self-righteous critics seem unaware that Halsted's innovation was at one time the only hope for hundreds of thousands of women: a disease previously thought incurable would now respond to surgery. Ironically, he would no doubt have been among the first to abandon it once the value of less drastic procedures became appreciated, long after his death.

SHERWIN NULAND

William Stewart Halsted, surgeon, was born in New York City, the son of William Mills Halsted, the president of Halsted, Haines and Co., a textile-importing

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