Pure Genius

A genius, addicted: Book explores life of modern surgery's founder

Posting in Cancer

Surgeons are familiar with the story of William Stewart Halsted, the brilliant father of modern surgery who spent much of his life battling addictions to cocaine and morphine. Now, a new biography brings Halsted's story to a wider audience.

Surgeons are familiar with the story of William Stewart Halsted, the brilliant father of modern surgery who spent much of his life battling addictions to cocaine and morphine. Now, a new biography brings Halsted's story to a wider audience.

Genius on the Edge: The Bizarre Double Life of Dr. William Stewart Halsted was written by Dr. Gerald Imber, a New York plastic surgeon. Though Imber has primarily written beauty and self-help books, he took on Halsted as a subject because of Halsted's impact on his life and work.

"All of us [surgeons] trace our roots back to somebody who trained with somebody who trained with him," Imber says.

In a recent conversation, Imber talked about what readers will find in the new Halsted biography.

When did Halsted become a surgeon and what was the field like at the time, before his innovations?

Halsted finished medical school in 1874. They didn't have very high standards, nor did they turn out very good doctors because there really wasn't much in the way of science available. There were no residency training programs. It was a period of time not long after the Civil War when there was almost nothing in the way of a sterile technique. And because there was no sterile technique, virtually every patient was liable to infection. Surgery was limited only to emergencies. Halsted was a very inquisitive individual and he set about to change all that.

What were the changes Halsted made to the way surgery was performed?

He brought about the first operating room with sterile technique in New York City, which was probably the first in the country. He was the first person to institute the use of sterile rubber gloves in surgery. He invented hernia repair. He was the first person to do a radical mastectomy for the control and the cure of breast cancer. He was the first person to institute a residency training system for surgeons. He was the inventor of local anesthetic. He was also the founding chief of surgery at John's Hopkins from 1889 to 1922.

The title of the book mentions a double life. Does that refer to Halsted's cocaine and morphine addictions?

It was more than that. When he was inventing the local anesthesia, the only available drug used was cocaine. [Halsted did] injections on a number of his colleagues, his students and himself, and they all became addicted to cocaine. At that time, the cure was substituting morphine for cocaine and he became addicted to both.

In addition, he had an odd married life in that he and his wife lived in essentially separate apartments in the same home. And the question of whether they ever consummated the marriage is at issue. Certainly, no one knows anything about it. He never kept a journal because he didn't want anybody to know his business.

He was addicted to morphine and cocaine, and yet he produced more work than any other surgeon in history. It's a counterintuitive story that makes one wonder how well he would have done had he not been addicted to narcotics. The story is not a moral lesson because you can't draw a lesson from it, but it is very, very instructive and it opens up a lot of questions. But one of the questions should not be, "Are drugs good for your productivity?" because they're not. He got away with it, a lot of it by force of will and, I would imagine, a lot of it by luck.

Genius on the Edge is available now from Kaplan Publishing.

Share this

Christina Hernandez Sherwood

Contributing Writer

Contributing Writer Christina Hernandez Sherwood has written for the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education and Columbia Journalism Review. She holds degrees from the University of Delaware and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure