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Stewart Halsted, William

Category: Healer

William Stewart Halsted (1852 –1922) was an American surgeon who was an early champion of newly discovered anaesthetics, and introduced several new operations, including the radical mastectomy for breast cancer.

Along with William Osler (Professor of Medicine), Howard Atwood Kelly (Professor of Gynaecology) and William H. Welch (Professor of Pathology), Halsted was one of the "Big Four" founding professors at John Hopkins Hospital.

And throughout his professional life, he was addicted to cocaine and later also to morphine which were not illegal at the time.  This extract provides a little more background.

 From Ann Surg. Mar 2006; 243(3): 418–425. doi:  10.1097/01.sla.0000201546.94163.00  PMCID: PMC1448951 William Stewart Halsted from a  Lecture given by Dr. Peter D. Olch

A considerable amount has been written about Dr. William Stewart Halsted, a fascinating figure in American surgery, primarily by intimate friends and distant admirers. In this lecture, I will try to be very objective and will discuss some aspects of his personal and professional life with considerable candor; and I hope you realize that it is done with tact, and not in any way trying to ridicule or hold the man up for criticism. …….Since his death in 1922, more than 80 articles and 3 books have appeared about this man, whose place in the pantheon of surgeons is generally considered on a par with Joseph Lister and Theodore Billroth, and not too far behind John Hunter. But despite such popularity and renown, some aspects of his life remain shrouded in mystery, or masked by suppression of information or misconception.

Dr. Halsted was born on September 23, 1852, ….he was the son of William Mills Halsted, Jr., and Mary Louise Hanes. ………Dr. Halsted's father was a rather tight-fisted, hard-nosed Presbyterian, whose letters, filled with hellfire and brimstone sent to William at college, were undoubtedly a factor in Dr. Halsted's professed agnosticism in adult life.  William Stewart Halsted was the oldest of 4 children. He was followed by Bertha, Mary Louisa, and Richard. Richard apparently came to William's aid and stood by him when the latter was suffering from his initial drug addiction.
Halsted was known as a bold and aggressive surgeon, a quality which was not to be part of his make-up in Baltimore. In 1884, while experimenting with cocaine hydrochloride as a surgical anesthetic, Halsted and several of his colleagues and students became addicted to the drug. In an attempt to overcome this addiction, he was hospitalized in Butler Hospital for 6 months in 1886, and for 9 months in 1887. This illness ended his professional career in New York City, and Halsted moved to Baltimore, Maryland in December of 1886, to work in the laboratory of William H. Welch, by then, Professor of Pathology for Johns Hopkins University. When Halsted had apparently regained himself, and the Hopkins authorities were convinced of his capabilities and reliability, he was appointed Surgeon-in-Chief to the hospital in 1890, and finally, Professor of Surgery in I892. However, he probably never overcame the addiction.
He was a heavy smoker of cigarettes, but rarely imbibed more than an occasional glass of wine. As noted earlier, in matters of religion, he was agnostic. A letter to Professor Adolf Meyer in 1918 thanked Dr. Meyer for a gift of the 13 volume set of the Golden Bough by Frazer, which Halsted then described as: “Such a stupendous and bloodcurdling work.” Halsted also stated:

What a fearful thing is ignorance. Its disciples, from the Khonds to Cotton Mather, Jonathan Edwards, and modern clergymen, all seem to have the same genes. Walking encyclopedias may still live in the dark ages. By the time I have absorbed the 13 volumes, I shall probably release my pew in the church, and break loose from the pious bloodthirsty cruel soul savers.”...........

Dr. Halsted was at High Hampton at the onset of his terminal illness. He had undergone gallbladder surgery in 1919, but in the summer of 1922, the characteristic symptoms and marked jaundice recurred. He returned to Baltimore where he was operated upon again, and in fact, residual stones were found in his common duct. These were removed, but he died postoperatively on September 7, 1922, basically due to bacterial infection which now would be no problem whatsoever.