From 1880 to 2020... Learn about the history of the Department of Surgery at the KU School of Medicine.
A Department is born (1880-1905)
Kansas entered the Union as the nation's 34th state in 1861. The drive to found a public university in Kansas had begun almost as soon as the area received territorial status under the terms of the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act. The University of Kansas was established in 1866 with Professor David H. Robinson as one of its three original faculty members. His son would years later become a founding member of the Department of Surgery.
The School of Medicine began in 1880as a one-year course on the Lawrence, KS campus. While important academic and scientific contributions were being made at the Lawrence campus, in 1894, Dr. Simeon Bishop Bell (1820-1913), began his attempts to donate land and money for the creation of a full-fledged medical school and a teaching hospital in Wyandotte County, KS. Built for $25,000 and housing 35 patient beds, the first Bell Memorial Hospital opened in 1906 on "Goat Hill" in Rosedale, KS (less than one mile north of the present-day KU Medical Center location).
A four-year School of Medicine was established in 1905by merging KU's preparatory program with three Kansas City proprietary medical colleges. KU's Chancellor Frank Strong negotiated the merger, predicting it would become "the best medical school between Chicago and San Francisco." The new school benefited from a truly exceptional surgical faculty.
Trained at some of the best schools and hospitals, the Department of Surgery founding surgeons lent their well-earned reputations to the new School of Medicine at its most critical developmental stage. Whether measured by clinical expertise, teaching acumen, scholarly renown, or public service, eight surgeons stand out. Drs. Binnie, Gray, Robinson, Schauffler, and Sudler were founding members present at the school's creation in 1905. Drs. Hertzler and Sutton joined the surgical faculty in 1909, Dr. Fitzsimons in 1915.
Dr. Robert McEwen Schauffler (1871-1958) recognized that proprietary schools would not endure, and that "only universities could maintain a medical school." As point man for the Kansas City Medical College, he successfully negotiated with Chancellor Strong to bring about the merger that established the new School of Medicine.
Dr. George Morris Gray (1856-1958) "Regarded as...one of the greatest...surgeons of the West," operated "possibly the largest surgical practice ever had in this community." A founder of the Medico-Chirurgical College, he migrated to the new School of Medicine, where he remained as professor of surgery for 25 years. He "taught more by precept than by word of mouth" and his work was "always characterized by his interest in his fellow man, never placing his personal gain above that of the patient."
Dr. Ernest Franklin Robinson (1872-1945), the son of one of KU's three original faculty members and a highly respected surgeon, lent his considerable reputation to the new school after three years of service in the Spanish-American War as US Army Surgeon.
Dr. John Fairbairn Binnie (1863-1936), the first Chairman of the Department of Surgery had an international reputation that few could match. Beyond his academic work and 30 years as a practicing surgeon in Kansas City, Dr. Binnie served as chief consulting surgeon of all American military hospital facilities in France during World War I. Of his war service, his friend and fellow surgeon Dr. William J. Mayo said, "he went to the front with magnificent courage, [with] that tact and tolerance one would expect from him. The result...has been our greater knowledge of war surgery." Dr. Binnie's popular and influential textbook Operative Surgery Manual "put Kansas City on the map of surgical literature," according to Dr. Mayo. It had "no equal" as a medical treatise and contributed greatly to the development of a world-class "American School of Surgery".
Dr. Mervin T. Sudler (1879-1956) was named Dean of the Scientific Department in 1905 and effectively ran the School of Medicine until 1921 when he was officially named Dean of the School. Dr.Sudler played a key role in the development of the new school and surgery department, recruiting four fellow Hopkins alumni so that by the early 1920s, the KU School of Medicine could boast of having five Johns Hopkins University alumni on its faculty.
Into the 20th Century (1905-1924)
Outpatient facilities and a teaching/research laboratory were built on "Goat Hill" alongside the first Bell Memorial Hospital, followed by a second, larger (65-bed) Bell Memorial Hospital which opened in 1911 (the original facility was reconfigured as The Training School for Nurses).
Dr. Arthur Emanuel Hertzler (1870-1946), a surgeon, scientist, philosopher, philanthropist, and perhaps the most famous early faculty member urged his students to correlate clinical observations with well-designed laboratory investigations. A "tall Lincolnesque-type with a devastating tongue," he often aimed his sarcasm at the American College of Surgeons, referring to its administrators as "self-appointed slummers..." Dr. Hertzler was one of the most prolific surgeon-authors of his time, and is perhaps best known for his autobiographical classic, Horse and Buggy Doctor, published in 1938.
Dr. Walter Stanborough Sutton (1877-1916), a surgeon, scientist, engineer, and inventor, is best known for his 1902 landmark publication, in which he stated the first clear argument for the chromosome theory of heredity. Dr. Sutton served as surgeon-in-chief of the American Ambulance Hospital in France during WW I. After the war, Dr. Sutton resumed his surgical and teaching activities at KU, where he sadly died at the young age of 39 from a ruptured appendix, a subject he had studied and written about.
Dr. William Thomas Fitzsimons (1889-1917), a native Kansan, KU alum, and Department of Surgery faculty member, was killed by a German air raid on his hospital unit in France, becoming the first American casualty of WW I. To honor his memory, Hospital No. 21 in Aurora, CO was renamed Fitzsimons Army General Hospital.
The Modern Era (1924-1949)
By the early 1920s, the School of Medicine had clearly outgrown the "Goat Hill" campus. A new campus was built at 39th and Rainbow Boulevard, less than a mile south of "Goat Hill. The third Bell Memorial Hospital, completed in 1924, was built as the architectural centerpiece of the school's new campus. It cost $235,000 and housed 120 patient beds.
Dr. Thomas Grover Orr (1884-1955) faculty member for four decades and Chairman for 25 years (1924-1949) led the Department of Surgery into the modern era. A founder of the American Board of Surgery and president of both the American Surgical Association and the Southwest Surgical Congress, Dr. Orr is considered one of the first true clinical investigators in the United States. He authored more than 200 scientific papers, operative manuals and surgical texts. His Modern Methods of Amputation (1924) remains a classic, and his Operations of General Surgery (1944) became the standard surgical text of the time. Dr. Orr performed the first pancreato-duodenectomy at KU (the 15th reported) soon after Dr. Whipple's original report. By 1944 Dr. Orr had reported on 104 Whipple procedures and set the precedent for the Department of Surgery's legacy of interest and excellence in pancreatic surgery. Dr. Orr appointed the first general surgery resident in 1931. By the time he stepped down as chair, he had trained 27 residents, including Dr. C. Frederick Kittle, who performed the first open-heart surgical procedure at KU, and Dr. David Weaver Robinson (1914-2003), who founded the KU Burn Center and served as Chief of Staff and Vice-Chancellor for Clinical Affairs. He was the nephew of Dr. E. F. Robinson and the Medical Center's Robinson Building is named after him.
A volunteer contingent from the KU School of Medicine formed the core of the US Army's 77th Evacuation Hospital Unit during World War II. The 77th provided frontline treatment for tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians in the North African and European Theaters (1942-45), including at the Battle of the Bulge. Dr. James Branson Weaver, KU alum and Department of Surgery faculty, led the 77th Evacuation Hospital's surgical section.
Into the 21st Century (1949-present)
Pioneering surgeons continued to lead and innovate during the second half of the 20th century as the Department and the School expanded.
Dr. Paul William Schafer (1915-) (Chairman 1949-1954) was a tireless innovator with clinical and research interests in cardiac, thoracic, and oncologic surgery. A pioneer in the use of television in education, he led KU to become the first institution in the world to regularly employ the new medium in medical and surgical education.
Dr. Creighton Alves Hardin (1918-2003), often described as "fearless in the operating room," carried out several innovative surgical "firsts" during his 40 years at KU. In 1951, he used a human homograft to perform the first abdominal aortic aneurysm resection in the world. Always inventive, he sewed arterial replacement tubes for laboratory studies from nylon material bought at J.C. Penney's. In 1958, he performed the first kidney transplant in the Midwest. In 1970, he co-authored the state's statutory definition of brain death and Kansas became the first state to pass legislation guiding organ transplantation. Dr. Hardin once fashioned a Lucite prosthesis to replace a patient's absent diaphragm, and in 1971 became the first surgeon in the world to re-attach a severed upper arm with return of function.
Dr. Frank F. Allbritten, Jr. (1914-2005), Department of Surgery Chairman for 17 years (1954-1971), is perhaps best known for the left ventricular vent that bears his name, which he developed during the early days of open-heart surgery. In addition to cardiac surgery, he made significant contributions to pulmonary, esophageal and oncologic surgery and trained a generation of surgical residents.
Dr. Stanley Richard Friesen (1918-2008), a KU alum, Chairman (1971-1972) and faculty member for 39 years, was a meticulous surgeon and methodical investigator best known for his contributions to endocrine surgery. He was first to elucidate the pathogenesis of congenital pyloric stenosis and to describe clinical applications for pancreatic polypeptide (a hormone discovered at KU).
The fourth Bell Memorial Hospital opened in 1979. The 850,000 sq. ft. facility (at the time the largest building project in Kansas history) doubled the size of the medical campus. Several surgical specialties thrived within the Department of Surgery and over time became outstanding independent Departments within the School of Medicine including the Departments of Orthopedic Surgery, Urology, Neurosurgery, and Plastic Surgery.
While the horse-and-buggy era has long since passed, the selfless dedication and professionalism practiced by our founding pioneer surgeons have never changed. The members of the Department of Surgery continue to embody these principles in the 21st century, as they strive for excellence while delivering compassionate and innovative surgical care at the University of Kansas.