Addicted to Drugs, Yet the Greatest American Surgeon Ever

Addicted to Drugs, Yet the Greatest American Surgeon Ever

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Halsted William Stewart-surgeon pioneerThe most renown American surgeon was born 160 years ago today on September 22, 1852. A new film documents the work of the medical genius, who also had a secret life that made his story all the more remarkable.

Surgery in the mid-19th Century consisted of crude and hurried amputations conducted in filthy operating rooms, often followed by horrendous infection. We can thank William Stewart Halsted, the pioneering father of American surgery, for bringing America into the era of safe surgery: sterile procedures, surgical gloves, careful handling of tissues, and local anesthesia.

It was Halsted who introduced a scientific approach to medicine. He also pioneered several new operations, including the radical mastectomy for breast cancer.

But one early set of experiments nearly ended his life and career. The brilliant experiments succeeded, but at a terrible price.

He experimented on himself using a new drug, cocaine, as a local anesthetic and fell prey to an addiction from which he would never escape, even though he continued to work in the surgical field for decades.

Halsted was checked into a sanitorium in 1886 where he was treated for eight months with morphine to try to cure the addiction. Shortly afterward, his friend and colleague William Welch gave him a second chance at the newly established Johns Hopkins Hospital, where Halsted went on to become the first chairman of surgery. (Before his addiction, he had already become an innovator: In 1882 he performed one of the first gallbladder operations in the United States; he developed a bedside patient chart for recording vital signs; he also performed one of the first blood transfusions in the U.S., after arriving at his sister’s home following a difficult childbirth when he withdrew his own blood, transfused it into her lifeless body, saving her life.)

The amazing part of his story is that the majority of Halsted’s stunning list of accomplishments was achieved while under the influence of cocaine or morphine. He could still perform his job superbly.

A documentary produced this year by Johns Hopkins, and presented on PBS stations, tells the remarkable story of this medical giant who brought the United States into the age of modern medicine, all the while, struggling with a secret addiction.

WATCH the video trailer below – LEARN more, including screening times on PBS, at