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New York City at the Dawn of Neurosurgery

Picture of New York City skyline and Empire State Building at dawn.

New York City has been at the forefront of neurological surgery since the very beginning. The city was home to the first attempt at brain tumor surgery in the United States, the first textbook on neurosurgery and the first hospital dedicated to neurological diseases.

Dr. Robert Solomon tells us this story in an article for the Journal of Neurological Surgery called “New York City at the Dawn of Neurosurgery.”

The first brain tumor surgery in the U.S. was performed in New York in 1887 by Dr. Robert Weir, a general surgeon at New York Hospital. This first surgery was daring, and it was only able to be attempted because of two recent medical developments, Dr. Solomon says.

The first development was the discovery that the brain is not a single organ, rather, different parts of it control different sensory and motor functions. The second development was the discovery that antiseptics could be used to prevent infection during surgery.

Armed with this information, Dr. Weir and his colleagues were hopeful they could successfully remove a brain tumor. “By modern standards the procedure was a disaster,” says Dr. Solomon. “Nonetheless, it was this pioneering effort that gave rise to the first successful brain tumor removal later that year.”

One of Dr. Weir’s colleagues in these early operations was Dr. Moses Allen Starr, a professor of neurology at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. Dr. Starr argued that “one of the functions of the neurologist is to superintend and direct operative procedures on the brain and spinal cord by surgeons.” He wrote a book, Brain Surgery, in which he described case studies of patients with neurological diseases who were successfully operated on.

Dr. Solomon calls this book the first real textbook of modern neurosurgery, because it was the first book that showed the potential for surgery to treat brain tumors.

Meanwhile, a group of physicians at nearby Mt. Sinai Hospital, including a Dr. Charles Elsberg, were also excited about the new developments in neurological surgery. They realized that neurologists were going to need specialized training, and that patients with neurological diseases would need specialized care.

So in 1909 they founded the Neurological Institute of New York, the first hospital in North America devoted entirely to the care of patients with neurological diseases, and the same Institute that exists today and houses Columbia’s Department of Neurosurgery.

Dr. Solomon says the doctors didn’t have much in the way of funding, and the building they were able to rent on East 67th Street wasn’t well suited for their needs. Even so, just four weeks after moving in, Dr. Elsberg performed one of the world’s first successful operations to remove a tumor from the spinal cord. (Read our post about that here.) The Neurological Institute went on to found the first department of neurological surgery in New York, and Dr. Elsberg served as its first Chairman.

Meanwhile, also in New York, Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons merged with Presbyterian Hospital in New York City. Together they created the first academic medical center in the United States.

According to Dr. Solomon “the Institute realized that it had to be part of a major medical center,” and so the Neurological Institute joined them and opened its new hospital in 1928 at the same site it still sits on today. Today this site houses our current Department of Neurosurgery, where Dr. Solomon serves as Chairman.

So when you come to Columbia University Medical Center/NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital for neurosurgical treatment, you’re getting a standard of excellence that goes back to the very beginnings of neurosurgery locally, nationally, and globally.

Read the abstract here.

Learn more about Dr. Solomon at his bio page here.

Image credit: © Sam valadi/flickr

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