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Neurosurgery at the U: 75 years young

Neurosurgeon Shelley Chou, M.D. (right), tested a hand-built brain scanning device in 1952. (Photo: University of Minnesota Archives)

In July 1937, neurosurgery separated from general surgery

Seventy-five years ago, physicians couldn’t rely on a CT or MRI scan to help diagnose and treat brain and nervous system diseases. Surgery often focused on immediate, practical needs, and the technology was crude. Even then, however, the diagnostic and surgical skills required for neurologic diseases differed drastically from those of general surgery.

“It became increasingly difficult for general surgeons and neurosurgeons to cover for each other and provide each other the disciplinary support they needed,” explains Stephen Haines, M.D., head of the Department of Neurosurgery at the University of Minnesota today and holder of the Lyle A. French Chair in Neurosurgery.

Recognizing the increasing specialization, Owen H. Wangensteen, M.D., Ph.D., who led the University’s Surgery Department, appointed William (Bill) Peyton, M.D., Ph.D., to direct a new Division of Neurosurgery in July 1937. Renowned as a skillful surgeon and thoughtful teacher, Peyton guided the division until 1960. He emphasized excellence in both clinical training and research, a focus that continues to this day.

One of the division’s first major achievements was using radioactive isotopes to locate brain tumors. When Shelley Chou, M.D., began his neurosurgery training in 1950, he continued this work. A somewhat infamous photo shows him with an early, improvised brain scanning device. “It really looks like a 1950s mad scientist movie,” Haines comments.

Chou joined the department faculty in 1960 and performed some of the earliest complex spinal reconstructive surgeries.

Longtime faculty member Lyle A. French, M.D., Ph.D., took over the Neurosurgery Division in 1960 and continued to promote both clinical and research activities. He introduced the use of dexamethasone, a steroid drug, to relieve swelling of the brain—a treatment that’s still used today.

The division officially became its own Medical School department in 1968. When French was appointed vice president of health sciences for the University in 1970, Chou stepped in as head of the department, a position he held until 1989. French, in his new role, established the Neurosurgery Research Labs.

“We still have active research laboratories,” Haines notes. “Neurosurgery, despite being 75 years old in Minnesota and more than 100 years old in the United States, is still a young frontier specialty.”

Research priorities in the department today include stem cell-aided recovery from stroke and spinal cord injury, immunotherapy and vaccine therapy for brain tumors, and deep brain stimulation. Haines expects the next 75 years to bring as many changes as the previous 75 brought, as neurosurgery evolves into a practice of restoring and modifying function.

“The provision of excellent neurosurgical care for the people of Minnesota drives us,” he says. “Excellent clinical care, training the next generation of neurosurgeons, and moving the field forward with research continue to be why we’re here.”

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