THE LEAST PART OF THE WORK
A love story between a surgeon, his patients,
and the rest of us.
A Surgical History Podcast brought to you by SurgicalFiction.com.
In August 1923, President Calvin Coolidge’s son died of blood poisoning from a blister after playing tennis. That a president’s son could die of such a mundane illness shows the poor level of healthcare available at the time.
In the beginning of the 1920’s, the most advanced diagnostic test available was a plain xray—a dark, indistinct image not unlike looking through a fogged window at night. Indeed, the entire knowledge of x-rays was less than 20 years old.
Except for picking out bacteria on a slide, there were no commonly used blood tests. Though the cause of infection was well known, there were no effective treatments against infectious disease. Penicillin was two decades in the future. Surgery had left the era of carbolic acid sprays and washes just a generation before. The vaunted age of asepsis was in its infancy. A few surgeons still operated in their bare hands.
Blood typing was unknown. The concept of shock—the body’s stereotypic stress reaction to excessive blood loss, was known, but its application was hit or miss. If a patient lost blood in surgery, there was no replacing it. If he lost too much blood, there was no replacing him.
The practice of anesthesia was not scientific or even calibrated. A few drops of ether could make a patient sleep—a few too many drops and he’d sleep forever. The task of sleeping a patient was usually left to whoever might be available—regardless of knowledge or training. Sometimes it was the surgeon himself both passing the ether and wielding the knife. Vitals were monitored haphazardly. Death under anesthesia was a very real occurrence.
In this fraught world of early 20th century medical madness, a few men stood apart and endured heaven and hell to usher in modern surgery. One such man was Harvey Cushing, and he was a surgeon. A brain surgeon. The world’s first.
These are his patients.
The suffering is theirs.
The empathy is his.
The benefit is ours.
“I would like to see the day when somebody would be appointed surgeon somewhere who had no hands, for the operative part is the least part of the work.” Dr. Harvey Cushing, 1911
- Case 1784 — Hank
Episode 1 By 1914, when the drama here played out for real, Harvey Cushing had already done a great deal of work on the pituitary gland and its functions. He was the first to discover it’s capacity as the ‘master gland of the body.’ Also, the fact that it controls growth. One of the more …
THE LEAST PART OF THE WORK — A Love Story Between A Surgeon, His Patients, & The Rest Of Us is a nonfiction surgical history podcast centered around the pioneering work the world’s first brain surgeon during the early years of the 20th century. It’s about resilience in the face of adversity, about terrible suffering, and about one man’s singular ability to see the forest through the trees—one patient at a time.