John Benjamin Murphy, MD, LLD, MSc, served as professor of surgery at Northwestern from 1901 to 1905. Following a brief hiatus at the University of Illinois College of Medicine, he returned to Northwestern in 1908. He was chief of surgery at Mercy Hospital, Northwestern’s first teaching hospital, from 1895 until his death in 1916.
Born in a log cabin near Appleton, Wisconsin, in 1857, Dr. Murphy attended a country grade school. The Murphy family physician, Dr. H.W. Reilly, became one of the young boy’s heroes, as well as much later, his preceptor in medicine. After completing his anatomical and physiological studies under Dr. Reilly’s guidance, Dr. Murphy entered Rush Medical College in 1877 and graduated in 1879. Following an internship at Cook County Hospital, he became an associate of Dr. Edward W. Lee in private practice.
A new era of medicine arrived from Europe in the mid-19th century, with the discoveries of Robert Koch, Louis Pasteur and the germ theory. Under the tutelage of Dr. Christian Fenger and his pathology studies, Dr. Murphy was eager to learn more. In September 1882, he traveled to Europe to study. He returned to Chicago in the spring of 1884 and re-joined Dr. Lee.
On May 4, 1886, the great Haymarket Riot erupted in Chicago, and Dr. Murphy was called to help with emergency cases at Cook County Hospital. As a result of this event, he received considerable publicity, and the press mentioned his name daily.
Dr. Murphy’s interest in surgery was piqued when he encountered a patient. Admitted with a fractured limb, the individual was also suffering pain in the right lower abdomen. Dr. Murphy recognized the symptoms of acute appendicitis and quickly removed the diseased organ. Standard practice of the day recommended waiting for rupture. He delivered a paper before the Chicago Medical Society advocating early operation and holding the profession responsible if they failed to do so. His strong statements were critically received. This bold approach exemplified Dr. Murphy’s colorful, controversial and creative personality.
No one more brilliantly embodied the role of the general surgeon than Dr. Murphy. In addition to the familiar operations in general surgery, such as appendicitis, appendiceal abscess, cholecystostomy, intestinal obstruction, mastectomy and others, he described and performed innovative procedures in neurosurgery, orthopaedics, gynecology, urology, plastic surgery, thoracic surgery and vascular surgery. He is given credit for the first successful arterial anastomosis in a case of a bullet wound to the femoral artery. Away from general surgery, Dr. Murphy pioneered his own techniques of neurorrhaphy, arthroplasty, prostatectomy, nephrectomy, hysterectomy, bone grafting, thoracoplasty and other procedures. Dr. Murphy’s staff transcribed his legendary texts, Surgical Clinics of John B. Murphy, as he lectured during surgery.
His relationships with colleagues and peers ranged from acrimony to exalted accolades. Early in his career, he was refused membership in the Chicago Medical Society and the American Surgical Association because of his bold personal style. Later in his career, he became President of the Chicago Medical Society, President of the American Medical Association and a belated member of the American Surgical Association. He was a proponent in the founding of the American College of Surgeons in 1913.
With Northwestern notables E. Wyllys Andrews, MD (1881), Franklin Martin, MD (1880), Allen Kanavel, MD (1899) and Nicholas Senn, MD (1868), he founded the publication Surgery, Gynecology and Obstetrics, the predecessor of the Journal of the American College of Surgeons.
In the summer of 1916, he sought relief with a trip to Mackinac Island in Michigan to escape from the Chicago heat, recurrent attacks of angina pectoris and increasing debility. Three days after his arrival, he died at the age of 59, succumbing to coronary artery disease.
Few of Dr. Murphy’s original surgical techniques have stood the test of time, but that does not diminish his luminary role on the American surgical scene of his day. His intellect brimmed over with new ideas, few of which would have withstood the scrutiny of a present-day institutional review board or a clinical trial.
- Dr. Karl Bilimoria (“Measure by Measure” in Winter 2015-16) was invested as the John Benjamin Murphy Professor of Surgery in December 2015.
- The John B. Murphy Memorial Auditorium was built at 50 E. Erie in Chicago on the property of the American College of Surgeons (“ACS”), with the agreement that the ACS would maintain the building as a memorial to Dr. Murphy. The Auditorium was designed to host ACS meetings and serve as a center for education in surgery. Learn more at: http://www.the-murphy.com/about.html.