History Blog

Surgery Pioneer Forged Bold Legacy

by Ron Sims

John Benjamin Murphy, MD

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 lecturing in the surgery clinic at Mercy Hospital, ca.1902

Dr. Murphy lecturing in the surgery clinic at Mercy Hospital, ca.1902

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.

(L to R) Dr. Lee, Dr. Shirk and Dr. Murphy head to the office.

Dr. Murphy (right) and colleagues head to the office.

John B. Murphy Memorial Auditorium

John B. Murphy Memorial Auditorium

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.
Plaque on the Murphy Auditorium building.

Plaque on the Murphy Auditorium building.

Advancing Cardiac Care at the Turn of the Century

Newell Clark Gilbert (1880-1953) received his medical degree from Northwestern University in 1907. Following his internship at St. Luke’s Hospital, Dr. Gilbert began teaching at Northwestern’s dispensary almost immediately, an activity he continued his entire life, except for a period of service in the Medical Corps of the Army during World War I. Simultaneously, he worked as a general practitioner in Chicago Heights, for the first seven years of his teaching career.

Gilbert portrait- historyblog_170bHe was appointed to the staff of St. Luke’s Hospital in 1916 and promptly began the expansion of the Social Service and Outpatient Departments. With the cooperation of the women’s board of the hospital, he acquired one of the first electrocardiographs in Chicago. For years, he operated the Electrocardiograph Department almost single-handedly.

In June 1921, a group of physicians, including Dr. Gilbert, met to discuss the formation of a heart association in Chicago. In May 1922, the Association for the Prevention and Relief of Heart Disease was launched. At the first meeting of the Board of Governors, Dr. Gilbert was chosen chair of the executive committee, a position he held until 1928. He served as president of the organization, which became the Chicago Heart Association, from 1935 until 1940. He served continuously on the executive committee until 1951, at which time he was transferred to the Honorary Board of Governors,

In addition to his work in cardiology, he was one of the organizers of the Central Society for Clinical Research and served as a president of the Chicago Society of Internal Medicine. He was president of the Medical Board from 1935 to 1937 and then served as chairman of its Executive Committee from 1937 to 1944.

He was also Editor-in-Chief of the Archives of Internal Medicine for eighteen years, beginning in 1932. He was known as an efficient editor, ruthless in his rejection of long, meaningless articles but ready to give space to an unknown author when he recognized a spark of ingenuity or promise.

In spite of his many other obligations, he retained a passion for teaching. In 1939, after he had attained the rank of Professor of Medicine, he was chosen as chair of the Department of Medicine at Northwestern, a post that he occupied until his retirement in August 1950.

He continued to participate in public health issues, even after retirement. At the time of his death, he was a member of the mayor’s committee for the reorganization of the Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium.

Beyond these appointments, one of Dr. Clark’s greatest contributions to medicine was his encouragement and mentorship of those looking to enter the profession. His infectious enthusiasm, strong beliefs and principles, and reputation as an outstanding clinician and clinical investigator attracted a large group of young internists, surgeons, physiologists and laboratory technicians who adopted many of his methodologies.

William Heath Byford: A Medical School Founder

In recognition of the start of the new academic year at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, which officially launches with the celebration of Founders’ Day in mid-August, we share a series of biographies of our school’s founders.

Dr. William H. Byford

Dr. William H. Byford


William Heath Byford (1817-1890) was a pioneer in the medical education of women and was one of the organizers of the Woman’s Hospital Medical College, later Northwestern University Woman’s Medical School.

Dr. Byford was almost wholly self-educated. He attended school for three or four years, until the death of his father forced him, at nine years old, to abandon education and enter the working world to support his mother and two older siblings. Then, at the age of eighteen, he determined that he wanted to become a physician and began studying under Dr. Joseph Maddox. He soon passed the Indiana State Medical Board examination and was admitted to practice in August 1838. Shortly thereafter, he moved to Mount Vernon and ran a prominent surgical practice for a decade. During this time, he studied medicine and graduated from the Ohio Medical College.
In 1850, he was called to chair the anatomy department at the Evansville Medical College in Indiana; he stayed at Evansville until the institution closed in 1856. Dr. Byford continued to practice medicine in Evansville until he was called to chair the Department of Obstetrics and Diseases of Women at Rush Medical College in 1857. He also was elected vice president of the American Medical Association that year. Two years later he became one of the founders of the Chicago Medical College, where he worked for 20 years. Then in 1879, he returned to Rush Medical College to become the first chair of the Department of Gynecology, a position created specifically for him.
During his 50-plus years of practice, Dr. Byford dedicated himself to the work of alleviating the physical sufferings of women. He was one of the founders of the Woman’s Hospital Medical College of Chicago in 1870, which later became the Woman’s Medical College, then later Northwestern University Woman’s Medical School, to which he made many significant financial donations. He was president of the faculty from the time of the school’s founding in 1870 until his death in 1890.
In 1876, a number of the eminent physicians of the country organized the American Gynecological Society, Dr. Byford being prominently identified with the movement. He was elected one of the first vice presidents, and in 1881 was made president. In 1875, when the Medical Press Association of Chicago was organized, and the two medical journals then published in the city under the titles of Medical Journal and Medical Examiner were consolidated under the name Chicago Medical Journal and Examiner, Dr. Byford was a prominent mover in the enterprise, and for three years was editor-in-chief of that publication.
He was a prolific writer, primarily on obstetrics and gynecology, and his first paper in 1847 was on caesarean section. He wrote the notable textbook, Practice of Medicine and Surgery Applied to the Diseases and Accidents Incident to Women (1865).

Edmund Andrews, a Medical School Founder

Andrews, Edmund 1887In recognition of the start of the new academic year at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, which officially launches with the celebration of Founders’ Day in mid-August, we share a series of biographies of our school’s founders.

Edmund Andrews (1824-1904) was born in Putney, Vermont. Although as a youth he worked on his father’s farm to help support his family, his first priority was to excel in school. He studied diligently to gain admittance to the sophomore class of the University of Michigan in 1846. After receiving his bachelor’s degree, he entered the Medical Department of the University of Michigan as part of its first class. Immediately after receiving his medical degree in 1852, Dr. Andrews became a demonstrator of anatomy, and then a year later was made professor of comparative anatomy at his alma mater.

In 1855, he was appointed demonstrator of anatomy in Rush Medical College, but resigned after one year and devoted himself to medical practice. Soon after his arrival in Chicago he aided in founding the Chicago Academy of Science, and was its first president, serving several times in this capacity. A short time after this, in connection with Dr. Horace Wardner, he helped established a charity dispensary and a private dissecting room, where he taught a class in anatomy.
During his time at the University of Michigan, Dr. Andrews had published several essays in medical periodicals, in which he advocated a graded system of medical teaching and a significant measure of scholarship as a requirement for admission to medical school. These scholarly interests led him to become one of the founders of the Chicago Medical College, which was the first medical college in the United States to adopt the graded system. He was the college’s first professor of surgery, and continued in this position actively or emeritus until his death. He later became chief surgeon at Mercy Hospital, Northwestern’s first teaching hospital, then was a trustee of Northwestern University for a number of years.
Dr. Andrews also served as a major and surgeon-in-chief of Camp Douglas in Chicago during the early years of the Civil War. During his military service, he was the first to keep systematic records of Army cases of disease and injury. These efforts were published in the Chicago Medical Examiner from 1862-1865. His reports to the Surgeon General were used as the basis on which the records of that office have since been kept.
As a surgeon, Dr. Andrews was always in the forefront of progress. He originated a number of orthopaedic appliances and other instruments that contributed to the growth and precision of the mechanics of surgery. He was the first in Chicago to employ Lister’s antiseptic methods and was also a pioneer in surgical anesthesia. His use of oxygen combined with nitrous oxide in anesthesia brought attention to the value of oxygen and initiated a new field in therapy.
A man of many interests, Dr. Andrews was also a geologist of repute, and his work on the early glacial history of North America has been frequently cited. His papers on geologic subjects were published in the Proceedings and Transactions of the Chicago Academy of Science. His work, The Early Glacial History of North America was a widely used textbook.
As a teacher of surgery, Dr. Andrews was profoundly respected. He was not a fluent or graceful speaker, but he was known for his earnestness in discussion and amiable, patient nature. Modest in demeanor, he was generally regarded as one of the most learned members of his profession.
NOTABLE FACT: In addition to surgical achievements, Dr. Andrews contributed largely to medical literature – he collected and published statistics of 92,815 cases of ether anesthesia and 117,078 cases of chloroform anesthesia, showing the relative risk in the use of these two agents.

Nathan Smith Davis, A Medical School Founder

In recognition of the start of the new academic year at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, which officially launches with the celebration of Founders’ Day in mid-August, we share a series of biographies of our school’s founders.


NSDavis.jpegBelieving that more rigorous education and training, with exacting standards and a longer course of study, was needed for those aspiring to become physicians, Dr. Nathan Smith Davis and five like-minded colleagues developed a more challenging curriculum in the new medical department at Lind University in Chicago. Although Lind was short-lived, the medical department survived as Chicago Medical College and today is called Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.


Nathan Smith Davis was born in Chenango County, New York, in 1817, where he lived and worked on a farm until he was 16 years old. At the age of 17 he began the study of medicine under Dr. Daniel Clark. Soon after he graduated from the College of Physicians and Surgeons of the Western District of New York with a thesis on animal temperament. He later began practicing medicine in New York City.
In 1841 he was awarded the prize from the Medical Society of the State of New York for his analyses of then-recent discoveries of the physiology of the nervous system. He was later awarded a prize from the State Agricultural Society of New York for his textbook on agricultural chemistry. He was an active member of the Broome County Medical Society, and he served as secretary and librarian of the society for three consecutive years. In 1845, his report as the chairman of the Society’s Committee on Correspondence relative to Medical Education and Examination led to the organization of the American Medical Association.
His first work as a teacher was lecturer and demonstrator of anatomy at his alma mater in 1848. The next year he moved to Chicago and accepted a position as chair of physiology and pathology at Rush Medical College. A year later he took on the additional position as chair of the practice of medicine.
Soon after he arrived in Chicago, there was a cholera epidemic. Dr. Davis found that the public drinking water was polluted by sewage. He immediately delivered a number of lectures, which resulted in city sewer reconstruction and, eventually, the founding of Mercy Hospital. Mercy Hospital was originally the Illinois General Hospital of the Lakes (est. 1850 by Dr. Davis). In 1852, the Sisters of Mercy began operating the hospital renamed Mercy Hospital, in agreement with Dr. Davis who used the institution as a teaching hospital for Rush Medical College students.
In 1858 Davis left Rush to form a new medical school, the Medical Department of Lind University, also in Chicago. In 1862 the medical school became the Chicago Medical College, and in 1892 it became the Northwestern University Medical School. It was at this new institution that he worked for more than 40 years as dean and professor of principles and practice of medicine.
He was also one of the prime members of the Chicago Medical Society and the Illinois State Medical Society. For 12 years he was secretary of the Chicago Medical Society, and in 1855 served as its president.
In the mid-1800′s, he became the editor of the Chicago medical journal, and five years later the Medical examiner, remaining with these journals for 20 years. The two journals merged in 1876, becoming the Chicago medical examiner and journal.
NOTABLE FACT: It was chiefly through his efforts that the Journal of the American Medical Association was established in 1883. He was the journal’s first editor, and he continued in that role for six years.