Popular Science Monthly/Volume 45/July 1894/Death of Professor Billroth

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search


PROF. CHRISTIAN THEODOR ALBERT BILLROTH, one of the most eminent surgeons of the century, died at the Austrian winter resort Abbazia, on the Adriatic, February 6, 1894, in the sixty-fifth year of his age. He was born at Bergen, on the island of Rügen, the son of a Swedish Lutheran pastor, April 20, 1839; began the study of medicine in 1848 at Greifswald, in Pomerania, and, having continued his course at Göttingen and Berlin, was graduated in medicine from the latter university in 1852. He then traveled, after the manner of German professional students, visiting the schools of Paris and Vienna; served for several years as an assistant in the clinic of Prof, von Langenbeck, in Berlin; qualified as Privat Docent in the University of Berlin in 1856; became Professor of Surgery at Zurich in 1858, and in 1867 at Vienna, where he spent the rest of his professional life. He was made a member of the Austrian Chamber of Peers in 1887.

The beginning of his career as a professor in the University of Zurich was very modest. He had only ten pupils during his first semester, and his private practice, he was accustomed to say, was not enough "to pay for his morning cup of coffee." His reputation, however, quickly grew; students flocked to his lectures; and with the co-operation of eminent colleagues, notably Griesinger, the British Medical Journal says, he in a few years raised the Medical Faculty of Zurich to a prominent place among German-speaking schools. His clinic in Vienna, the same journal observes, has been for more than twenty six years "a kind of surgical Mecca to which scientific pilgrims from all parts of the world have resorted in constantly increasing numbers. . . . Here his operative triumphs were won. He excised the larynx for cancer in 1868; performed resection of the œsophagus; and first resected the stomach in 1881 for removing cancer of the pylorus. During the Franco-German War of 1870-71 he served in the military hospitals at Mannheim and Weissenburg, and obtained there so close and realizing views of the horrors of war that he was afterward one of the most earnest and persistent advocates of peace. His experience there also bore fruit in an address which he delivered in December, 1801, on the care of the wounded in war, which led to a large appropriation by the Austrian Chambers for the provision of adequate means of succor for the wounded; and great improvements have been made in the transport of the wounded and in ambulance service generally. He was the founder of the Rudolphi, a school for hospital nurses, and projected a model hospital in Vienna, made up of separate and isolated dwellings.

Prof. Billroth's literary activity is pronounced immense. He was the author of about one hundred and forty books and papers. Among the more important of them are the Deutsche Chirurgical, which he prepared in connection with Lucked; the Text-Book of General and Special Surgery of Billroth and Von Pit ha, published in 1883, to which he contributed the section on Scrofulous and Tuberculosis, Injuries and Diseases of the Breast, Instruments and Operations, Frostbites, etc.; Nursing at Home and in Hospital; General Surgical Pathology and Therapeutics, which has been translated into nine languages; Clinical Surgery, or Reports of Surgical Practice between the Years 1860 and 1876, which was translated for the Sydenham Society, London, in 1881; Surgical Letters from Mannheim and Weissenburg, recording the results of his experiences and observations in military surgery; and his papers on the management of gunshot wounds and on the transportation of the wounded.

As an operator. Sir William MacCormac says of him that "his knowledge and boldness were only equaled by his brilliant execution and skill; and what he did and his reasons for doing it were explained to his overflowing class with a rare talent for exposition." Mr. Clinton Dent, the translator of his Clinical Surgery, credits him with uniting the two qualities of ingenuity and boldness in devising operations with the manipulative skill, decision, and tact required to carry them out. "Yet it was always the guiding intellect rather than the manual dexterity which impressed itself on the spectator. Truth to say, in actual performance of an important operation Billroth showed no marked superiority over his fellow-surgeons. He avoided any show of brilliancy or flourish, went steadily to work, erred, if at all, on the side of slowness, and was neither more nor less discomposed by any complication or untoward event than any one else. The finish of his operative work was rather the result of his immense experience than of any remarkable aptitude. . . . From first to last he was never a specialist, and his operative experience was singularly varied."

Dr. A. Wölfler, of Gratz, one of his most famous pupils, thinks that the chief power of his fame was not so much in his actual inventions in surgery as in the larger and more general ideas in medicine and surgery which he suggested. In the days when bacteriology was still groping in the dark—twenty years ago—he made successful investigations of a bacterium of wounds which he called streptococcus. In another direction he established and gave effect to general principles in nursing. His highest aim was to look out for the well-being and care of sufferers. Only in his later years did he busy himself with biological questions, and then pursued them with indefatigable ardor and persistence. His works are the classical text-books in Germany.

Prof. Billroth's earliest studies were in music, to which he was devotedly attached, and he retained a strong love for the art and its apostles. He was an excellent performer on the pianoforte and violin, and maintained a close friendship with Johann Strauss, Wagner, and Brahms.