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Podcast: How the Father of Modern Surgery Became a Healthcare Antihero


Cocaine-fueled medical education helped set the stage for physician burnout.

During a time when pain was an accepted consequence of illness, disease and injury, William Stewart Halstead ushered in the era of anesthetics. Almost overnight, pain was avoidable. Simply inject a little cocaine at the site of discomfort and voila! The pain was gone.

At least that’s what Halstead concluded following a series of experiments he conducted on himself. You see, he was pioneering the use of anesthetics during a time when little was known about their volatile power. What’s more, there were no legal ramifications for their possession or use. Without precedence or consequence, he was free to experiment with drugs however he pleased. And as a talented and beloved teacher who is also credited with ushering in the era of hands-on medical training, he offered himself up as a training tool for his students.

Perhaps Halstead was too committed to this novel approach to education. As a result of the experiments he conducted on his own body, he sunk into what would become a lifelong addiction to drugs. It started with cocaine and then swung to morphine. And throughout this grueling addiction, Halstead was working incessantly to lay the groundwork for approaches to surgery and anesthesia that we still use and value today.

He was also busy laying the groundwork for modern medical training — all while high on cocaine. He worked hours that’d be more aptly suited for a machine. His residents were on call 362 days a year. He set a pace that most students – especially those not on a heavy dose of stimulants – would be hard pressed to match.

For all his contributions to medicine, Halstead became known as the father of modern surgery. But his drug-fueled jaunts resulted in an approach to medical education that is probably too much to bear for its students because, as we know too well, they’re burning out.

On this episode of Data Book, we explore the comeuppance of William Stewart Halstead, the strange duality of his contributions to medicine, and explore how we might move past the oppressive cultural institutions he left in his wake.

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