Department History

drawing of boston

Boston University Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine

Boston University Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine opened its doors on November 5, 1873 bringing together the Female Medical College of Boston and the medical staff of the Massachusetts Homeopathic Hospital (the buildings to the right of the drawing). Dr. Israel T. Talbot served as the first Chairman of the Department of Surgery at Boston University, a position which he held concurrently with being the first Dean of the Boston University Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine. Dr. Talbot served as the Chairman of Surgery from 1873 to 1897.

or amphitheater
OR amphitheater in the original hospital (Massachusetts Homeopathic Hospital) in the late 1800s.

The modern history of the Department of Surgery at Boston University dates to 1946 when Dr. Reginald H. Smithwick was recruited from the Massachusetts General Hospital to serve as Chairman of Surgery at Boston University Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine and Surgeon-in-Chief at what was then the Massachusetts Memorial Hospital.

Dr. Smithwick brought with him a highly talented staff of general surgeons, including: Dr. Jessie Thompson, an early pioneer in vascular surgery; Dr. Douglas Farmer, a gastrointestinal surgeon who was instrumental in developing hemigastrectomy and vagotomy as an operation for peptic ulcer disease; Dr. Chester Howe, an early specialist in the burgeoning field of surgical infectious disease; Dr. Charles Robertson, also an early vascular surgeon; and, Dr. George Whitelaw, a noted educator and general surgeon.

Dr. Smithwick himself was an extremely innovative surgeon and was responsible for developing bilateral splanchnic sympathectomy as the only effective treatment for intractable essential hypertension at that time. Patients flocked to Boston from throughout the world for this operation, and colleagues and dignitaries were attracted to our institution to witness the performance of this procedure. Dr. Smithwick worked in conjunction with two world leaders in medicine, Dr. Chester Keefer, who was the Chief of Medicine and Dr. Robert W. Wilkins, who ironically put Smithwick out of the hypertension business with the development of the first effective medical therapy for essential hypertension. Thus, this was truly a remarkable era at Boston University Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine.

Dr. Smithwick served as Chairman for nearly twenty years, retiring in 1963. Shortly thereafter, Dr. Richard Egdahl was recruited from the Medical College of Virginia. Dr. Egdahl, a Midwesterner who had trained with Owen Wangensteen at the University of Minnesota, made enormous contributions to the department by bringing to it a marked emphasis on academic excellence. He established the first strong program in basic and clinical research in the area, including one of the first surgical laboratory fellowship programs in the United States. Perhaps the most outstanding of his many achievements was the publishing of a series of volumes on endocrine surgery. Dr. Egdahl retired from the Chairmanship of Surgery in 1973 to become Director of the Boston University Medical Center and to develop the Health Policy Institute at Boston University. In 1997 he was named the first Alexander Graham Bell Professor of Entrepreneurial Medicine.

Boston Medical Center

Dr. Egdahl helped consolidate the Boston University Surgical Services. Boston City Hospital, founded in 1864, initially served as a training site for students and residents from Harvard, Tufts, and Boston University. The third surgical service, which would eventually become the Boston University Teaching Service, was established in 1892.

Boston City Hospital in 1878
Boston City Hospital in 1878

In 1940, Boston University, under its new Dean, Dr. James Faulkner, moved its surgical teaching to the third surgical service under the direction of Dr. Eugene E. O’Neil. The third surgical service acquired the surgical research laboratory which had begun in 1928 under the auspices of the Harvard Medical School and the fifth surgical service with I. J. Walker as Chief and Edwin C. Churchill as Director of the Laboratory. J. J. Byrne, carried out his seminal work on pancreatitis in this laboratory.

In 1973, with considerable downsizing of the Boston City Hospital, all of the clinical services were taken over by members of the Boston University faculty. Thus, from that point on, members of the BU faculty staffed the surgical services at both Boston City Hospital and Boston University Hospital. A number of historic and important changes in the structure and focus of the Department of Surgery have been carried out. The 1996 merger of Boston University Medical Center Hospital, Boston City Hospital and the Boston Specialty and Rehabilitation Hospital to form the new Boston Medical Center helped solidify our clinical position in Boston.

The Modern Era

Before returning as the Surgical Chair, Dr. Egdahl recruited Dr. John Mannick from the Medical College of Virginia. Dr. Mannick was initially named Director of Surgery at the Boston City Hospital. In 1973, he became Chairman of the Boston University Division of Surgery. Dr. Mannick was both an expert vascular surgeon as well as a basic immunologist. During his six years at Boston University, he made enormous contributions to the field of immunology before he was recruited to become Chief of Surgery at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital. Following periods of leadership by Drs. Lester Williams, Peter Mozden, Robert Hobson, Edward Spatz, James Becker, and Gerard Doherty, David McAneny, expertly served as interim Chair in 2016.

In 2017, Dr. Jennifer F. Tseng was recruited as Chair and Utley Professor of Surgery at the Boston University Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine and as Surgeon-in-Chief at Boston Medical Center. The first woman and first person of color to be appointed Chair of Surgery in Boston, Dr. Tseng served in this capacity for six years. In January 2024, Alik Farber, MD, MBA, was appointed interim Chair and interim Chief of the Department of Surgery.

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