George J. Heuer – Johns Hopkins’ Forgotten Neurosurgery Pioneer
In 2014, an anonymous donor established the George J. Heuer Professorship of Neurosurgery at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. This was not an insignificant recognition because George J. Heuer MD (1882-1950) was an oft-overlooked neurosurgical pioneer at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in the early 20th century.
Dr. Heuer received his BA degree from the University of Wisconsin and his MD degree from Johns Hopkins Medical School in 1907, after which he spent seven years as the thirteenth resident under renowned surgeon Dr. William Halsted. At Johns Hopkins, Halstead had inaugurated the first formal surgical residency training program in the United States based on European models. There he trained many of the prominent academic surgeons of the time, including Harvey Williams Cushing and Walter Dandy, co-founders of the surgical subspecialty of neurosurgery, as well as George Heuer.
After Heuer had completed his residency training, Dr. Halsted sent him to Europe as an exchange fellow to broaden his surgical experience. His time in Breslau in the Austro-Hungarian Empire was cut short by the onset of World War I. He returned to Baltimore as an associate professor of surgery, leading the Johns Hopkins neurosurgery department for an interim period.
After the United States entered the war, various medical schools sent physicians to Europe to staff hospitals for the wounded. Dr. Heuer was one of thirty-two Johns Hopkins’ medical students and doctors who went to France to serve. Heuer was a captain and chief surgeon in Evacuation Hospital #10 where he learned to treat penetrating chest wounds. After the war, he returned from military service to Johns Hopkins with expectations of leading the neurosurgical section permanently, only to discover that Walter Dandy, whom he had mentored, had been appointed to that position in his absence.
Heuer subsequently left Johns Hopkins in 1922 to become the first Christian Holman Professor of Surgery at the University of Cincinnati. In 1931, he left Cincinnati to become the professor and chair of the Department of Surgery at Cornell University Medical School and surgeon-in-chief at the New York Hospital, a position that he held until his retirement in 1947.
At both institutions, Heuer continued to operate on the nervous system, but became best known for his contributions to surgical education. He championed and formalized the Halstead program of medical training that he had experienced in Baltimore. It began with an internship of undetermined length, followed by six years as an assistant resident, and then two years as house surgeon.
One of his most important contributions to neurosurgery was his invention of a modem frontotemporal craniotomy, the forerunner of the modem frontosphenotemporal craniotomy, which neurosurgeons still use to approach numerous tumors and aneurysms. His work in thoracic surgery also established him as a pioneer in that field, and, as such, he was a founding member of The American Association for Thoracic Surgery and its president in 1934.
A superb surgeon, Dr. Heuer performed operations with dexterity, meticulous attention to detail, orderliness, and efficiency of motion. He was also a forceful and dynamic teacher who presented in a clear, concise manner. He was direct and often appeared aloof, but those who knew him vouched for his kindnesses and warmth.
After Dr. Heuer retired in 1947 as emeritus professor at Cornell, he began a biography of his mentor William S. Halsted but died before its completion. Throughout his career, Dr. Heuer, along with William Cushing and Walter Dandy, played an important role in the establishment of neurosurgery as a subspecialty of surgery, but Heuer was rarely recognized for his contributions until the recent establishment of a professorship in his name at his alma mater. He was Johns Hopkins’ forgotten pioneer of neurosurgery.
- Genius on the Edge, The Bizarre Double Life of Dr. William Steward Halstead. Gerald Imber MD, 2011, Kaplan Publishing New York, NY