[This article was originally published in the March 1986 issue of The Erie News, the employee newsletter of the American College of Surgeons]
If you look carefully, you will find what might at first appear to be an odd assortment of characters assembled on Erie Street—a Greek god, a French chemist, the first abdominal surgeon, a British baron, a teaching clinician and writer, and a United States army general. Despite their obvious differences, they all share a common bond—for each man represents an important epoch in the history of medicine and each is depicted in a panel on the great bronze doors of the College’s John B. Murphy Memorial Building.
Aesculapius, Louis Pasteur, Ephraim McDowell, Joseph Lister, Sir William Osler, and William Crawford Gorgas. Their lives were devoted to scientific endeavor, and their contributions to medical science paved the way for modern “medical miracles.” Their stories follow.
Aesculapius, the Greek god of medicine and a symbol of European learning, may look familiar to you; that’s because he’s also depicted on the College seal alongside a western medicine man. Aesculapius is portrayed in the Iliad as a human healer, but he also became quite good at resurrecting the dead. Known as a skilled surgeon who established many temples of healing, Aesculapius (Panel 1) is shown on the Murphy door seated beside the tree of knowledge. He holds a familiar symbol of healing—a staff entwined by a serpent as a sign of the service he offers mankind.
There are many scientific contributions that can be credited to Louis Pasteur, PhD (1822–1895), a French chemist and microbiologist, but the most significant is his discovery that microorganisms cause disease in man and animals, as well as fermentation in liquids. Pasteur’s germ theory became the cornerstone of contemporary microbiology, and his discovery led to the origination of a preservation process (known today as pasteurization) in which liquids or foods are heated at a certain temperature for a specified time in order to destroy pathogens and to ensure that they will be fit for human consumption. On the door of the Murphy (Panel 2) Pasteur is shown experimenting in his laboratory.
The field of abdominal surgery was pioneered by Ephraim McDowell, MD (1771–1830), an American surgeon who performed the first successful ovariotomy in 1809 (Panel 3). Up until that time, the procedure had been considered uniformly fatal. However, Dr. McDowell disproved that belief by removing a 20-pound ovarian tumor from his patient, Mrs. Jane Todd Crawford, who lived for 30 years following the operation. Dr. McDowell performed 13 of these procedures during his lifetime and, thus, established a precedent for elective abdominal surgery.
The aseptic surgical methods used in today’s operating rooms are the result of the accomplishments of Joseph Lister, MD (1827–1912). Lister (Panel 4), an English surgeon and baron, ushered in the modern era of antiseptic surgery through his discovery that surgical infections could be prevented by using chemical antiseptics to treat wounds. He also conducted research in bacteriology and discovered the effectiveness of using absorbent gauze for wound dressings. Lister’s interest in creating a germ-free environment in the operating room led to the development of asepsis (sterilization of the operating room itself, surgical instruments, and personnel through the use of heat.) Lister’s other contributions include the introduction of new and innovative surgical instruments including the aortic tourniquet, the wire needle, and sinus forceps.
Sir William Osler, MD (1849–1919), an English physician and professor of medicine at McGill, Pennsylvania, Johns Hopkins, and Oxford Universities, is best remembered as a great clinician and skillful writer. In addition to medicine, Osler’s education also included studies in the classics and humanities; this background had a profound influence on his writing style and served to make him one of the most readable physicians of his time. Osler’s work is also characterized by his research on diseases of the heart and blood and by teaching and inspiring young men to excel in the field of medicine. Osler (Panel 5), often brought his students to the medical wards for clinical bedside study.
The building of the Panama Canal was greatly assisted by the efforts of William Crawford Gorgas, MD (Panel 6), a military surgeon who prevented the spread of yellow fever in the region by implementing successful methods of mosquito control. Gorgas, who later became a Major General in the U.S. Army, earned his reputation as a great sanitationist and performed many experiments that helped to explain the transmission of yellow fever and malaria by mosquitos. He also conducted yellow fever investigations and introduced sanitary programs in Guayaquil, Ecuador and in Guatemala.
In addition to these six picture panels, the Murphy doors also include two panels that contain inscriptions. The first explains that the doors were presented “In appreciation of Dr. Norman Bridge, eminent physician and distinguished philanthropist.” Dr. Bridge was also a good friend of Dr. John Benjamin Murphy.* The second inscription panel credits the presenter of the doors, Edward L. Doheny, a friend and business associate of Dr. Bridge. While the building itself stands as a memorial to Dr. Murphy, the doors were presented as a tribute to Dr. Bridge by his friend Mr. Doheny.
The bronze doors were contracted for production through the Tiffany Studios at a cost of $19,650. The studios were directed by Louis Comfort Tiffany, inventor of favrile glass and son of the founder of the famous Tiffany and Company of New York. (Louis Tiffany also fashioned the mosaic ceilings and walls of what is now the Chicago Public Library Cultural Center.) It is believed that a clay sculpture for the doors designed by Tiffany artist Charles Keck was then used by a foundry to cast the doors in bronze.
The bronze doors complement the French Renaissance architecture of the Murphy Building with an exterior of bedford stone that is said to have been inspired by the Chapel of Our Lady of Consolation in Paris. Through the years the doors have served as an eloquent testimony to past achievements. Today, as they stand reflected against the surrounding world of glass and chrome highrises, they remind us of significant discoveries that have paved the way to a future of astonishing events.
*(Dr. Murphy, of course, was one of the founders of the American College of Surgeons and a member of the first editorial staff of the College’s official journal, Surgery, Gynecology & Obstetrics.)
ACS Archives Highlights is a series showcasing the vibrant history of the American College of Surgeons, its members, and the history of surgery. For further information on our featured highlights, search the Archives Catalog or contact the ACS Archivist.