Owen H. Wangensteen, MD, PhD, FACS, was a renowned surgeon from Minnesota who had a deep influence in the areas of research, teaching, and the practice of surgery. He established the Surgical Forum at the American College of Surgeons (ACS) and developed the “Wangensteen tube,” which used suction to aid patients with postoperative intestinal obstruction.1
Dr. Wangensteen was born into a Norwegian-immigrant farming family in Minnesota, where he performed work on the farm while growing up. Upon observing his abilities and hard work, his father urged him to work toward a career beyond the farm, which would eventually lead him to surgery. For much of his life, Dr. Wangensteen found himself at the University of Minnesota. It was there that he obtained his BA, MB, MD, and PhD degrees, in addition to completing his surgical training at the University of Minnesota Hospitals.
After one year of surgical practice at the Mayo Clinic in 1924, Dr. Wangensteen returned to Minnesota where his name came up in consideration for the chairman of the department of surgery at the University of Minnesota. He was chosen for the position at the young age of 27, and was subsequently sent by the Dean who recommended him to Bern, Switzerland, to train for the position at de Quervian’s Surgical Clinic and the Physiological Institute. His experiences in Europe and its burgeoning scientific activity later would influence his career at the University of Minnesota.2
In his capacity as a teacher, Dr. Wangensteen employed the Socratic method, which he used to foster independent thought and research amongst his students. Beyond the classroom, he believed that surgeons were split into two distinct groups, “those who see what they believe and those who believe what they see.”3 He was passionate in trying to produce the latter, and it was in this tradition that a fellowship was created in his name: the Wangensteen Faculty Fellowship.
The 1959 – 1960 ACS President, Dr. Wangensteen was said to embody the “basic and original principle of the American College of Surgeons that urges Fellows to make continuing efforts to improve their knowledge of surgery through research.”3 The Surgical Forum that he developed sought to bring together surgeons and students of surgery to communicate their expertise and learn from each other’s research and questions. At the time of proposing the forum, Dr. Wangensteen argued, “why should not these [young students interested in surgery] have the opportunity of an audience from surgeons and why should surgeons be denied the privilege of hearing young men, in their formative years, recite their own accomplishments?”4
Throughout his distinguished career, Dr. Wangensteen worked to break down the traditional structure and system of the field of surgery, opening it up for the possibility of real, positive change. His efforts to create spaces for discussion around surgery and research epitomize this determination. Dr. Wangensteen’s passion for surgery did not stop when he retired from the profession. He went on to write a book with his wife entitled The Rise of Surgery: From Empiric Craft to Scientific Discipline.
- Erhart PP. Dr. Owen H. Wangensteen dies at 82. Bulletin of the American College of Surgeons. March 1981;3-4.
- Zimmerman B. Owen Harding Wangensteen 1898-1981. Trans Am Surg Ass'n. 1981;78-81.
- MacLean L . Owen Wangensteen fellowship announced. Bulletin of the American College of Surgeons. March 1996;55.
- Peltier L, Aust JB. Owen H. Wangensteen: The education of surgeons. Bulletin of the American College of Surgeons, 1994;79(11): 8-14.
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.