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Established 1879, Incorporated 2000

Arthur Cooper, M.D., Daniel F. Roses, M.D,

Revised by Fabrizio Michelassi, M.D. (Pres. 2011-12)


New York City, in 1879, was the largest and most rapidly growing metropolis in the century old United States of America. Most of its 1,200.000 inhabitants lived in lower Manhattan. They were served by some 1,300 physicians, the majority of whom lived in the residential neighborhoods near Washington Square. Among these were no more than about thirty surgeons, most of whom were in general practice, sharing between them approximately forty hospital appointments at nine large general hospitals: New York Hospital, Bellevue Hospital, St. Luke’s Hospital, Saint Vincent’s Hospital, German Hospital, Roosevelt Hospital, Mount Sinai Hospital, Presbyterian Hospital and the Charity Hospital. There were three active medical schools: the College of Physicians & Surgeons, the University of the City of New York, and the Bellevue Hospital Medical College. In addition, numerous medical and surgical societies had begun to flourish, including the New York County Medical Association, the New York Academy of Medicine – of whose surgical section, Stephen Smith, M.D., both a surgeon and the leading public health physician of the era, was a member – the New York Opthalmological Society, and the New York Laryngological Society – whose president, Charles McBurney, M.D., was to play a key role in the founding of the New York Surgical Society. At that time, there were many epidemics, few specialists, few surgeons, and fewer operations. Yet, surgery was in a phase of rapid growth, spurred by the development of general anesthesia by Morton in 1846, the germ theory by Pasteur in 1862, surgical antisepsis by Lister in 1865, and perhaps most important, better understanding of the pathophysiology of surgical illness, of which appendicitis soon became perhaps the best example, first described by Fitz in 1886. Numerous European influences were also being felt, chiefly from France, Germany, Austria, and Britain. These led a young New York surgeon, Lewis A. Stimson, M.D., to imagine a society similar to the Societe de Chirugie of Paris, France, whose bulletins he regularly read. He hared this idea with the well established New York surgeon, William H. Van Buren, M.D., who heartily concurred, and organized the founding meeting of the New York Surgical Society on October 30, 1879 at the residence of Robert F. Weir, M.D. at which were present: Henry B. Sands, M.D., Edward L. Keyes, M.D., Lewis A. Stimson, M.D., Charles McBurney, M.D., T.T. Sabine, M.D., William T. Bull, M.D., Robert F. Weir, M.D. and J.G. Curtis, M.D. Three officers were elected, Henry B. Sands, M.D., President, Robert E. Weir, M.D., Vice-President, and Charles McBurney, M.D. Secretary and Treasurer, as well as seven additional members, Doctors Van Buren, Markoe, Peters, Mason, Little, Lang and Gulecke.

The minutes of the first meeting, as recoded by Dr. Weir, are also reproduced below:

 “At a meeting held October 30, 1879, at the residence of Dr. Robert F. Weir, the New York Surgical Society was organized with the following gentlemen as original memers” Drs. H.B. Sands, E.L. Keyes, L.A. Stimson, Charles McBurney, T.T. Sabine, Wiliam T. Bull, R.F. Weir, and I.G. Curtis.

1. It was resolved that the meetings of the Society should be semi-monthly and be held during the months of October, November, December, January, February, March, April and May.

2. That the meetings should begin at 8 o’clock and that business should be transacted in the following order:


 1. Presentation of patients and discussion of same.

 2. The subject of the evening

 3. Narration of cases with comments

 4. Presentation of pathological specimens.

 5. Reports of committees

 6. Miscellaneous business


3. That the meetings should be held at the houses of members in alphabetical order and that no supper should be allowed.

4. That no member shall be allowed more than ten minutes of the Society’s time except in the state of discussion.

5. The officers of the Society shall be three in number, namely the President, Vice-President, and Secretary and Treasurer.

6. That two negative votes shall reject a candidate for membership.


An election of officers was then held and Doctor Sands was made President, Doctor Weir Vice President, and Doctor McBurney Secretary pro tem. The following gentlemen were elected members of the Society: Doctors Van Buren, Markoe, Peters, Mason, Little, Lange. And Guleke.


The Society then adjourned to meet November 4 for complete organization. R.F.W.”

This led to an organizational meeting on November 4, 1879, again at the residence of Doctor Weir, with twelve of the fifteen members present, who re-elected the temporary officers chosen on October 30, 1879, for a two year term, levied an assessment of one dollar on the members of the Society to defray necessary expenses – which was soon thereafter raised to ten dollars per annum – and authorized the employment of a stenographer at an expense of seven dollars per night to take down the transactions. The first regular meeting of the New York Surgical Society followed shortly thereafter on November 25, 1879, at the residence of Doctor Bull, with thirteen of fifteen members present. Doctor Van Buren read the first paper, on the subject of submental and subhyoid cysts, after which five members discussed the paper. Doctors Peter and Stimson then presented a series of patients and experiments, the former on litholapaxy followed by suppuration, the latter on the effects of carbolic acid for antisepsis – which demonstrated conclusively, using a clever experimental design, that the theory upon which the use of Listerian carbolic acid antisepsis was recommended was not founded on fact. Four additional members were also elected, Doctors Hamilton, Wood, Parker and Smith. A formal constitution and bylaws were adopted shortly thereafter, following upon discussion of qualifications for membership at the organizational meeting, limiting membership to twenty surgeons, for whom the basic requirement for membership was a hospital appointment in a surgical department, and regular attendance and scientific presentation at the meetings of the Society. Throughout its early years, the New York Surgical Society was concerned with relevant surgical topics of the day, most particularly descriptions of operative case mix and number, intestinal obstruction, inguinal hernia, “Listerism,” perithyphlitis, and appendicitis. Although the Society met initially at members’ homes, it was decided at the second regular meeting to gather at the Governor’s Room at the New York Hospital, followed in due course by other hospitals and the New York Academy of Medicine. The proceedings of the Society, were recorded initially only in the minutes, in Doctor McBurney’s spare but elegant script, but subsequently in the New York Medical Record, the Annals of Surgery and the occasional Transactions of the New York Surgical Society that have been published periodically throughout the Society’s history. Arguably the most celebrated paper read before the Society in its early years was presented on November 13, 1889 by Doctor McBurney, regarding the successful operative management of seven of eight cases of early appendicitis, without a single death. From this momentous report, entitled, “Experience with Early Operative Interference in Cases of Disease of the Vermiform Appendix,” the following quotations are reproduced:

“The pathologic conditions of the appendix, as compared with the symptoms in my cases, most positively show that one cannot with accuracy determine from the symptoms the extent and severity of the disease…The seat of greatest pain, determined by the pressure of one finger, has been exactly between an inch and a half and two inches from the anterior spinous process of the ilium on a straight line from the process to the umbilicus.”

Throughout its history, the New York Surgical Society has provided a forum for the advancement of surgical science and has been dedicated to fostering collegiality among surgeons. The founding members of the New York Surgical Society were among the leaders of American surgery in an era that saw the introduction of many advances, enabling the rapid development of surgical science as we know it today. Most of these names will be found among those of the Presidents of the New York Surgical Society, who are listed from the date of it’s founding to the present on an adjacent page. The seminal papers they presented before the Society in its early years included not only that of Doctor McBurney on appendicitis, but also those of Doctor Sands on perityphlitis, Doctor Bull on hernia, Doctor Stimson on innominate aneurysm, and Doctor Weir on cystic degeneration of the vermiform appendix. On the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the New York Surgical Society, Fred Bates Lund, M.D., of Boston, the then current President of the American Surgical Association, to which many members of the Society added their luster, had this to say about his colleagues in the New York Surgical Society: “If I might characterize the prevailing temperament of the New York surgeons I have had the privilege of knowing, I would say that they were characterized by indomitable enthusiasm and energy, and sincere love for their profession, qualities which it is easy to see and are most favorable to progress.” The Society’s purpose today is as it was when it was founded a century and one quarter ago: to promote the highest standards of surgical practice in the world’s greatest city.


Stimson LA: An account of the origin of the New York Surgical Society. Trans N Y Surg Soc 1912;l:xix-xxi. Beer E, Lund FB, Mayo WJ, Eliot E: The semi centennial anniversary of the founding of the New York Surgical Society. Ann Surg 1930;61:1-23. Beekman F: The first ten years of the New York Surgical Society. N Y Med 1947;3:19-24.




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