Albert Christian Theodor Billroth Biography (1829-1894)


Christian Albert Theodor Billroth was a brilliant surgeon who pioneered new techniques in abdominal surgery and added substantially to what was know at the time about cancers of gastrointestinal tract.

Born in Bergen in 1829 to a family of Swedish origin, Billroth studied at universities in both Sweden and Germany. After receiving a doctor's degree fromBerlin in 1852, he visited many of Europe's leading medical schools includingthose in Vienna, Prague, Paris, Edinburgh, and London, to complete his medical education.

Upon returning to Berlin, Billroth began work as an assistant to B. R. K. Langenbeck at Langenbeck's surgical clinic. In 1860, Billroth was appointed professor of surgery and director of the surgical clinic at the University of Zäurich where he stayed for seven years. He then accepted a similar position at the University of Vienna, where he remained for the remainder of his life.

Billroth was one of the first European surgeons to embrace the need for asepsis (sterility) during operations. He also made full use of the anesthetic chloroform during his during his operations, and was noted for his concern abouthis patient's well-being. In 1872, he made his first resection of the esophagus, in which he removed a section of esophagus, then sewed the remaining parts back together. Later he performed many similar operations on the stomach and intestines, pancreas, and larynx to remove cancerous growths. These operations were both difficult and dangerous to the patient, but Billroth's successrate was high considering the conditions under which he operated.

By 1890, Billroth had performed 41 gastric resections, of which 19 were a success. His work significantly increased the information available about gastrointestinal cancer tissues, their origin, and their physiology. In addition tohis work as a surgeon, he established a training school for nurses in Viennaand a surgical school and clinic that remained open after his death until 1938.

Billroth was also interested in military surgery and volunteered in German hospitals during the Franco-German War. He was celebrated not only for his immense surgical skill, but also for his ability to stay calm under pressure andto improvise new procedures as they were needed. Based on his experience in battlefield hospitals, he advocated successfully for better transportation andtreatment for the wounded, noting that the increased accuracy of weapons ofwar had lead to an increased number of casualties and a greater need for effective medical care at the front.

During his life, Billroth was honored by the Austrian government with a seatin the Herrnhaus, an honor rarely given to physicians. He published several books and many papers on surgery and pathology. In addition to being askilled surgeon, Billroth was an devoted musician and played the piano and violin well. He was a close, life-long friend of the composer Johannes Brahms,who dedicated two string quartets to Billroth. In addition to his writings onsurgery, Billroth also wrote a book on the physiology of music. He died at his villa in Abbazia, Yugoslavia, in 1894, having substantially increased thebody of knowledge available about diseases of the gastrointestinal system andhow to treat them surgically.

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