The education, training, and specialization of surgeons: turn-of-the-century America and its postgraduate medical schools

Author(s): Rutkow I


Objectives:To understand the institutions, personnel, and events that shaped postgraduate medical schools in late 19th- and early 20th-century America.

Background:In a little remembered chapter of American surgical medical history, postgraduate medical schools played a decisive role in surgery's march toward professionalization and specialization. While William Halsted was first establishing his training program in Baltimore, medical facilities such as the New York Polyclinic and the New York Post-Graduate were already turning out thousands of physicians who considered themselves "specialists" in surgery.

Methods:An analysis of the published and unpublished medical and lay literature relating to the nation's postgraduate medical schools.

Results:The founding of postgraduate medical schools in turn-of-the-century America was a key event in the acceptance of surgery as a legitimate specialty within the whole of medicine. These little remembered institutions laid the foundation for the blossoming of surgical care and the extraordinary clinical advances that followed.

Conclusions:Postgraduate medical schools, particularly the New York Polyclinic and the New York Post-Graduate, were dominant influences in shaping the early history of surgery in America. These institutions brought the pressure for specialization in surgery to the forefront of discussions about medical education and training. For the first time, a large number of practitioners were offered a formalized surgical experience in a busy urban medical facility. As a result, and despite their being long forgotten, the importance of postgraduate medical schools in our nation's surgical history cannot be overstated.

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