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Biographical entry Matas, Rudolph (1860 - 1957)

Hon FRCS 10 March 1927; MD Louisiana 1880. Chevalier, L├ęgion d'Honneur.

12 September 1860
Bonnet Carne, Louisiana, USA
23 September 1957
General surgeon


Born on 12 September 1860 in Bonnet Carne, Louisiana, fifty miles north of New Orleans, he was the son of Dr N H Matas and Theresa Jorda Ponsjoan both of Spanish descent. His father, a plantation physician, amassed a considerable fortune during the disruption due to the American Civil War by trading in contraband and the running of it through the Union blockade. As a result in 1862 he went to Paris with his family in order to study ophthalmology, subsequently setting up in practice in Barcelona. Unfortunately, as a result of unwise speculation in Spanish railroads, the fortune was lost and the family returned to New Orleans in 1867 to find themselves involved in a serious epidemic of yellow fever which young Matas contracted. Encountering considerable personal hostility in New Orleans as a result of his activities during the Civil War, the father moved to Matamoros-Brownsville at the mouth of the Rio Grande del Norte the border of Texas and Mexico, where his son entered St John's College and later worked as assistant to a pharmacist.

On the break-up of his parents' marriage, Matas moved with his mother and sister to New Orleans, where he attended Soule's College to improve his English and then entered the medical faculty of the University of Louisiana, later to become Tulane University. During this period he formed a lifelong friendship with the author Lafcadio Hearn. In 1878 he became a resident student by examination at the Charity Hospital, New Orleans. After graduation and an internship, he was appointed clerk and microscopist to a Federal Yellow Fever Commission, which assignment kept him for months in Havana but enabled him to become expert in laboratory technique, and as a result, when a yellow fever outbreak took place in Matamoros-Brownsville in 1882, he was recalled to deal with it by virtue of being an expert and being himself immune to the disease. One of his patients was a young army medical officer W C Gorgas, who subsequently made the construction of the Panama canal possible by clearing the zone of yellow fever.

Returning to his mother's home in New Orleans, young Matas set up in general practice, specialising in surgery and from the first espousing Listerian principles. Shortly after this, in 1886, he was appointed a demonstrator of anatomy and of surgery under Professor A. B. Mills, whom he succeeded in 1895 becoming Professor of Surgery until thirty-two years later, when he in turn was succeeded by Alton Ochsner in 1927.

In the early nineties his mother and sister returned to Spain to the Jordan family home at St Feliu de Guixols in Catalonia, and shortly after this Matas married his house-keeper, a widow named Adrienne Landry. By this time he had become well known as a result of his pioneer work on arterial surgery and had also amassed considerable wealth. Fortunately a close friend, by profession a stockbroker, invested this very shrewdly on Matas's behalf, so that for the rest of his life he had no financial anxieties.

A fluent speaker and linguist, speaking English, Spanish, French, Italian Portuguese and the local patois of the Bayou with equal facility, he delivered a notable address in Brussels in 1938 in several languages, and in 1949 at the age of 89 he welcomed the International Surgical Society in New Orleans, speaking in English, French, Spanish and Italian. It is on record that, when a paper was read in London in 1947 in the Catalan dialect of Spanish, which not unnaturally most of those present failed to understand although they listened politely, Matas rose subsequently and gave the gist of the paper first in French and then in English. During the period of the Spanish Civil War of 1935-39 he succeeded in extricating his sister from Spain.

It was in 1888 that he performed his pioneer operation of endoaneurysmorraphy on a Negro youth who had developed an aneurysm following a gunshot wound, but he was also a pioneer in other surgical fields. In 1888 he was the first to describe and use intravenous therapy, and he adopted spinal anaesthesia soon after Corning introduced it in 1886. In 1898 he introduced direct intraneural anaesthesia with cocaine independently of Crile, who had used it in 1897 following Karl Koller's discovery in 1884. In 1901 he developed the Matas-Smyth pump for artificial respiration in chest surgery, and in 1911 the gastro-duodenal tube for siphonage in intestinal obstruction.

An ardent and stimulating teacher, he was Professor of Surgery at Tulane University from 1895 to 1927, where he was reported to have handled 3714 students during this period, and he introduced cinema photography into teaching technique in 1912. In 1888 he organised the New Orleans Policlinic later to become Tulane Medical School, and in 1894 was President of the Louisiana State Medical Society, initiating a State Medical Directory and the Medical Practice Act.

His attachments were to the Charity Hospital and to Touro Infirmary, from which he retired in 1935, giving up all active surgery on reaching the age of 80 in 1940. He considered it statesmanlike as he phrased it "to quit", although he kept an active interest in surgery up to the last. He helped to raise funds for the building of the Josephine Hutchinson Memorial Building of Tulane Medical School and for the Delgado Memorial Building and Hutchinson Nurses Home at the Charity Hospital.

A lifelong bibliophile he started the medical school library of Tulane University, known since 1937 as the Matas Library and endowed by him with a fund of a million dollars. Tulane University endowed an annual Matas prize in vascular surgery in 1945 and an annual lecture was established in 1948.

A recipient of the Bigelow medal of the Boston Surgical Society, he was described by William Mayo as the most learned surgeon he had known. Blalock said of him that he had pioneered modern vascular surgery and Alton Ochsner considered him one of the greatest. He was President of the American College of Surgeons and of the International College of Surgeons, and recipient of the distinguished service medal of the American Medical Association. In 1954 he became the second surgeon to receive a scroll from the American Board of Anaesthesiologists for his important contributions. Apart from his surgical attainments he did much to elevate medical ethics and by his example and countless acts of kindness inspired his students with the highest ideals.

He died on 23 September 1957 at the age of 97 in Touro Infirmary, where he had been for the previous two years. His wife had died in 1918.

Principal publications:
Five cases of aneurysm treated by intrasacular suture. Trans Amer Surg Ass 1902, 20, 396.
The Suture as applied to the surgical cure of aneurysm. Int Cong Med 17, 1913-17 Surgery p. 149.
Endo-aneurysmorraphy introduced 30 March 1888. Med News Phila 1888,53,462. Endoaneurysmorraphy Ann Surg 1920, 27, 403.
Ligation of the Abdominal Aorta. Ann Surg 1925, 31, 457.
The soul of a surgeon, 1926.
The surgeon his science and his art, 1926.

Sources used to compile this entry: [The Times 25 September 1957 and 26 September p 14 a; Lancet 1957, 2, 697 with portrait; Brit med J 1957, 2, 828 by Sir Gordon Gordon-Taylor; Ann Roy Coll Surg Engl 1957, 21, 334-335 by Sir Gordon Gordon-Taylor with portrait; Bull Med Lib Assn 1958, 46, 162-163 on his library interests by M L Marshall].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England