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Biographical entry Wangensteen, Owen Harding (1885 - 1981)

Hon FRCS 1961; BA Minnesota 1919; MB MD 1922; PhD 1925; FACS; Hon LLD Buffalo; Hon DSc Chicago; Hon DSc Temple; Hon FRCSI; Hon FRCS Ed.

21 September 1885
Lake Park, Minnesota, USA
13 January 1981
General surgeon


Owen Harding Wangensteen, the son of a farmer, was born at Lake Park, Minnesota, USA, on 21 September 1885. He always wanted to become a farmer and was fond of relating how he decided to become a doctor instead. When he was a high school junior, he had the opportunity to help fifty of his father's sows to farrow their young. His father was so impressed that he insisted young Owen become a doctor. The boy held off for three years. Then during a summer hot spell he had to cart manure for three weeks. Anything, he thought, would be better than that. So he liked to say that he entered the medical field 'through the portals of pigs and manure'.

He attended the University of Minnesota where he first graduated BA then completed medical school under a wartime accelerated programme. On finishing his internship he spent a year at the Mayo Clinic on a research fellowship in medicine. He then returned to the University in 1925 to undertake a study on undescended testis, for which he received his PhD. For two years from 1927 he studied in Switzerland, first under Fritz de Quervain in his surgical clinic at Berne, and then with Dr Leon Ascher at the Physiologic Institute where he became firmly committed to the idea of a partnership between surgical research and physiology. On returning to Minneapolis he was promoted to associate professor and became the first full-time head of the department of surgery in 1930. He is reputed to have started with one surgical fellow and two interns to take care of 130 patients, he then progressively built up that department to have had a staff of 100 surgical fellows and 18 interns who were responsible for 200 beds.

Dr Wangensteen's surgical interests were wide though he always referred to himself as a 'plumber of the alimentary tract'. He initiated the 'second look' after resection of intra-abdominal cancers and was a one-time advocate of gastric freezing in the treatment of peptic ulcer. It was due to his interest in intestinal obstruction that he came to develop the Wangensteen suction tube about which the poet Ogden Nash wrote 'May I find my final rest in Owen Wangensteen's intestine, knowing that his masterly suction will assure my resurrection'. He devised a number of radical operations for cancer and, in encouraging its early diagnosis, he established one of the first cancer detection centres. In a different field he was responsible for establishing a fine school of intracardiac surgery, his trainees including Richard Varco, Walton Lillehei, Norman Shumway and Christiaan Barnard. Altogether some 33 professors of surgery or departmental heads spring from his service and he turned a small and unknown department into a centre of surgical renown. He was a strong believer in the importance of the surgical laboratory in the training of young surgeons.

Outside the practical surgical field he was responsible for a number of books as sole or part author and was a co-editor of the journal Surgery from 1937 to 1970. He is recorded as having written or co-authored some 900 medical papers and, shortly before his death, he and his second wife, who was a medical historian, had completed The rise of surgery: from empiric craft to scientific discipline. He thrived on work, often rising at 1.30, or 2.00 in the morning, working for several hours, then taking an hour's nap before leaving for the office. A man of endless energy, he was still working in Minneapolis until the evening of his fatal heart attack. Wangensteen was President of the American College of Surgeons 1959-60 and he was admitted to the honorary FRCS in the following year. Thereafter he and his wife were regular visitors to the College to work in the library on historical research; a notable example was their quest for, and location of books which had been in Lord Lister's library. He was an Honorary Fellow of two of our sister colleges in the United Kingdom and was recognised by the award of the honorary degrees of several universities as well as by honorary membership of many surgical societies and associations. When he died on 13 January 1981 he was survived by his wife, Sarah, his daughter Mary and sons Owen and Stephen who became a physician.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Bull Am Coll Surg 1981, 66, 3].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England