Skip to content

The History of Surgery at WSU

History of Surgery at WSU

The Ilitch Department of Surgery at Wayne State University School of Medicine has a rich and proud tradition of leadership in the field of surgery, from the first successful open heart surgery in the world to Detroit’s first African American general surgeon. Here are some highlights.

First African American General Surgeon

Dr. Alexander Loudin Turner is credited as being the first African American general surgeon in Detroit, according to the late Dr. Charles Wright. In 1911, as a medical student, Turner founded a chain of drugstores. An article from 1924 states his motive was: “To give employment to professional men of his race; and out of this project there has grown a powerful group of stores, owned and operated by colored men, which is second to none in this country!” (Colored Detroit

Turner graduated from the University of Michigan’s medical school in 1912 and did his general surgery training at Freedman’s Hospital, the forerunner of Howard University Hospital, in Washington, D.C. He then moved to Detroit and was granted admitting, and eventually surgical, privileges at the Women’s and Grace Hospitals.”

First Open Heart Surgery

The world’s first successful open heart operation was performed
at Harper University Hospital using the Dodrill–General Motors Mechanical Heart Pump on July 3, 1952. The patient went on to lead a full life.

1955-65: The Johnston Era

“Under Johnston’s direction, the surgery residency blossomed. Approximately 133,000 patients were seen in the DRH emergency department annually between 1955 and 1965. Of these, 20 –30% were trauma victims, making it one of the busiest trauma services in the country. The average number of admissions to the general surgery service during that period was 15,700 annually. The surgical residency typically lasted four years, with night call at Detroit Receiving Hospital every other night. Under Dr. Johnston, abdominal incisions for trauma to the abdomen were usually small and transverse ‘keyholes.’ Long up and down incisions were generally only done to treat abdominal aortic aneurysms. Another interesting point is that all cardiac arrests, except for myocardial infarction or terminal cancer, were treated with open cardiac massage through a left anterior lateral incision. I remember performing about 1,200 operations during my first two years as a surgical resident, and my recollection is that residents back then would generally perform over 2,500 – 3,000 operations during their four years of training. The emergency department was staffed by the surgery residents and 10 –14 rotating interns per day until the mid –1960s when emergency medicine increasingly became recognized as a medical specialty.”

The Shock Unit

The shock unit was an outstanding feature of the Thal years. Assisted by his young associate Dr. Robert Wilson, Dr. Thal developed the shock unit at Detroit Receiving Hospital that was to receive international recognition. The shock unit could accommodate one or two patients in shock, as the name of the unit implied. Most patients came from the surgery service but the unit also included occasional patients from other services as appropriate. The patients were studied and treated intensively. Arterial and pulmonary artery pressures and pulmonary artery capillary wedge pressures were monitored. These pressure measurements are useful in treating and studying shock patients. Cardiac outputs were measured using the now antiquated cardiogreen technique. Dr. Wilson was the only one who knew how to calculate cardiac output with the equipment available at the time. Studies in the shock unit at Receiving pioneered some of the monitoring that eventually became commonplace in the intensive care units being developed worldwide. It was in the Receiving shock unit that the nature of pure septic shock was first documented. This was the demonstration of high cardiac output and vasodilatation (low systemic vascular resistance) as the foundation of septic shock. The more recent achievements and recognition in trauma via WSU Receiving surgeons under the leadership of chairs Drs. Alexander Walt, David Fromm, and Donald Weaver are well known.

Our History in Depth

In June 2011, Larry Stephenson, M.D., professor emeritus in our Department and a historian for many years, wrote and published a two-volume set of books, Detroit Surgeons: 300 Years. The research took five years—not surprising, given that Detroit has a 300-year history of professional and academic surgery, beginning in 1701 with the arrival of French soldier and trader Antoine de la mothe Cadillac, who developed the site that was to become the city of Detroit and subsequent construction of Fort Pontchartrain, named after his benefactor, the French minister of marine.

Unfortunately the book is out of print, though the occasional used copy may be found on

In 2014, Dr. Stephenson gave a summary of the book to the Grosse Pointe Historical Society. His talk is recorded for posterity on YouTube.