UW surgery turns 100

10 achievements that improved lives and moved health care forward
April 15, 2024

The first day of classes must have felt like a leap of faith. It was 1924 and just three faculty members charged with teaching three medical students made up the new surgery academic department in the University of Wisconsin’s new School of Medicine. At the Wisconsin General Hospital, community surgeons were called in to help teach the students how to set bones, treat sepsis, alleviate inflammation and perform minor surgery.

Heart surgery was still the stuff of dreams.

Today, more than 175 full-time surgery faculty teach approximately 150 trainees (including residents, fellows and medical students) at locations including University Hospital and American Family Children’s Hospital, and routinely perform such feats of modern medicine as transplantation and neonatal surgery. A look back at pivotal moments in the Department of Surgery’s history offers a fascinating perspective on how far we’ve come in a hundred years and how UW surgical researchers and physicians have improved health care outcomes in Wisconsin and beyond.


Tackling tuberculosis

In 1926, Dr. Erwin Schmidt was hired as chair of the Department of Surgery. He served for 37 years and guided the department through a period of incredible growth, change and innovation. Some of his notable recruits included Dr. Ralph M. Waters, who established one of the world’s first anesthesiology units here at UW — as well as Dr. Joseph Gale and Dr. Anthony Curreri, two talented young thoracic surgeons. Gale and Curreri worked with Dr. Helen Dickey, a pulmonologist in the Department of Medicine, to pioneer a highly effective surgical treatment for tuberculosis. This innovative treatment would save lives around the world.

Wisconsin General Hospital on snowy day with cars out front ca. 1925
In 1924 Wisconsin General Hospital opened its doors to patients at 1300 University Avenue in Madison (now known as Medical Sciences Center). The building served as University Hospital until 1979.
A researcher looks at glassware in a lab
A researcher at the University of Wisconsin performs an experiment relating to cancer diagnosis and treatment, 1964.

Expanding cancer research

When Schmidt placed Curreri in charge of the surgery department’s new Division of Oncology, Curreri recruited research scientists to the new Cancer Research Hospital (now known as the Carbone Cancer Center) and helped expand UW cancer research to include surgeons and surgical work. Research in oncology was already well underway in UW’s McArdle Laboratory for Cancer Research. Later, clinical trials conducted at the hospital would establish fluorouracil as the first effective chemotherapeutic treatment for cancer. Fluorouracil was first synthesized by Charles Heidelberger in UW’s McArdle Laboratory in 1956.

Transforming skin cancer treatment

In the 1930s, Dr. Frederic E. Mohs was hard at work in surgery’s Cancer Research Hospital refining a micrographic surgery technique for removing skin cancer that he began developing as a medical student at UW. “Mohs surgery,” now the gold standard in skin cancer treatment, is a precise technique that conserves healthy tissue and offers the highest cure rate. Decades after he retired, UW established the Department of Dermatology, in which Mohs’ successors would continue their work.

Frederic E. Mohs with clinic staff, evaluates a patient
Frederic E. Mohs examining a patient with his clinic staff, date unknown
Veterans Administration Hospital surrounded by a mostly undeveloped west campus
An aerial view of a portion of west campus including the Veterans Administration Hospital, ca. 1952.

Training residents at the Veterans Administration Hospital

The Veterans Administration Hospital opened in 1952 and originally served as a regional tuberculosis center. Shortly after this, the facility was redesignated as a general medical and surgical hospital and became the training site for scores of surgical residents. Renamed in 1979 after Dr. William S. Middleton, a military veteran and former medical school dean, the hospital helped pioneer advances in tuberculosis treatment and thoracic surgery. It remains a major educational partner for the UW School of Medicine and Public Health and UW Health residency programs.

Expanding cardiac surgery

In 1957, Dr. William Young performed the first open-heart procedure at UW Hospital. The first nine patients Young treated with cardiopulmonary bypass survived, aided by use of an oxygenator. Building on this success, Young started developing what would become UW’s formidable cardiac surgery program. By the early 1960s, program faculty achieved numerous health care innovations including use of synthetic heart valves, advances in children’s heart surgery, and operations for coronary artery disease.

Doctors operating on a patient, with assistance from nurses
Several surgeons perform heart surgery with assistance from nurses, ca. 1958-1978.
Dr. William Kisken being handed a plaque by another physician
Dr. William Kisken (center) was the first UW transplant surgeon, ca. 1966-1972.

Advancing transplantation

The dream of organ transplantation became a reality at UW in 1966, when the first kidney transplant occurred. Seven years later, the headline in Madison’s Capital Times read: “Heart Transplant is Performed at U. Hospital,” and in 1984 the liver transplant program began, followed by the first lung transplant in 1988. Today, UW’s transplant program is one of the most experienced in the U.S., with the pancreas transplant program among the most highly-ranked nationwide. In April 2024, the UW Health Transplant Center reached a milestone of 20,000 organs transplanted.

Inventing a Wisconsin solution

A new solution for preserving organs, developed in the 1980s by UW–Madison research scientists Dr. Folkert “Fred” Belzer and biochemist James Southard, revolutionized organ preservation and transplantation. Together, they developed the most significant innovation in the history of the UW Department of Surgery. Before the invention of the “UW Solution,” surgeons had just 4 to 6 hours between retrieval and transplantation of organs. The UW Solution extended the time to 20 hours, greatly expanding the geographic area from which organs could be procured.

Jim Southard and Folkert "Fred" Belzer with with a beaker containing an organ and liquid
Professor James “Jim” Southard (left) and Dr. Folkert "Fred" Belzer (right) pictured next to a beaker containing the UW Solution and a preserved organ (inset).
A UW ambulance parked on grass
A University of Wisconsin Mobile Intensive Care Unit, 1971.

Establishing burn and trauma care

In the late 1970s, the first trauma and life support unit at UW grew from a partnership between University Hospital and the Wisconsin National Guard, which would lend helicopters to the hospital when ground ambulances were unable to reach trauma victims. The burn unit — now known as the Acute Care and Regional General Surgery Division — became one of the first interdisciplinary units of its kind in the region. It was staffed by specialists from the Departments of Medicine, Anesthesiology and Surgery, and was the first in Wisconsin to use laminar airflow isolation to prevent infection.

Forging paths for women in leadership

The surgery department’s first female faculty member, Dr. Maxine Bennett, also served as the first full-time head of the Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT, or otolaryngology) Division from 1959-1968. She was the first woman in the nation to lead an academic otolaryngology program. Today, five out of the 11 divisions in the Department of Surgery are led by women, thanks in part to Bennett’s trailblazing efforts. The surgery department’s current chair, Dr. Rebecca Minter, joined in 2018 and is the first woman to fulfill that role.

Dr. Maxine Bennett
Dr. Maxine Bennett pursuing her favorite hobby, mountain climbing, 1953
American Family Children's Hospital
American Family Children’s Hospital, 2014
Photo by Todd Bown/Media Solutions

Building a pediatric surgery program

In the late 1990s, Department of Surgery Chair Dr. Layton “Bing” Rikkers recruited Dr. Dennis Lund to build a pediatric surgery program. Lund was a driving force behind the creation of the American Family Children’s Hospital, which opened in 2007. Dr. Petros Anagnostopoulos, a pediatric cardiac surgeon, later helped launch the nationally recognized pediatric cardiology and heart surgery program. In August 2023, surgeons performed UW’s first pediatric heart transplant on an 11-year-old from Illinois.

Looking ahead

100 years after its founding, the Department of Surgery within the School of Medicine and Public Health is one of the leading academic surgical programs in the nation. Faculty in the department perform almost 22,000 operations each year and advance a robust research portfolio. Over the past decade the department has been highly ranked for NIH funding compared to other surgery departments, totaling nearly $130 million from 2014-2023.

“I’m excited for the future,” says Minter. “We are delivering cutting-edge surgical care across 11 divisions and are pursuing innovative educational strategies. Not only do we have incredible talent in this department, but we have built a vibrant, collaborative culture that is a wonderful training ground for the next generation of health care leaders.”

Dr. Poore (left) and Dr. Zeng (right) teaching microsurgery techniques
Dr. Samuel Poore (left) and Dr. Weifeng Zeng (right) conduct a training session for a resident in microsurgery, a surgical discipline that combines magnification, precision tools and specialized operating techniques, 2022.
Photo by Todd Bown/Media Solutions

Credit for a wealth of historical information goes to Layton F. Rikkers, MD and Louis C. Bernhardt, MD, who penned “Promoting Excellence: The University of Wisconsin Department of Surgery, 1924-2012.” Their book serves as an important archive of nearly a century of achievements in surgery.