Christian Fenger (1840-1902)
Danish born Christian Fenger practiced pathology and surgery in Chicago over a century ago and made such an impact on education that a public school in his adopted city is still named after him. As a young man he studied medicine in Copenhagen, completed his internship there, served in the 1865 war against Germany, and later studied under Bilroth and Rokitansky. Unable to obtain a professorship in Denmark, he went to work in Egypt for the Khedive for a period of three years. Legend has it that being familiar with Western music he helped stage Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Aida at the opening of the Suez Canal in 1870, and was given a mummy by the Khedive which he sold in Chicago to pay a county commissioner for an appointment at the Cook County Hospital. There he worked as a pathologist between 1878 and 1893 and was in charge of a popular teaching service for medical doctors, interns, and residents.
Appointed surgeon at the Cook County Hospital in 1880, he continued in that capacity for 12 years. He may have been a better pathologist than surgeon because some have commended that his surgical technique left something to be desired, his operations unduly long, his long incisions reminiscent of those seen in the autopsy room, and mortality rate high.
As an effective teacher he emphasized the need to correlate the patient’s clinical history with the findings observed at autopsy. His pathology demonstrations and surgical clinics became the center of post-graduate teaching in the Midwest, and he greatly influenced generations of doctors who came after him. In 1893 he became professor of surgery at Northwestern Medical School, returning in 1899 to Rush Medical College. He was a man of stocky build and medium height, of northern European appearance and accent, friendly and entertaining but brusque and preoccupied in his ways. It is said that he spoke 11 languages. He died at the age of 62 and is remembered as one of the greats of early Chicago medicine.
GEORGE DUNEA, MD, Editor-in-Chief
Summer 2018 | Sections | Surgery | Chicago Medicine