Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Karl A. Meyer (1888-1972)

For over half a century, Dr. Karl Meyer was the absolute ruler of what under his command became the largest public hospital in the United States, the Cook County Hospital in Chicago. He interned there in 1908, joined its staff as attending surgeon in 1918, and at the age of 28 was appointed hospital superintendent. Between 1945 and 1952, he was a professor of surgery at Northwestern University. His private practice at Columbus Hospital was said to have been the busiest in Chicago, reportedly performing more than 100,000 operations and as many as 10 a day.

He greatly contributed to the growth of Cook County Hospital, expanding its campus and adding buildings so that by 1932 it had 3,000 beds. He founded a school for post-graduate medical education, organized the medical staff, and established affiliations with the university medical schools, appointing surgeons and associate surgeons from their faculties.

He had a particular interest in gastric surgery. All patients with gastric bleeding were admitted to his ward, and he achieved worldwide fame by pioneering the procedure of partial gastrectomy with vagotomy. He had a special interest in Crohn’s disease, and was the first to repair a tracheal- esophageal fistula in a baby. Every Saturday morning, he conducted a surgical clinic demonstration at the hospital, frequently carrying out a gastric resection for visitors to observe.

Many legends abound about Dr. Meyer. He lived in a penthouse of the hospital and to the great dismay of those in charge of the recovery room, walked his dogs through it every night. As an old school disciplinarian he demanded absolute quiet in the operating room, and strictly forbade smoking in the hospital. Effective as a politician, he was well-connected with “downtown”, and at one time was asked to run for mayor of the city. In 1959, he resigned from being surgery chairman at the hospital and retired from the hospital in 1967.


GEORGE DUNEA, MD, Editor-in-Chief


Summer 2018   |  Sections  |  Surgery  |  Chicago Medicine

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