Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

The surgeon who invented the Penrose drain

Charles Bingham Penrose. Via Wikimedia.

Charles Bingham Penrose was born in Pennsylvania in 1862. Tall and athletic, he once traveled on horseback from Philadelphia to Niagara Falls and back. He also swam fifteen miles in the ocean in five hours. In 1897 on a hunting trip in Montana he killed a bear cub and was nearly mauled to death by the cub’s mother. Left with bones protruding from his wrist, he performed surgery on himself and saved the use of his hand.

Penrose graduated concurrently with a medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania and a Ph.D. in physics at Harvard. In 1885 he became a medical resident at the Pennsylvania Hospital and participated in research on the diuretic effects of injected cocaine. Hired as an attending outpatient surgeon at Pennsylvania Hospital, he invented in 1890 the device called to this day the Penrose drain.

The Penrose drain is a soft, flexible tube usually made of rubber and used to prevent the risk of infection after surgery. One part of the tube is installed inside the body to help promote drainage of blood, lymph, and other fluids; the other part is left protruding and exposed to the air. Penrose drains were widely used until suction drainage was introduced in the 1950s.

In 1888, Penrose founded with his father the Gynecean Hospital, the first hospital exclusively for women in Philadelphia. He served as the hospital’s chief surgeon, but contracted tuberculosis in 1891 and left his Philadelphia medical practice. Moving to Wyoming, he undertook a regimen of physical activity and recovered. He also became involved in an episode in which two cattle thieves were murdered; he was arrested and barely escaped from being lynched.

On returning to Philadelphia, Penrose was hired as Professor of Gynecology at the University of Pennsylvania (1893). He authored a textbook on Diseases of Women that by 1908 went through six editions. For the last two decades of his life, Penrose directed much of his attention to zoology and conservation issues. He is remembered for establishing a zoological laboratory at the Philadelphia Zoo, the first such laboratory in America. He died in 1925 in his drawing room on the train near Washington DC, possibly from a heart attack.



GEORGE DUNEA, MD, Editor-in-Chief


Summer 2023  |  Sections  |  Surgery

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