Owen H. Wangensteen, M.D., Ph.D.
Dr. Owen H. Wangensteen served as chairman of the University of Minnesota’s Surgery Department from 1930 until 1967. Fondly called “The Chief” by his colleagues, Wangensteen left a legacy of dedication as a clinical surgeon, prowess as a medical educator, and enthusiasm for original scientific investigation.
Born on a farm in Lake Park, Minnesota, in 1898, Wangensteen earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of Minnesota in 1919. He then graduated from medical school in 1922, at the top of his class of 82 students. A fellowship in internal medicine required him to carry out a laboratory research project. After spending 1924 at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, he returned to the University in 1925 to complete his Ph.D. degree.
Wangensteen then studied in Switzerland, first with Dr. Fritz de Quervain at Bern’s Surgical Clinic and next with Dr. Leon Ascher of the Physiologic Institute. Working with Ascher reinforced his belief in the partnership between surgical research and physiology – as evidenced by the long and fruitful association he later enjoyed with physiologist Maurice Visscher back at the University.
When Wangensteen returned to Minneapolis in 1928, he was promoted to associate professor of surgery. In 1930, he became the first full-time head of the Surgery Department. He started with 1 surgical fellow and 2 interns, caring for about 130 patients. At his retirement in 1967, he presided over 100 surgical fellows, 18 interns, and 200 surgical beds.
Wangensteen nurtured one of the finest schools of intracardiac surgery anywhere. The world’s first successful open-heart surgery was done at the University in 1952. F. John Lewis, assisted by Richard L. Varco, C. Walton Lillehei, and others, closed an atrial secundum defect in a 5-year-old girl under direct vision, using inflow stasis and moderate total-body hypothermia.
Another of Wangensteen’s lasting legacies was the Surgical Forum of the American College of Surgeons. He founded the Forum in 1940 as a stimulus to young surgeons to present their ideas to their peers.
He always referred to himself as a “plumber of the alimentary tract,” having worked at both ends. Among his many clinical contributions were advances in the management of intestinal obstruction and the use of the Wangensteen gastric tube. Poet Ogden Nash once wrote, “May I find my final rest in Owen Wangensteen’s intestine/knowing that his masterly suction/will assure my resurrection.”
Wangensteen believed that gastric hypothermia was a definite means of controlling peptic ulcer diathesis. He also worked on cancer of the alimentary tract, fashioning a number of radical operations and establishing the first cancer detection center.
Besides his surgical accomplishment, he was co-editor of the journal of Surgery from 1937 to 1970. His bibliography lists more than 900 medical publications, including several books (Intestinal Obstruction, 1937; Cancer of the Esophagus, 1951). After his retirement in 1967, he and his wife, Sarah Davidson Wangensteen (senior medical historian emeritus, History of Medicine Department, University of Minnesota), completed The Rise of Surgery: From Empiric Craft to Scientific Discipline, published in 1978.
Wangensteen died on January 13, 1981. The day before, he had been editing a book on Elias Lyon, his close friend and former dean of the medical school.