Neurological surgery in the city of Pittsburgh began in 1936 with the arrival of Stuart Niles Rowe, a promising young surgeon trained under the auspices of Charles H. Frazier in Philadelphia. Rowe's arrival marked the birth of a neurosurgical department that would become a leader in the field. His move here was prompted by a letter from Dr. L.H. Landon Sr., the chief of general surgery at West Penn Hospital, to Frazier in 1935, emphasizing the need for a formally trained neurosurgeon in Pittsburgh. It is said that Rowe, at the end of his residency, won a coin toss over William J. Gardner for the opportunity to migrate to the Pittsburgh area and set up practice. Gardner subsequently moved to the Cleveland area and developed his own neurosurgical center.
Rowe, a Michigan native, developed a strong clinical practice based on the loosely affiliated community hospitals in the Pittsburgh area. He focused his research activities at the University of Pittsburgh and wrote several pioneering papers on the neurosurgical treatment of pain, brain abscess, and cerebral trauma. An avid sportsman and devoted father, he dedicated at least one day a week to physical fitness and family life. Rowe began the first formal residency program at West Penn Hospital in 1949 and consolidated this program at Presbyterian University Hospital within the University of Pittsburgh in 1952. Another program was also established at Mercy Hospital in 1949 under the direction of Floyd Bragden, who arrived in Pittsburgh three years after Rowe. Bragden, trained by Jefferson Browder at Kings County Hospital, was a Pittsburgh native and a well-known acoustic tumor surgeon.
The first woman to practice neurosurgery in the area was Dr. Dorothy Klinke Nash. Having completed training in both neurology and neurosurgery at Bellevue Hospital under the guidance of Byron Stookey in the late 1920s, Nash moved to the Pittsburgh area in 1936 but did not gain hospital appointment until a chance meeting with Dr. Morris Abel Slocum, the chief of general surgery at St. Margaret Hospital. At the time, Nash worked at the blood bank. While drawing Slocum's blood, he determined Nash's background in neurosurgery and immediately appointed her to a staff position. This appointment was a landmark in that she became the first woman to practice neurosurgery in the United States and thereby pioneered the way for other women in the field. Shortly thereafter she was appointed to the hospital staff at the University under Rowe. A graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, Nash was named Pennsylvania Woman of the Year in 1957.
Rowe volunteered for military service in World War II, served as an Army lieutenant colonel, and treated casualties triaged to a southern England military hospital. Upon return to Pittsburgh at the end of the war, he resumed control of the neurosurgery service at the University, which was then a division of General Surgery. With characteristic zeal and his newly acquired military background, Rowe embarked on a mission to unify the service, which performed operations at many local hospitals. He also began to train residents.
His own training firmly based in academic neurosurgery, Rowe sought to acquire residents with a commitment to research, teaching, and independent thought. The conference schedule included joint conferences with the Mercy Hospital neurosurgical program and a monthly journal club that convened after dinner at Rowe's home.
A key addition to the staff during this time was Dr. Anthony Fredrick Susen. Dr. Susen joined the department in 1953 as a clinical instructor after completing his training at both Bowman Gray Medical School and Harvard. The Illinois native graduated from Dartmouth College and Harvard Medical School. He held the same belief as Rowe: that residency training programs should be designed to teach not only exceptional surgical technique, but also the critical clinical decision-making skills needed for properly selecting patients who would benefit from neurosurgical intervention. Susen supported Rowe's beliefs in training residents and emphasized the need for thorough literature review and independent research as a means of broadening clinical knowledge.
Rowe and Susen worked together into the 1960s. In 1964, Dr. Henry Bahnson, the chair of General Surgery, appointed Dr. Sidney Goldring of St. Louis to be the first chief of the Division of Neurological Surgery. After two years, Goldring returned to St. Louis as a professor of neurosurgery and subsequently was named chairman at Washington University. In 1966, Susen was named acting chief and, under his direction, other facilities including Children's Hospital and the Veterans Administration Medical Center became part of the service. During the tenure of Rowe and Susen from 1952 to 1971, 19 neurosurgery residents trained at the University of Pittsburgh.
In 1971, Dr. Peter Joseph Jannetta, was appointed professor and chairman of the newly formed Department of Neurological Surgery and served in the post for 25 years. Dr. Jannetta is universally known for his work in the treatment of cranial nerve disorders, developing a microvascular decompression procedure -- widely known as the ‘Jannetta Procedure’ -- that offers trigeminal neuralgia patients an effective therapeutic alternative when medications fail. Although Dr. Jannetta’s scientific and leadership contributions are significant, perhaps his greatest achievement is the legacy of outstanding international leaders he has trained in neurosurgery. During his tenure he trained 49 residents -- including four future department chairmans -- and was honored with an endowed professorship, appropriately named after Walter E. Dandy -- considered one of the founding fathers of neurosurgery. In June of 2000, Dr. Jannetta retired from the University of Pittsburgh and subsequently took a position with Allegheny General Hospital.
In 1997, L. Dade Lunsford, MD, was selected as the second department chairman. In the ensuing decade, Dr. Lunsford guided the department to an elite position in the academic community. Under his guidance, the department established itself as one of the top academic neurosurgical departments in the country -- continuing Dr. Jannetta’s tradition of training strong, well-rounded residents -- and developed into one the most extensive neurological research programs in the nation. Dr. Lunsford also established the department as one of the leading stereotactic radiosurgical programs in the world. In 1987, he was responsible for bringing the Gamma Knife to the University of Pittsburgh, the first center in the United States to offer this state-of-the-art, minimally invasive form of brain surgery. The university now has three such devices and is a world leader in Gamma Knife treatment and education, having treated over 10,000 patients.
In June of 2006, Dr. Lunsford announced his decision to step down as department chair in order to devote more time to his clinical work, clinical investigation, and resident and fellow training. University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine dean, Arthur S. Levine, MD, appointed Amin Kassam, MD, assistant professor of neurological surgery and co-director of the Minimally Invasive endoNeurosurgery Center, interim chairman of the department. Dr. Kassam was subsequently appointed chairman by Dr. Levine in May of 2007. In June of 2009, Dr. Kassam resigned as chairman and subsequently left the department.
On June 1, 2010 Robert M. Friedlander, MD, became the fourth chair in the department’s history. Dr. Friedlander -- formerly professor of neurosurgery at Harvard Medical School and vice-chairman of neurosurgery and associate director of cerebrovascular surgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston -- has carved a prominent career as a clinician and scientist. He is one of a very select group of authors to have been invited by the New England Journal of Medicine to write both a basic science review (mechanisms of neuronal cell death), as well as a clinical review (management of AVMs). As co-director of Brigham and Women’s Neuroscience Research Center, his work includes the evaluation of treatment strategies for neurodegenerative diseases (Huntington’s and ALS), stroke, brain trauma, and spinal cord injury through the modulation of the caspase-family apoptotic pathways. Dr. Friedlander’s research has received significant media attention including major work published in Nature, Science, and Nature Medicine.