Department History

Neurological surgery in the city of Pittsburgh can be traced back to 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 beginnings of a dedicated neurosurgical service that would become a leader and innovator in the field. His move to Pittsburgh was prompted by a letter from L.H. Landon, Sr., MD, the chief of general surgery at West Penn Hospital, emphasizing the need for a formally trained neurosurgeon in Pittsburgh. It is said that Rowe won a coin toss over W. James 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 in Pittsburgh based on the many, loosely affiliated community hospitals in the area. His goal was to establish a strong neurosurgery service in Pittsburgh. He also had a strong interest in research and wrote several pioneering papers on the neurosurgical treatment of pain, brain abscess and cerebral trauma.

Rowe's plans were put on hold during World War II as he volunteered for military service, serving as an Army lieutenant colonel, treating casualties triaged to a southern England military hospital. Upon his return to Pittsburgh at the end of the war, he again led the neurosurgery service at the university, which was then a section under the Division of General Surgery. Rowe then restarted his mission to unify the neurosurgical service in the Pittsburgh area. He also began to train residents, a journey that would eventually produce one of the strongest neurosurgical training programs in the country.

Stuart Niles Rowe, Dorothy Klenke Nash, Anthony F. Susen and Peter Jannetta 

During this time, a landmark moment in the history of neurosurgery occurred with the hiring of Dorothy Klenke Nash, MD, the first woman to practice neurosurgery in the United States. A graduate of the elite Bryn Mawr (Pa.) College in 1921 and the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1925, Nash received training in both neurology and neurosurgery under the guidance of Byron Stookey at Bellevue (NY) Hospital in the late 1920s. She moved to Pittsburgh in 1936, but did not gain hospital appointment until a chance meeting with Morris Abel Slocum, MD, then chief of general surgery at St. Margaret Hospital. At the time, Nash was volunteering as a phlebotomist at a local blood bank. While donating blood, Slocum learned of Nash's background in neurosurgery and quickly appointed her acting chief of neurosurgery at St. Margaret. She later joined Rowe at Presbyterian University Hospital, paving the way for other women in the field. Rowe placed his service under Nash's care while he served during WWII.

Rowe began the first formal neurosurgery residency program at West Penn Hospital in 1949. Another program was also established at Mercy Hospital in the same year under the direction of Floyd Bragden, MD, who arrived in Pittsburgh three years after Rowe. The two programs were consolidated under the University of Pittsburgh at Presbyterian University Hospital in 1952, where it continues to this day. 

With Rowe's own training firmly based in academic neurosurgery, he sought to acquire residents with a commitment to research, teaching and independent thought. Rowe believed that neurosurgery training should not only teach exceptional technique, but also the critical clinical decision-making skills necessary to succeed. He preached the underlying need for thorough literature review and independent research as a means for broadening clinical knowledge.

In 1964, Henry Bahnson, MD, the chair of General Surgery, appointed Sidney Goldring, MD, of St. Louis as the first chief of the Division of Neurological Surgery. After two years, Dr. Goldring returned to St. Louis where he was named professor and chair of neurosurgery at Washington University. 

Upon Goldring's departure, Anthony F. Susen, MD, was named the second chief of the Division of Neurological Surgery. Susen—trained at Bowman Gray Medical School and Harvard—had joined the university in 1953 as a clinical instructor and worked with Rowe into the 1960s. He held the same belief as Rowe that residency training programs should stress thorough literature review and independent research as well as exceptional techniques. Susen was also the first pediatric neurosurgeon in the Pittsburgh area and, at the time, was the only pediatric-focused neurosurgeon between Chicago and New York. Under his direction, other facilities including Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh and the Veterans Administration Medical Center, became part of the service.

In 1971, Peter Joseph Jannetta, MD, was appointed the first chair of the University of Pittsburgh Department of Neurological Surgery. 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 trained in neurosurgery. During his tenure, he trained 49 residents—including four future department chairmen—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 chair. 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 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 two such devices and is a world leader in Gamma Knife treatment and education, having treated more than 18,000 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, as interim chairman of the department. Dr. Kassam was subsequently appointed chair 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, a noted cerebrovascular and neuro-oncologic surgeon and researcher, became the fourth chair in the department’s history. Dr. Friedlander carved a prominent career as a clinician and scientist at Harvard Medical School and Women’s Hospital in Boston before coming to Pittsburgh. His strong leadership in both clinical and research areas has further established the University of Pittsburgh Department of Neurological Surgery as a world-leader in the academic neurosurgical field.

In June of 2011, the University of Pittsburgh Department of Neurological Surgery residency program was ranked as the most productive residency program in the nation in terms of graduates remaining and contributing in academic neurosurgery, according to a study published online in the Journal of Neurosurgery.

The study’s authors sought to determine those programs that produce a high number of graduates remaining within academic programs and the contribution of these graduates to academic neurosurgery. In the study, 97 academic neurosurgery departments with 986 faculty members were analyzed. All data regarding training program and medical school education were compiled and analyzed according to the center from which each faculty member graduated. The neurosurgery training program at the University of Pittsburgh produced the highest number of academic neurosurgeons in this sample.

In another similar study published in the Journal of Neurosurgery in 2015, the department ranked among the top five neurosurgical residency programs in the country in terms of academic publishing output of faculty. In this comprehensive, five-year study, researchers used bibliometrics—the statistical analysis of written publications—to calculate the objective impact of academic papers. The results showed that the University of Pittsburgh Department of Neurological Surgery had the third highest score of 103 neurosurgical residency programs across the United States for papers published by its faculty from 2009 through 2013.

Today, the department has over 60 faculty members, 29 residents and well over 200 support personnel serving patients in dozens of hospitals and clinics throughout western Pennsylvania and the surrounding region.