Owen H. Wangensteen

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Winning Nomination

Dr. Owen Wangensteen, chief of surgery at the University of Minnesota Hospitals from 1930 through 1967, trained more chairmen of surgery departments throughout the United States than any American surgeon before or since.

He was instrumental in developing many new surgical procedures for cancer of the stomach and bowel. He invented the nasogastric suction apparatus that was to be used around the world following gastric, colon, and other abdominal surgical operations.

He teamed with Dr. Maurice Vischer, the director of the Physiology Department in the medical school, requiring each surgical resident to acquaint himself in the animal laboratories with normal mammalian physiology. One of his residents in training, Dr. C. Walton Lillehei, went on to successfully complete the first open-heart surgery (at the University of Minnesota), and another, Dr. Christiaan Barnard, completed the first heart transplant.

Wangensteen grew up on a farm in western Minnesota. While still in high school he decided he was going to be a farmer, but his father said, "No, you are going to college." When Wangensteen protested, his father one summer gave him the job of transferring a large manure pile from one side of the barnyard to another. After that summer Wangensteen decided to go to college. In medical school his brilliance was recognized, and the University sent him to Germany to study with their world-famous surgeons.

He had the unusual ability to remember even small facts about patients and their lives. He was a voracious reader and could retain minute details of medical journal articles, even to the footnotes, which he was known to quote when making a point. Following retirement he could be seen leaving the medical library with more books than he could carry. He was active and learning until the day he died. He has to be considered the most famous surgeon from Minnesota, and certainly one of the most famous physicians.
~John Reichert, Hopkins, MN

Runner-up Nominations

This amazing gentleman was not only instrumental in the ascent of the University of Minnesota School of Medicine to its present status as world leader, but founded Medtronic which brings life-saving technology to us all.
~Marc Berg, Tucson, AZ

Dr. Wangensteen was a surgeon, professor and researcher at the University of Minnesota Medical School and Hospitals. He was a pioneer in researching and teaching new surgery methods, such as the Wangensteen suction tube used during abdominal surgery. During his time as chief of surgery,the University of Minnesota's Surgery Department was a leader in the development of open-heart surgery in the 1950s. Two of his students Dr. Christian Barnard and Dr. Norman Shumway went on to perform heart transplants. He was also noted for cancer surgery and started an early-detection research program to search for ways of finding cancer early when surgery could be more successful.

Dr. Wangensteen, 1898-1981, received many honors and awards in America and Europe. I think that he definitely would qualify as an influential force in Minnesota history: an innovative surgeon, researcher and teacher.
~Joanne Johnsrud, Albert Lea, MN




Making the impossible almost commonplace

Young Owen Wangensteen wanted to be a farmer. He grew up on a farm in Becker County in western Minnesota, a lifestyle that agreed with him. But Owen's father wanted his son to go to college instead, so he handed him a shovel and directed him to move manure from one building to another. After that formative experience, the would-be farmer was college bound.

Score one for tough love. Owen Wangensteen grew up to be a ground breaking surgeon and researcher who headed the University of Minnesota's Department of Surgery from 1930 to 1967. Wangensteen once said that the best teachers are those who inspire excellence in others, and in fact his greatest contribution to his profession may have been as a mentor. C. Walton Lillehei, one of Wangensteen's protégés, who, with F. John Lewis, performed the world's first successful open-heart surgery in 1952, credited Wangensteen with supporting bold research that yielded impressive results. "He was a very firm believer that where knowledge was lacking, it could often be rapidly broadened in the experimental laboratory," Lillehei once said. In 1955, Richard DeWall, also a Wangensteen trainee, introduced the bubble oxygenator, an artificial heart-lung machine that sent oxygen through the heart during operations and is the prototype of equipment still in use today.

And the list goes on. Christiaan Barnard, the South African surgeon who performed the first human heart transplant in 1967, received his PhD at the University of Minnesota during Wangensteen's tenure, as did Norman Shumway, who devised techniques for successful heart surgeries. "He was never jealous," said J. Ernesto Molina, the last student to earn his PhD under Wangensteen. "I had never seen a doctor like him. He considered himself just the helper to get everyone ahead."

"Plant a tree for prosperity in the orchard of your profession. It will give you enduring satisfaction though you may never live to see it mature; its growth can project your image and wishes far into time and space."
Owen Wangensteen, in the Journal of the American Medical Association

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