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Harvey Cushing, the Spine Surgeon: The Surgical Treatment of Pott Disease

Bydon, Ali MD*; Dasenbrock, Hormuzdiyar H. BA; Pendleton, Courtney BS; McGirt, Matthew J. MD; Gokaslan, Ziya L. MD*; Quinones-Hinojosa, Alfredo MD§

doi: 10.1097/BRS.0b013e3181f2a2c6
Historical Perspective

Study Design. Review of historical archival records.

Objective. Describe Harvey Cushing's patients with spinal pathology.

Summary of Background Data. Harvey Cushing was a pioneer of modern surgery but his work on spine remains largely unknown.

Methods. Review of the Chesney Medical Archives of the Johns Hopkins Hospital from 1896 to 1912.

Results. This is the first time that Cushing's spinal cases while he was at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, including those with Pott disease, have been described.

Cushing treated three young men with psoas abscesses secondary to Pott disease during his residency: he drained the abscesses, debrided any accompanying necrotic vertebral bodies, irrigated the cavity with salt, and left the incision open to close by secondary intention. Although Cushing used Koch's “tuberculin therapy” (of intravenous administration of isolated tubercular bacilli) in one patient, he did not do so in the other two, likely because of the poor response of this first patient. Later in his tenure, Cushing performed a laminectomy on a patient with kyphosis and paraplegia secondary to Pott disease.

Conclusion. These cases provide a view of Cushing early in his career, pointing to the extraordinary degree of independence that he had during his residency under William Steward Halsted; these cases may have been important in the surgical upbringing both of Cushing and his coresident, William Stevenson Baer, who became the first professor of Orthopedics at Johns Hopkins Hospital. At the turn of the last century, Pott disease was primarily treated by immobilization with bed rest, braces, and plaster-of-paris jackets; some surgeons also employed gradual correction of the deformity by hyperextension. Patients who failed a trial of conservative therapy (of months to years) were treated with a laminectomy. However, the limitations of these strategies led to the development of techniques that form the basis of contemporary spine surgery—instrumentation and fusion.

Although Harvey Cushing was one of the pioneers of modern surgery, few know that he was also a spinal surgeon. He treated patients with Pott disease during the era that saw the development of techniques that are the basis of contemporary spinal surgery—including instrumentation and fusion.

* Department of Neurosurgery, Johns Hopkins Spinal Column Biomechanics and Surgical Outcomes Laboratory, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, MD.

School of Medicine, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD.

Department of Neurosurgery, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN.

§ Department of Neurosurgery, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, MD.

Address correspondence and reprint requests to Ali Bydon, MD, Department of Neurosurgery, Johns Hopkins University, 600 N. Wolfe St, Meyer 5-109, Baltimore, MD 21287; E-mail:

Acknowledgement date: April 7, 2010. Revision date: June 11, 2010. Acceptance date: June 15, 2010.

The manuscript submitted does not contain information about medical device(s)/drug(s).

No funds were received in support of this work. No benefits in any form have been or will be received from a commercial party related directly or indirectly to the subject of this manuscript.

© 2011 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.