Skip to main content

Military Health System

'America’s First Brain Surgeon' Served During Civil War and World War I

Image of Dr. William Williams Keen Jr was a medical surgeon during the Civil War who afterwards advocated and researched medical advances so the horrors of Civil War-era medicine would not occur again. He also served in the Army during World War I. Dr. William Williams Keen Jr was a medical surgeon during the Civil War who afterwards advocated and researched medical advances so the horrors of Civil War-era medicine would not occur again. He also served in the Army during World War I. (Photo courtesy National Library of Medicine)

Recommended Content:

Our History

Army Maj. (Dr.) William Williams Keen Jr. was a pioneering military doctor whose career spanned surgical duty on the bloody battlefields of the American Civil War through influential research work during World War I.

Once known as "America's first brain surgeon," Keen helped propel numerous advances in medicine. He played a key role in the birth of bacteriology, neurology, use of antisepsis, sterile surgical techniques, brain surgery, and the breakthrough discovery that insects carry and spread diseases.

With a unique perspective after serving in two cataclysmic wars, Keen wrote a 1918 paper called "Military Surgery in 1861 and in 1918."

In it, he marveled at the knowledge gained in the field of military medicine during his 50 years of service and expressed his excitement for what was to come in the next 50 years and beyond, according to staff at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Spring, Maryland.

In his influential paper, Keen lamented the countless deaths during the Civil War that could have been avoided with better military field surgical techniques and surgeons with advanced knowledge.

"Between these two dates is a veritable chasm of ignorance which we can only really appreciate when we peer over its edge and discover how broad and deep it is," he wrote.

"Clinical observation has done much, but research and chiefly experimental research, has done far more."

"Research has not yet ceased to give us better and better methods of coping with disease and death, and – thank God – it will never cease so long as disease and death continue to afflict the human race," he wrote.

Keen's work played an important role in the significant improvements in battlefield survival rates during conflicts in the 20th century.

Interests and Advances

He attributed his expertise to the successes of rigorous research, for which he passionately advocated, according to a profile by the National Museum of Health and Medicine, a branch of the Research Support Division of the Defense Health Agency Research and Engineering Directorate.

During the Civil War, Keen developed an interest in documenting injuries of the nervous system. Those studies are considered to be the origin of American neurology.

His service centered on Turner's Lane Hospital in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, which was devoted to treating injuries and diseases of the nerves. There, he was an associate of Dr. George R. Morehouse and Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, who was an early believer in what is commonly known as phantom limb pain.

Keen collaborated with both men to write a classic text, "Gunshot Wounds and Other Injuries of Nerves," published in 1864, said Laura Cutter, an archivist at the museum.

When Dr. Joseph Lister, an influential British surgeon, came to Philadelphia during his 1876 tour of America, Keen heard his views on antisepsis in surgery and was one of the first American surgeons to adopt Lister's system. In 1892, Keen co-authored the first American surgery text based on Listerian principles, Cutter said.

Keen also gained celebrity as the first surgeon in the Americas to perform a successful brain tumor removal in 1887. As such, he became known as "America's first brain surgeon."

He saw surgical duty while still in medical school at the first major battle of the Civil War, the First Battle of Bull Run in Manassas, Virginia, in July 1861. He also served during the Second Battle of Bull Run in August 1862, and, at the deadliest one-day battle in American military history, the Battle of Antietam, Sharpsburg, Maryland, in September 1862.

In March 1862, he was commissioned out of medical school as an acting assistant surgeon in the Union Army and was in charge of Eckington General Hospital near Washington, D.C.

You also may be interested in...

NICoE Deputy Director Receives Department of Defense's Highest Civilian Honor

Article
1/27/2023
U.S. Army Lt. Gen. (Dr.) Ronald J. Place  and Dr. Louis French at award ceremony

The work of one of the Department of Defense’s foremost experts on the treatment of traumatic brain injury was recently honored with the department's highest award given to career DOD civilian employees.

Recommended Content:

Defense Intrepid Network for TBI and Brain Health | The National Intrepid Center of Excellence | Our History

DHA Will Serve “Anytime, Anywhere – Always,” Says New Director

Article
1/4/2023
U.S. Army Maj. Gen. (Dr.) Telita Crosland becomes the Defense Health Agency's fourth director at a ceremony held in Falls Church, Virginia, on Jan. 3.

The new director of the Defense Health Agency, U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Telita Crosland accepted her new role as leader of the Department of Defense’s medical agency.

Recommended Content:

Our History | Defense Health Agency

Defense Health Agency Change of Directorship - Remarks from DHA Director Maj. Gen. Telita Crosland

Video
1/3/2023
Defense Health Agency Change of Directorship - Remarks from DHA Director Maj. Gen. Telita Crosland

U.S. Army Maj. Gen. (Dr.) Telita Crosland becomes the fourth director of the Defense Health Agency (DHA) in a ceremony Jan. 3, 2023, at Defense Health Headquarters in Falls Church, Virginia.

Recommended Content:

Our History | Defense Health Agency

Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society Visiting Nurse Program Celebrates 100 Years

Article Around MHS
12/2/2022
Shannon Williams, visiting nurse for Navy and Marine Corps Relief Society

The Visiting Nurse Program of Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society (NMCRS) organization provides specialized care to the communities they serve around the world. Founded on November 25, 1922 when Nell Watson was hired as the first visiting nurse at the Parris Island Branch Auxiliary, the program celebrated its centennial anniversary Nov. 25, 2022.

Recommended Content:

Nursing in the Military Health System | Our History

The “Human Bomb”: How Air Force Surgeons Made Medical History in Vietnam

Article Around MHS
11/29/2022
U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. James Humphreys

On November 5, 1965, Air Force surgeons were confronted with a bomb, literally. But instead of coming face-to-face with a device, they were confronted with a patient who had a live grenade embedded in his back, essentially making the patient a walking human bomb.

Recommended Content:

Our History

History of Navy Medicine's Research and Development Global Enterprise

Article Around MHS
11/2/2022
Historic image of the Naval Medical Research Institute

Before there was the Naval Medical Research Center (NMRC) there was the Naval Medical Research Institute (NMRI).

Recommended Content:

Our History | Research & Innovation

Born in Harm's Way: The Advent of Navy Medicine in the Revolutionary War

Article Around MHS
10/21/2022
The Bonhomme Richard vs. HMS Serapis infographic

The U.S. Navy recognized Oct. 13 as its official birthdate. It was on this day in 1775 that the Continental Congress authorized the construction of the first Navy ships as well as a special committee to oversee the administration of this service.

Recommended Content:

Our History

Dedicated Korean War Navy Medic Worked “Feverishly” to Save Lives

Article
9/22/2022
Profile photo of a sailor

U.S. Navy Hospitalman Francis Hammond was awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor for selflessly saving lives and risking his own during the Korean War.

Recommended Content:

Our History

From a Small Twig Comes 75 Years of Medical Readiness

Article Around MHS
8/15/2022
Military personnel celebrating MSC milestone

For 75 years, the Navy Medical Service Corps has long been regarded as the most diverse corps, comprised of health care administrators, clinicians, and scientists.

Recommended Content:

Our History

Air Force Women's History: First Commissioned Female Physician

Article Around MHS
6/23/2022
Capt Dorothy Armstrong Elias sworn in

On March 14, 1951, Capt. (Dr.) Dorothy Armstrong Elias became the first woman physician sworn into the Air Force.

Recommended Content:

Our History

Facility Dogs Play a Vital Role in Recovery for Patients Across the MHS

Article
5/27/2022
Luke is a German Shephard facility dog.

Each dog has his or her own rank, service, and uniform and is inducted in an enlistment or commissioning ceremony. Today, the Facility Dog Program at WRNMMC includes Sully, a yellow Lab who was former President George H.W. Bush’s service dog.

Recommended Content:

Our History | Health Readiness & Combat Support

Military Medical Museum Celebrates 160th birthday with mobile app

Photo
5/17/2022
Military Medical Museum Celebrates 160th birthday with mobile app

National Museum of Health and Medicine, Silver Spring, Maryland, visitor uses the NMHM mobile app while looking at objects from the Innovations in Military Medicine Gallery.

Recommended Content:

Our History

Vietnam War Commemoration Presents DHA Director with Commemorative Flag

Article
4/28/2022
U.S. Army Lt. Gen. (Dr.) Ron Place, Defense Health Agency director, receives a commemorative Vietnam War flag from Army Maj. Gen. (Retired) Peter Aylward, The United States of America Vietnam Commemoration director. (Photo: Sonia Clark, MHS Communications)

Lt. Gen. Place receives Vietnam War commemorative flag.

Recommended Content:

Our History

A History of the Combat Helmet and the Quest to Prevent Injuries

Article
4/25/2022
Lt. Gen. George S. Patton and Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr. are pictured here in 1943 wearing the standard M1 helmet, sometimes called the "steel pot." (Photo: 1st Infantry Division Courtesy Photo)

The combat helmet has evolved over time to improve protection against projectiles and shock waves to reduce the risk of fatal blows and traumatic brain injuries.

Recommended Content:

Traumatic Brain Injury Center of Excellence | Our History | Injury Prevention

Ceremony Marks New Name for RIA Health Clinic to Woodson Health Clinic, Honoring World War II Combat Medic

Article
4/21/2022
Stephen Woodson looks at the plaque painting of his father, Staff Sgt. Waverly Woodson Jr., a World War II First U.S. Army combat medic hero, following the unveiling of it during a renaming dedication ceremony at Rock Island Arsenal, Illinois, April 14. The health clinic was renamed Woodson Health Clinic. (Photo: Jon Micheal Connor, ASC Public Affairs)

The Rock Island Arsenal Health Clinic received a new name in honor of a heroic First U.S. Army Soldier in a moving ceremony here in Heritage Hall April 14. The new name is the Woodson Health Clinic in honor of Staff Sgt. Waverly B. Woodson Jr.

Recommended Content:

Our History
<< < 1 2 3 > >> 
Showing results 1 - 15 Page 1 of 3
Refine your search
Last Updated: May 17, 2022
Follow us on Instagram Follow us on LinkedIn Follow us on Facebook Follow us on Twitter Follow us on YouTube Sign up on GovDelivery