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Theodor Billroth: A Surgeon by Profession, A Musician by Passion

Theodor Billroth, the Father of Modern Abdominal Surgery, never planned to be a doctor. As a matter of fact, his passion was music, and he was deemed to be a poor student who lacked the ability to focus on anything else. However, at the wishes of his mother and the prodding of his friends, Theodor Billroth entered medical school . . . and went on to prove that one need not abandon their dreams to be successful. Life in the Medical Field Theodor Billroth was born on April 26, 1829 in Prussia. His father died when he was five, leaving his family no other choice but to move to his grandparents’ house in Greifswald, Germany. He began his medical education here and later enrolled in the University of Gottingen and University of Berlin. After receiving his doctorate degree in medicine in 1852, Theodor Billroth went to work briefly in the clinic of the famous ophthalmologist, Albrecht von Graefe. Then, following a failed attempt to start his own practice in Vienna, Theodor returned to the University of Berlin, where he studied pathological anatomy, lectured, and demonstrated surgical techniques for several years. It was here in Berlin that he met and fell in love with his wife, Christine. Their marriage brought them five children, four daughters and a son. In 1860, Billroth transferred to Zurich, where he introduced the concept of audits - reporting both good and bad results in order to foster frank discussion of surgical techniques. Seven years later, he was appointed professor of surgery at the University of Vienna. During his tenure in Vienna, Theodore Billroth performed several landmark surgeries, including the first esophagectomy in 1871 and the first laryngectomy in 1873. He is most famous, however, for performing the first successful gastrectomy for gastric cancer in 1881. His success came after many failed attempts, and in what I consider a rather serious job hazard, Billroth was allegedly nearly stoned to death in the streets of Vienna when his first gastrectomy patient died. Life with Music Though Billroth became a renowned surgeon, his love for music never waned. During his prime, Theodor Billroth became the good friend and confidante of the famous composer Johannes Brahms. The well-known composer even asked Billroth to review a few of his works and dedicated two of his string quartets to him. Though he had played the piano as a child, Billroth had a passion for string instruments and took up the viola in his adult years. He played in a popular string quartet for a long while, spent late nights in the city while enjoying the company of Brahms and other musicians, became a guest conductor at the Zurich symphony orchestra twice , and wrote a book entitled, “Wer ist musikalisch?” (What does it mean to be musical?), which was an organized approach on how music can relate to man’s physiological and psychological nature. Indeed, Billroth was a man with many talents. In our sleep-deprived world filled with rushed coffee breaks and overdue paperwork, balancing work and play can often seem like an impossible task. Yet Theodor Billroth found the time to become a legendary surgeon AND a respected musician - an inspiring example of living life to the fullest.