Omaha was founded in 1854, as soon as Nebraska Territory opened to settlement. It was formally incorporated as a city on February 2, 1857, and was the territorial capital. In 1855, the first physician in the city, Dr. George Miller, “busied himself in public city health matters.” One of the first few ordinances passed by the new city government dealt with a public health issue—the disposal of dead animal carcasses that lay in the often very muddy streets. Over the ensuing years, city leaders continued to concern themselves with public health out of necessity.
The March 1894 edition of the “Monthly Report of the Department of Health, Omaha” (see image), was still reporting the number and type of dead animals removed from the streets and from public and private property, which included horses, mules, cows, dogs, cats, colts, calves, and hogs. This publication also listed communicable diseases reported in the city, including diphtheria, scarlet fever, measles, typhoid fever, diarrheal diseases, small pox, whooping cough, and puerpural sepsis.
At the granting of statehood, on March 1, 1867, the capital was removed to the new town of Lincoln, further west. The local governments of both the City of Omaha and Douglas County continued to be aware of and concerned about the health of their citizens. The library’s archives hold monthly reports of the Omaha Department of Health from March 1894 to 1903, and monthly and annual reports from 1938-1947, called the Health Bulletin, from the Omaha Bureau of Health. Later, there was a health agency known as the Omaha-Douglas County Health Department. The first Douglas County Hospital opened in 1887, and a City Emergency Hospital opened in 1912.
The first published illustration of an amputation scene, showing ligature-tourniquet, knife, and saw. The figure in the background has an injured hand, perhaps having lost fingers to encourage the patient having the amputation.
The illustration was published in a work by Hans von Gersdorff (born circa 1455), a German army surgeon with decades of experience. His landmark work was Feldtbüch der Wundartzney (Fieldbook of Surgery—i.e. “Wound Doctoring”), published in Strasburg in 1517. He was one of Germany’s most noted surgeons during the late 15th and early 16th centuries, though little is known about the personal life or background of the man
He described a number of surgical techniques and instruments in his text, accompanying them with several illustrations, including instructive illustrations of early surgical procedures. The work on surgery contained numerous woodcuts, partly anatomical, partly surgical. The latter showed graphically how operations were performed. Gersdorff concentrated on traumatic surgery and wounds, showing the extraction of arrows and bullets.
Many of the images were quite technical, if not always complete or precisely accurate. The book was widely used as a basic surgical text for many years, most notably for its advice on limb amputation, for which Gersdorff was reputed to be much experienced, with at least 200 procedures to his credit.
Gersdorff died in 1529 at the age of 74, presumably the consequence of old age rather than a gruesome amputation or surgery.
Eucharius Rösslin (c.1470-1526), was elected as the city physician of Frankfurt on Main in 1506. He also served as physician to the city of Worms, in the service of Katherine, wife of Henry IV, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg. While examining and supervising the city’s midwives, he found the practice of their trade to be careless and substandard, leading to high infant mortality rates.
To better educate midwives and improve the infant mortality rate, Rösslin wrote a book on child birth, which was published in 1513, Der swangern Frawen und Hebamme Rosegarten, which included engravings of a birth chair, the lying-in chamber, and positions of the fetus in utero. These were some of the earliest known published images in obstetrics. The book was written in German, instead of Latin (the scientific language of the time), so that more people would be able to read and understand it. The work was an immediate success, and it was published in English in 1540 as The Birth of Mankind. By the mid-16th century, it had been translated into all the major European languages and had gone through many editions. Rösslin dedicated Rosegarten to his patroness the Duchess of Brunswick-Lüneburg.
Despite his direct observation of midwives working in the city of Worms, Rösslin incorporated obstetrical information gleaned from writers of antiquity, such as Soranus of Ephesus, a Greek physician who lived in the 1st and 2nd C.E. In the introductory prologue in verse to his text, Rösslin emphasized the importance of the role of men in reproduction, and blames midwives who “through neglect and oversight . . . destroy children far and wide.” He threatens midwives with the warning that they will be held to account for their work: “And since no midwife that I’ve asked/Could tell me anything of her task/I’m left to my medical education.”
The year was 1967; Lyndon B. Johnson was the President of the United States. His Vice-President was Humbert H. Humphrey. The President’s Committee on Mental Retardation had recently been established.
Among the members of the committee were Muriel Humphrey, wife of the Vice-President, and Robert Kugel, M.D., professor and chairman of the Department of Pediatrics in the College of Medicine at UNMC. Dr. Kugel would become Dean of the College of Medicine in 1969, a position he would serve in until 1974.
A subcommittee chaired by Dr. Kugel met on the UNMC campus in February 1967. They heard testimony about the state of mental retardation programs throughout a five-state area. Nearly 150 people from around the five-state region attended the meeting.
The committee heard recommendations from members of the public one day, and then toured facilities in the region the following day. Mrs. Humphrey’s itinerary included the mental retardation research center at the former Nebraska Psychiatric Institute (NPI). The NPI was located in a building which is now the site of the Durham Research Centers.
The report issued by the President’s Committee on Mental Retardation in the summer of 1967 was titled “A first report to the President on the nation’s progress and remaining great needs in the campaign to combat mental retardation.”
Cecil L. Wittson, M.D. (1907-1989) was born in Camden, South Carolina. He received his BS degree from the University of South Carolina in 1927, and his MD degree in 1931. Wittson interned at Roper Hospital in Charleston, South Carolina, from 1931-1932, then held various posts at Central Islip State Hospital in New York. He received post graduate training at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in psychiatry and neurology from 1935-1938. In 1948, Wittson received certification from the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology. During World War II, Wittson rose to the rank of Commander in the Medical Corps of the U.S. Navy Reserve, serving from 1940-1946.
After World War II, he came to Nebraska where he became director of the Nebraska Psychiatric Institute in 1950, a position he held until 1964. That year, Wittson was named Dean of the University of Nebraska College of Medicine. He became President of the University of Nebraska Medical Center in 1969, and in 1971 this title was changed to Chancellor. He retired in 1972 and became Chancellor Emeritus. After his tenure at UNMC, he served as Director of Medical Programs with Henningson, Durham, & Richardson Consulting Architects and Engineers, in Omaha. In 1981, he retired to his native South Carolina and in 1985, he moved to Lakeland, Florida, where he died at the age of 82 in 1989.
Construction on the Basic Science building began in 1967, and upon his retirement in 1972 the building was named after Wittson, the first Chancellor of UNMC. A new medical library was added to the top of the building and opened in 1970, now the McGoogan Library of Medicine.
For more information on Dr. Wittson, see the new exhibit located in the 3rd floor passageway between Wittson Hall and University Tower.