Switzerland and Midwest Connections: Chicago’s Pioneer Swiss Surgeons

Welcome to the History Blog featuring the connections between Switzerland and the Midwest. I am Joerg Oberschmied, Deputy Consul General in Chicago. My interest in history started at an early age and continues to this day. The views expressed are solely mine and I hope you enjoy these journeys through time.

At the end of the 19th Century, Chicago benefitted from a group of highly talented Swiss Surgeons, three of which are described in greater detail in this Blog — Dr. Henry Banga, Dr. Nicholas Senn, and Dr. Albert J. Ochsner. Notwithstanding their American contributions, all three never forgot their Swiss roots and began a tradition of great Swiss medical professionals in Chicago lasting to this day.

Henry Banga — A Noble Man, helpful and good

Friedrich Heinrich Banga, called Henry, was born in 1848 in Liestal (BL). His father, Benedikt Banga, was a man of the first hour in the new government of Basel-Landschaft when it separated from Basel-Stadt in 1833. Young Henry studied medicine in Basel and volunteered to serve in the Franco-Prussian war, which broadened his medical horizon. As a surgeon in 1871, Dr. Banga perfected his ideas in antiseptic treatment, later telling the story of a young patient with a bad wound. According to the teachings of the time, the arm should have been amputated at once. Instead Dr. Banga cleaned the wound and closed it. The boy was discharged with a completely useful arm. This was followed by another equally successful treated patient. In 1875, Dr. Banga moved to Chicago, where he became a Surgeon and later Chief Surgeon at Michael Reese Hospital. He was a pioneer in antisepsis and far ahead of his time. He recognized and operated on extrauterine pregnancies as early as 1889. Dr. Banga was professor of gynecology in the Chicago Policlinic and for an equal period he was also a gynecologist at Michael Reese Hospital, as well as an attending physician at the United Hebrew Dispensary for over three decades. After conducting a tedious operation on Christmas Eve in 1913, Dr. Henry Banga passed away suddenly. He had lived by Goethe’s quote: Noble be man, helpful and good.

Nicholas Senn — Teacher and Military Surgeon

Nicholas Senn was born in 1844 in Buchs, St. Gallen. His parents moved to Ashford, Wisconsin in 1851 and Dr. Senn got his medical degree from the Chicago Medical College in 1868. In 1877 he visited Europe and the following year he graduated “cum laude” from the University of Munich. Following his return from Europe, Dr. Senn was appointed professor of surgery in the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Chicago in 1882. In 1888 he was elected to the chair of the principles of surgery and surgical pathology at Rush Medical College, followed by being elected President of the American Medical Association in 1897. In addition, he was professor of surgery in the Chicago Policlinic, surgeon- in-chief of St. Joseph’s and the Presbyterian hospitals. He was also a professor of surgery and military surgery at the University of Chicago. At the outbreak of the Spanish- American war, Dr. Senn served with distinction in the Cuban campaign. His early experimental work in abdominal surgery made him a leader in this field, and his research in intestinal perforations, particularly in gunshot wounds, added greatly to the knowledge of the subject. He also did much to develop modern ideas in surgical tuberculosis. Dr. Nicholas Senn died in Chicago in 1908. From the beginning of his practice, Dr. Senn was a teacher and he left more than 300 publications behind. The Nicholas Senn Highschool in Chicago was named in his honor.

Albert J Ochsner — Author and Hospital Builder

Albert John Ochsner born in 1858 in Baraboo, Wisconsin, to Swiss pioneer parents from Richterswil in the Canton Zurich. Despite being born in the United States, Ochsner spoke Züridüütsch (his parent’s Swiss dialect) fluently. He worked as a school teacher whilst attending the University of Wisconsin and then earned his medical degree from Rush Medical College before traveling to Europe for postgraduate studies. Returning to Chicago in 1888, Dr. Ochsner began teaching and served as surgical instructor at Rush Medical College. Later he became Chief surgeon at Augustana Hospital and St. Mary’s Hospital. Dr. Ochsner was one of the founders of the American College of Surgeons and served as editor on several medical publications in addition to authoring numerous books. In addition to his medical writings, Dr. Ochsner also co-wrote ‘The Organization, Construction and Management of Hospitals’ together with an architect. His advice was sought by municipal, county and state governments in the construction of medical facilities. He also made many valuable contributions to the science of surgery, however, his modesty prevented his name being associated with more than only a few discoveries. Dr. Ochsner died of pneumonia in 1925.

Special thanks go to The Swiss American Historical Society.

Nicholas Senn High School, Chicago (Photo by the Author)
Dr. Henry Banga (Courtesy Swiss American Historical Society)
Dr. Nicholas Senn (Courtesy Swiss American Historical Society)
Dr. Albert J Ochsner (Courtesy Swiss American Historical Society)

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