Department History

Neurological surgery in the city of Pittsburgh began in 1936 with the arrival of Stuart Niles Rowe, a promising young surgeon trained under the auspices of Charles M. Frazier in Philadelphia. Rowe’s arrival marked the birth of a dedicated neurosurgical division that would become a leader in the field. His move here was prompted by a letter from L.H. Landon, Sr., MD, the chief of general surgery at West Penn Hospital, emphasizing the need for a formally trained neurosurgeon in Pittsburgh. It is said that Rowe won a coin toss over William J. Gardner for the opportunity to migrate to the Pittsburgh area and set up practice. Gardner subsequently moved to the Cleveland area and developed his own neurosurgical center.

Rowe, a Michigan native, developed a strong clinical practice based on the loosely affiliated community hospitals in the Pittsburgh area. He focused his research activities at the University of Pittsburgh and wrote several pioneering papers on the neurosurgical treatment of pain, brain abscess and cerebral trauma. An avid sportsman and devoted father, he dedicated at least one day a week to physical fitness and family life. Rowe began the first formal residency program at West Penn Hospital in 1949 and consolidated this program at Presbyterian University Hospital within the University of Pittsburgh in 1952. Another program was also established at Mercy Hospital in 1949 under the direction of Floyd Bragden, MD, who arrived in Pittsburgh three years after Rowe. Dr. Bragden, trained by Jefferson Browder at Kings County Hospital in New York, was a Pittsburgh native and a well-known acoustic tumor surgeon.

Stuart Niles RoweDorothy Klinke NashAnthony Fredrick SusenPeter Jannetta
Left to right: Stuart Niles Rowe, Dorothy Klinke Nash, Anthony Fredrick Susen and Peter Jannetta.

The first woman to practice neurosurgery in the area was Dorothy Klinke Nash, MD. Having completed training in both neurology and neurosurgery at Bellevue Hospital under the guidance of Byron Stookey in the late 1920s, Nash moved to the Pittsburgh area in 1936 but did not gain hospital appointment until a chance meeting with Morris Abel Slocum, MD, the chief of general surgery at St. Margaret Hospital. At the time, Nash worked at the blood bank. While drawing Slocum’s blood, he determined Nash’s background in neurosurgery and immediately appointed her to a staff position. This appointment was a landmark in that she became the first woman to practice neurosurgery in the United States and, thereby, pioneered the way for other women in the field. Shortly thereafter, she was appointed to the hospital staff at the university under Rowe. A graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, Nash was named Pennsylvania Woman of the Year in 1957.

Rowe volunteered for military service in World War II, served as an Army lieutenant colonel, and treated casualties triaged to a southern England military hospital. Upon return to Pittsburgh at the end of the war, he resumed control of the neurosurgery service at the university, which was then a division of General Surgery. Rowe embarked on a mission to unify the service, which performed operations at many local hospitals. He also began to train residents.

His own training firmly based in academic neurosurgery, Rowe sought to acquire residents with a commitment to research, teaching and independent thought. The conference schedule included joint conferences with the Mercy Hospital neurosurgical program and a monthly journal club that convened after a dinner at Rowe’s home.

Anthony Fredrick Susen, MD, joined the university in 1953 as a clinical instructor after completing his training at both Bowman Gray Medical School and Harvard. The Illinois native graduated from Dartmouth College and Harvard Medical School. Susen held the same belief as Rowe: that residency training programs should be designed to teach not only exceptional surgical technique, but also the critical clinical decision-making skills. Susen supported Rowe’s beliefs in training residents and emphasized the need for thorough literature review and independent research as a means of broadening clinical knowledge.

Rowe and Susen worked together into the 1960s. In 1964, Henry Bahnson, MD, the chair of General Surgery, appointed Sidney Goldring, MD, of St. Louis to be the first chief of the Division of Neurological Surgery. After two years, Dr. Goldring returned to St. Louis as a professor of neurosurgery and subsequently was named chairman at Washington University. In 1966, Susen was named acting chief and, under his direction, other facilities including Children’s Hospital and the Veterans Administration Medical Center, became part of the service.

In 1971, Peter Joseph Jannetta, MD, was appointed professor and chairman of the newly formed Department of Neurological Surgery and served in the post for 25 years. Dr. Jannetta is universally known for his work in the treatment of cranial nerve disorders, developing a microvascular decompression procedure—widely known as the Jannetta Procedure—that offers trigeminal neuralgia patients an effective therapeutic alternative when medications fail. Although Dr. Jannetta’s scientific and leadership contributions are significant, perhaps his greatest achievement is the legacy of outstanding international leaders he trained in neurosurgery. During his tenure, he trained 49 residents—including four future department chairmen—and was honored with an endowed professorship, appropriately named after Walter E. Dandy—considered one of the founding fathers of neurosurgery. In June of 2000, Dr. Jannetta retired from the University of Pittsburgh and, subsequently, took a position with Allegheny General Hospital.

In 1997, L. Dade Lunsford, MD, was selected as the second department chairman. In the ensuing decade, Dr. Lunsford guided the department to an elite position in the academic community. Under his guidance, the department established itself as one of the top academic neurosurgical departments in the country—continuing Dr. Jannetta’s tradition of training strong, well-rounded residents—and developed into one the most extensive neurological research programs in the nation. Dr. Lunsford also established the department as one of the leading stereotactic radiosurgical programs in the world. In 1987, he was responsible for bringing the Gamma Knife to the University of Pittsburgh, the first center in the United States to offer this state-of-the-art, minimally invasive form of brain surgery. The university now has two such devices and is a world leader in Gamma Knife treatment and education, having treated nearly 13,000 patients.

In June of 2006, Dr. Lunsford announced his decision to step down as department chair in order to devote more time to his clinical work, clinical investigation, and resident and fellow training. University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine dean, Arthur S. Levine, MD, appointed Amin Kassam, MD, assistant professor of neurological surgery and co-director of the Minimally Invasive endoNeurosurgery Center, as interim chairman of the department. Dr. Kassam was subsequently appointed chairman by Dr. Levine in May of 2007. In June of 2009, Dr. Kassam resigned as chairman and subsequently left the department.

On June 1, 2010 Robert M. Friedlander, MD, a noted cerebrovascular and neuro-oncologic surgeon and researcher, became the fourth chair in the department’s history. Dr. Friedlander carved a prominent career as a clinician and scientist at Harvard Medical School and Women’s Hospital in Boston before coming to Pittsburgh. His strong leadership in both clinical and research areas has further established the University of Pittsburgh Department of Neurological Surgery as a world-leader in the academic neurosurgical field.

In June of 2011, the University of Pittsburgh Department of Neurological Surgery residency program was ranked as the most productive residency program in the nation in terms of graduates remaining and contributing in academic neurosurgery, according to a study published online in the Journal of Neurosurgery.

The study’s authors sought to determine those programs that produce a high number of graduates remaining within academic programs and the contribution of these graduates to academic neurosurgery. In the study, 97 academic neurosurgery departments with 986 faculty members were analyzed. All data regarding training program and medical school education were compiled and analyzed according to the center from which each faculty member graduated. The neurosurgery training program at the University of Pittsburgh produced the highest number of academic neurosurgeons in this sample.

In another similar study published in the Journal of Neurosurgery in 2015, the department ranked among the top five neurosurgical residency programs in the country in terms of academic publishing output of faculty. In this comprehensive, five-year study, researchers used bibliometrics—the statistical analysis of written publications—to calculate the objective impact of academic papers. The results showed that the University of Pittsburgh Department of Neurological Surgery had the third highest score of 103 neurosurgical residency programs across the United States for papers published by its faculty from 2009 through 2013.