Philadelphia University + Thomas Jefferson University

Historical Profiles

William W. Keen, MD:

'Marshall' of American Surgery & Pioneer of Neurosurgery

William W. Keen, MD

Co-Chair (1889-1907)
Department of Surgery
Jefferson Medical College

Tony I. Anene-Maidoh, MS
Pinckney J. Maxwell IV, MD
Charles J. Yeo, MD

Early Life & Education

  • A descendant of Joran Kyn, an early Swedish settler in Chester, Pennsylvania.
  • Born in Philadelphia on January 19, 1837, the son of William W. and Susan Budd Keen.
  • Attended Brown University and graduated in 1859 as Class Valedictorian.
  • Keen entered Jefferson Medical College in September, 1860, but after ten months his education was interrupted by the Civil War.

Military Service

Dr. Keen
  • After the civil war he returned to Jefferson where he graduated in 1862.
  • In 1863 he served with Drs. S. Weir Mitchell and George Morehouse in the Turner’s Lane Army Hospital in an important study upon the injuries of nerves.
  • They documented their intensive study of 120 patients in an outstanding 164-page monograph, Gunshot Wounds and Other Injuries of Nerves (Lippincott, 1864).2
  • This began Keen’s interest in neurological surgery.

Academic Appointments

(1864 – 1866) Postgraduate study with Duchenne of Paris and in Virchow’s Laboratory in Berlin.

(1866 – 1867) Gave first course of pathological anatomy in Philadelphia at Jefferson.

(1866 – 1875) Head of the Philadelphia School of Anatomy until its dissolution.

(1875 – 1890) Appointed Professor of Artistic Anatomy at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

  • Thomas Eakins (famous artist of the Gross Clinic) was his chief demonstrator of anatomy at the Academy from 1876 to 1880.

Surgical Accomplishments

  • 1876 – First surgeon in Philadelphia to adopt Lister’s principles of antisepsis.
  • 1884 (– 1889)–  Appointed Professor of Surgery in the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania.
  • 1889 – Succeeded Dr. Samuel W. Gross as Chair of Principles of Surgery and Clinical Surgery at Jefferson.
  • In July, 1893, assisted Dr. John D. Bryant in operating upon President Grover Cleveland for a verrucous carcinoma of the roof of the mouth.9 
    • Keen fashioned special instruments in preparation for the surgery.
    • It was performed secretly on board a yacht (the Oneida) off New York Harbor and was a complete success.

Pioneer of Surgery

  • Keen was America’s first brain surgeon.
    • Dr. Keen’s most celebrated neurosurgical operation was the removal of an intracranial meningioma.
    • First brain tumor successfully removed in America.
  • Dr. John Fulton in his biography of Harvey Cushing identified Keen as “Cushing’s principal predecessor in neurosurgery in this country.”
  • Dr. Edward Klopp – “Keen became America’s first ‘Brain Surgeon’ and was regarded as the foremost surgeon in the country.”
  • As a prolific writer, Keen was in a rank with Robley Dunglison and Samuel D. Gross.
    • In 1893, co-wrote the first compiled American Text-Book of Surgery.
    • Gray’s Anatomy (1883), with a subsequent second edition (1887).
    • Keen’s System of Surgery, (Volumes I –VIII)

Later Life

Retired in 1907 at the age of 70 and was succeeded by Dr. John Chalmers DaCosta.

He died on June 7, 1932.  After cremation, his remains were buried in Woodlands Cemetery.

Images courtesy of Archives & Special Collections, TJU.