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Genius on the Edge: The Bizarre Double Life of Dr. William Stewart Halsted

4.04  ·  Rating details ·  666 ratings  ·  86 reviews
A major new biography of the doctor who invented modern surgery. Brilliant, driven, but haunted by demons, William Stewart Halsted took surgery from a horrific, dangerous practice to what we now know as a lifesaving art. Halsted was born to wealth and privilege in New York City in the mid-1800s. He attended the finest schools, but he was a mediocre student. His academic in ...more
Hardcover, 389 pages
Published February 2nd 2010 by Kaplan Publishing (first published 2010)
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Average rating 4.04  · 
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Jun 23, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
I reserve 5-star ratings for books that have profoundly added to my understanding of the world and have a lasting effect on how I live my life. Gerald Imber, MD, presents William Stewart Halsted as a dedicated innovator who, along with several physicians of the age, changed the practice of medicine with his insight and hard work. As a practicing surgeon himself, Imber is able to give invaluable accuracy to the various advancements to medicine and surgery by Halsted and his colleagues.

Medicine in
Jan 05, 2017 rated it liked it
A fascinating topic, a strangely written book.

For one, there strangely doesn't seem to be enough information about Halsted to really warrant the title "a bizarre double life." Since his drug habit was in secret, there's seemingly barely any record of it other than "then he would disappear for six months every year and who knows, we can assume drugs." Imber also repeats himself often, sometimes from chapter to chapter, making it seem like either his editor only worked chapter by chapter or there
Mar 30, 2010 rated it it was amazing
"Genius on the Edge" is an interesting book describing the medical developments (especially in surgery) during the period of about 1846 to 1922. The first third of the book mainly focused on what surgery was like before this period, on the developments that occurred from 1846 to 1889, and how they affected Halsted's medical training and prompted his surgical innovations. The rest of the book was more a series of short biographies of men who worked with Halsted and the developments they (and he) ...more
Jun 24, 2010 rated it it was ok
So, the subject of this book was really cool. I loved learning about Halsted and how strange he was, and what things he did that changed surgery. Especially as someone who loves the history of medicine, that was the good part of this book. However, it was written pretty terribly. The style was bad, and, more importantly for a biography, the timeline wasn't consistent. Imber jumps back and forth, mentioning characters as if we know them, 20 pages before they're introduced. We go to 1922, then bac ...more
Mar 11, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: biography
My purpose for reading this book was two-fold. I'm reading as much as I can about about medicine and doctors to inform the current non-fiction book project that I'm working on. And since my project is essentially a biography, I'm reading biographies to see how other writers approach and manage the material. From Genius on the Edge I learned a great deal about the contemporary history of medicine, especially in the United States in addition to learning about William Steward Halsted in particular. ...more
Becky J
May 08, 2011 rated it it was amazing
This is a fascinating view of early modern medicine and the establishment of Johns Hopkins (and how it shaped modern medical practice). I'd say it's about 60% a biography of William Halstead and 40% about my first sentence. I didn't know any of the history and really enjoyed it; my sister read it at the same time and said she had read a biography of Dr. Welch that she enjoyed more. I could see how the diversions into other people's stories/lives could be distracting or annoying (sometimes they s ...more
Nov 13, 2011 rated it liked it
Dr. Halstead was the father of modern surgery. In the mid nineteenth century a compound fracture or appendicitis was essentially a death sentence. Anesthesia didn't exist. Even if a patient could be operated on, surgeons weren't aware of the need to keep the surroundings sterile. If the patient contracted an infection there were no antibiotics to arrest it. So much for the good old days. Dr. Halstead introduced aseptic methods of surgery. He pioneered hernia surgery, mastetectomy to excise breas ...more
Neal Jones
Jul 02, 2012 rated it really liked it
I must admit that I felt somewhat mislead by this book's description on its back cover. While the primary subject of this biography is Doctor William Halstead, the bulk of this book is actually about the formation of one of America's premier teaching hospitals: Johns Hopkins. William Stewart Halstead was one of a dozen influential doctors who were instrumental in revolutionizing the techniques of modern surgery. The founding of Johns Hopkins Hospital is part of Halstead's story, so I wasn't too ...more
Jun 09, 2015 rated it really liked it
I would never have chosen to read this book; it is a book club selection, not my selection. The book, about the foundation of Johns Hopkins university and hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, drew me in.

The drawback is all the technical medical terminology, but the men and the lives this book describes are fascinating. The difference these founders made in the practice of medicine are relevant to us, today. Halstead developed a sterile operating room, and found successful ways to operate on conditio
Leslie N
Oct 16, 2016 rated it it was amazing
We have a LOT to thank William Stewart Halstead for, and modern medicine wouldn't be what it is today if it wasn't for him. Breast cancer surgery, hernia repair, even what medical residencies are today all started with this brilliant man. If you enjoy The Knick (which is what initially brought me to this book) or are interested in the history of modern medicine, or even slightly curious about medicine, I can't recommend this book enough. Also... we can thank him for painless dental procedures as ...more
May 08, 2011 rated it really liked it
Not particularly well-written, but an extremely interesting account of early modern medicine in general, and Johns Hopkins Hospital in particular. I will be seeking out more information on the people,places, and events that were written about; what better review could there be?
Apr 19, 2010 rated it really liked it
Detailed and informative, but also somewhat repetitive. The end gets very technical. Diagrams and a timeline would help.
Jan 20, 2014 rated it really liked it
As a medical student, I am always fascinated to read about famous physicians who were able to transcend (so to speak) the 'normal' boundaries of their profession and make revolutionary contributions.

William Halsted was that rare breed of physician-scientist who achieved that with his keenness, passion and incredible resourcefulness. Surgery before Halsted was haphazard and shoddy, done with little consideration to minimizing infection, patient comfort or proper technique. With his European trai
Feb 23, 2010 rated it it was ok

I am interested in this book because it ref's Freud and his cocain addiction and its consequenses.

from the library computer:
Ostensibly a biography of William Stewart Halsted (1852–1922), but the main story is the transformation of medical education in America.Imber (Clinical Surgery/Weill-Cornell School of Medicine) tries valiantly to revivify the elusive Halsted. He was aristocratic and urbane, meticulous in his dress—he sent his shirts to Paris for laundering—and could be cold and imperious. H
Robert Clancy
Oct 11, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, biography
This could be subtitled: "The History of Modern American Medicine, 1870-1920." While the central character, Dr. William Halstead (yes, although a New Yorker, Halstead Avenue in Chicago is named after his family), is at the epicenter of this saga, it really is about the founding, funding, running and growth of Johns Hopkins University and Medical School…and the creation of modern medical practices, techniques and training. Halstead is a curious character -- brash, brilliant, idiosyncratic, who pi ...more
Sep 03, 2010 rated it liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Dec 05, 2011 rated it liked it
I'm in awe of Dr. Halsted after reading this book and I greatly appreciate what he did to advance the field of surgery. However, I am not in love with the way this author delivered the story. Some details were confusing as many names came up at the same time and then the use of a pronoun forced you to sort out to whom the author was referring. Be prepared also for several tangential biographies of different people who worked with Halsted. The other grievance is several times I came across repeat ...more
Apr 13, 2013 rated it really liked it
Genius on the Edge is a fascinating portrait of Dr. William Stewart Halsted, who revolutionized dental surgery and also invented the gallstone extraction, the radical mastectomy, and the resident system of medical education. His disciples went on to found the disciplines of urology and neurosurgery, among other specialties. It's hard to believe that one man could cast such a long shadow and yet virtually disappear from history.

Dr. Halsted achieved all of these momentous things while struggling w
LC Curtis
Jan 25, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Stupendous! I can't say enough or urge anyone enough to read this book by Gerald Imber, MD. "The Bizarre Double Life of Dr. William Stewart Halsted" is that. The author, however, chooses not to sensationalize the man or his legend but instead depicts various anecdotes, details, and all manner of interesting historical factoids about the Johns Hopkins Hospital and its School of Medicine in their infancies We can thank Halsted for medical staff who wash hands and wear gloves; he set the course. Re ...more
Justin Dubin
Aug 11, 2015 rated it it was amazing
The well written and well researched story of Dr. William Halstead who is known as the Father of Modern Surgery. The book is an excellent look at the incredibly bizarre life of Halstead which includes his battle with cocaine and morphine addiction. I knew of Halstead prior to reading this but I had not even the remotest idea of how important and influential he truly was. He developed residency, was the founding father of local anesthesia, influenced about every major surgeon ever. The guy is ama ...more
Jenny Brown
Sep 19, 2010 rated it liked it
The insights into the history of modern surgery, starting in the late 1800s are valuable. But there is a lot of repetition and we don't really learn all that much about the subject, Dr. Halsted, so much as we do the institutional history of Johns Hopkins hospital and medical school.

This is a dry book about the history of surgery, not a look at a "bizarred double life" of anyone.

As a biography, this book is hampered by the lack of primary source materials that would give us insight into the pers
Michael Flick
Disappointing biography of Halsted, the father of modern surgery. The subtitle, "The Bizarre Double Life of Dr. William Stewart Halsted," is misleading: this is more a fragmentary and incomplete history of The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and Hospital. Halsted was an enigmatic, taciturn man (and drug addict) who kept his private life private from his colleagues and students and even his wife--and all his letters to his wife were burnt after her death. There really isn't much left ...more
Mar 13, 2010 rated it really liked it
A very informative look at the life of the founder of modern surgery, as well as the people responsible for beginning Johns Hopkins Hospital and Medical School. The narrative, at times, seems to lack details, possibly because information was not available. All in all, heowever, I enjoyed learning about the transition that occurred in the medical field and surgery during Halsted's time. Being a surgeon myself, I appreciated the look at hopsital life and the development of modern surgical training ...more
Audacia Ray
Interesting as a history of modern surgery and the Johns Hopkins Hospital, but not that great as a biography, especially on the "bizarre double life" part.

Halsted was a cocaine and morphine addict who was an extraordinary and innovative surgeon and also disappeared up to 6 months a year to be alone, travel, and probably indulge his addictions. I say "probably" because although his time at Johns Hopkins is pretty well documented, there is NO documentation of the other half of his life. Speculati
Apr 09, 2014 rated it really liked it
Great introductory book describing the start of modern surgery, foundation of John Hopkins university/ medical school as well as of William Halsted and his contributions through developing the training program for surgeons, first use of local and general anesthetic, use of sterile gloves, the first successful hernia repair, radical mastectomy, etc. I would recommend this book based on its educational value rather than its writing style: although easy to read, it lacks uniformity and seems to be ...more
Souradeep Chowdhury
Sep 15, 2016 rated it liked it
Since he was primarily a man preferring to remain in the shadows, many are not aware about the full extent of Halstead's contribution to surgery. This book gives a rare insight into the life and works of this great man.
I originally became interested in Halstead after learning that The Knick is based loosely on him, and boy, he sure didn't disappoint!
Beautifully written prose, guiding readers through the extensive and illustrious history of Johns Hopkins, and a glimpse into the lives of the Big F
Mar 10, 2010 rated it really liked it
This gives a different view of medical education in the US in the early 20th century than the book 'The Great Influenza'. It concentrates more on the education of surgeons and on Johns Hopkins medical school and hospital. The main character, Halstead, became addicted to cocaine while trying to find a good local anesthetic. Ironically, the cure at the time for cocaine addiction was morphine to which he also became addicted. He functioned though. ...more
Kevin A.
Sep 01, 2012 rated it really liked it
The author is a surgeon, not a writer, and this book could have used another draft or two. That having been said, he obviously knows his stuff, and this story of the great 19th century surgeon William Halstead was new to me. He pioneered surgical techniques that were in use for decades following his death, and was instrumental in the creation of Johns Hopkins as the preeminent medical school of the early twentieth century. This despite having done House-like personality and drug issues.
Peter Bistolarides
Dec 31, 2012 rated it really liked it
As the author himself states, this was not meant to be a definitive scholarly work on Halsted. It does present revelations about his addiction, and presents a picture of the struggles in bringing American surgery (and medicine in general) into the modern age. Interestingly, some of these issues persist. Imbed cites Michael Bliss' biographies of Osler and Cushing, both of which I have read. I would love to see Halsted as a subject of a Bliss biography. ...more
Christine Haas
Oct 15, 2014 rated it really liked it
A very interesting read that fit nicely with The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and the Emperor of All Maladies, giving an insight to the development of the premier hospital, John Hopkins, and the surgeon that helped make it so.

The biography jumps around a bit as it focusses on different doctors and there's not much commentary on linking various lifetime episodes, however, it was still fascinating and worth reading.
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