Back to Top Skip to main content Skip to sub-navigation

'America’s First Brain Surgeon' Served During Civil War and World War I

Image of Dr. William Williams Keen Jr was a medical surgeon during the Civil War who afterwards advocated and researched medical advances so the horrors of Civil War-era medicine would not occur again. He also served in the Army during World War I. Dr. William Williams Keen Jr was a medical surgeon during the Civil War who afterwards advocated and researched medical advances so the horrors of Civil War-era medicine would not occur again. He also served in the Army during World War I. (Photo courtesy National Library of Medicine)

Recommended Content:

Our History

Army Maj. (Dr.) William Williams Keen Jr. was a pioneering military doctor whose career spanned surgical duty on the bloody battlefields of the American Civil War through influential research work during World War I.

Once known as "America's first brain surgeon," Keen helped propel numerous advances in medicine. He played a key role in the birth of bacteriology, neurology, use of antisepsis, sterile surgical techniques, brain surgery, and the breakthrough discovery that insects carry and spread diseases.

With a unique perspective after serving in two cataclysmic wars, Keen wrote a 1918 paper called "Military Surgery in 1861 and in 1918."

In it, he marveled at the knowledge gained in the field of military medicine during his 50 years of service and expressed his excitement for what was to come in the next 50 years and beyond, according to staff at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Spring, Maryland.

In his influential paper, Keen lamented the countless deaths during the Civil War that could have been avoided with better military field surgical techniques and surgeons with advanced knowledge.

"Between these two dates is a veritable chasm of ignorance which we can only really appreciate when we peer over its edge and discover how broad and deep it is," he wrote.

"Clinical observation has done much, but research and chiefly experimental research, has done far more."

"Research has not yet ceased to give us better and better methods of coping with disease and death, and – thank God – it will never cease so long as disease and death continue to afflict the human race," he wrote.

Keen's work played an important role in the significant improvements in battlefield survival rates during conflicts in the 20th century.

Interests and Advances

He attributed his expertise to the successes of rigorous research, for which he passionately advocated, according to a profile by the National Museum of Health and Medicine, a branch of the Research Support Division of the Defense Health Agency Research and Engineering Directorate.

During the Civil War, Keen developed an interest in documenting injuries of the nervous system. Those studies are considered to be the origin of American neurology.

His service centered on Turner's Lane Hospital in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, which was devoted to treating injuries and diseases of the nerves. There, he was an associate of Dr. George R. Morehouse and Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, who was an early believer in what is commonly known as phantom limb pain.

Keen collaborated with both men to write a classic text, "Gunshot Wounds and Other Injuries of Nerves," published in 1864, said Laura Cutter, an archivist at the museum.

When Dr. Joseph Lister, an influential British surgeon, came to Philadelphia during his 1876 tour of America, Keen heard his views on antisepsis in surgery and was one of the first American surgeons to adopt Lister's system. In 1892, Keen co-authored the first American surgery text based on Listerian principles, Cutter said.

Keen also gained celebrity as the first surgeon in the Americas to perform a successful brain tumor removal in 1887. As such, he became known as "America's first brain surgeon."

He saw surgical duty while still in medical school at the first major battle of the Civil War, the First Battle of Bull Run in Manassas, Virginia, in July 1861. He also served during the Second Battle of Bull Run in August 1862, and, at the deadliest one-day battle in American military history, the Battle of Antietam, Sharpsburg, Maryland, in September 1862.

In March 1862, he was commissioned out of medical school as an acting assistant surgeon in the Union Army and was in charge of Eckington General Hospital near Washington, D.C.

You also may be interested in...

Air Force Women's History: First Commissioned Female Physician

Article Around MHS
6/23/2022
Capt Dorothy Armstrong Elias sworn in

On March 14, 1951, Capt. (Dr.) Dorothy Armstrong Elias became the first woman physician sworn into the Air Force.

Recommended Content:

Our History

Facility Dogs Play a Vital Role in Recovery for Patients Across the MHS

Article
5/27/2022
Luke is a German Shephard facility dog.

Each dog has his or her own rank, service, and uniform and is inducted in an enlistment or commissioning ceremony. Today, the Facility Dog Program at WRNMMC includes Sully, a yellow Lab who was former President George H.W. Bush’s service dog.

Recommended Content:

Our History | Health Readiness & Combat Support

Military Medical Museum Celebrates 160th birthday with mobile app

Photo
5/17/2022
Military Medical Museum Celebrates 160th birthday with mobile app

National Museum of Health and Medicine, Silver Spring, Maryland, visitor uses the NMHM mobile app while looking at objects from the Innovations in Military Medicine Gallery.

Recommended Content:

Our History

Vietnam War Commemoration Presents DHA Director with Commemorative Flag

Article
4/28/2022
U.S. Army Lt. Gen. (Dr.) Ron Place, Defense Health Agency director, receives a commemorative Vietnam War flag from Army Maj. Gen. (Retired) Peter Aylward, The United States of America Vietnam Commemoration director. (Photo: Sonia Clark, MHS Communications)

Lt. Gen. Place receives Vietnam War commemorative flag.

Recommended Content:

Our History

A History of the Combat Helmet and the Quest to Prevent Injuries

Article
4/25/2022
Lt. Gen. George S. Patton and Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr. are pictured here in 1943 wearing the standard M1 helmet, sometimes called the "steel pot." (Photo: 1st Infantry Division Courtesy Photo)

The combat helmet has evolved over time to improve protection against projectiles and shock waves to reduce the risk of fatal blows and traumatic brain injuries.

Recommended Content:

Traumatic Brain Injury | Our History | Injury Prevention

Ceremony Marks New Name for RIA Health Clinic to Woodson Health Clinic, Honoring World War II Combat Medic

Article
4/21/2022
Stephen Woodson looks at the plaque painting of his father, Staff Sgt. Waverly Woodson Jr., a World War II First U.S. Army combat medic hero, following the unveiling of it during a renaming dedication ceremony at Rock Island Arsenal, Illinois, April 14. The health clinic was renamed Woodson Health Clinic. (Photo: Jon Micheal Connor, ASC Public Affairs)

The Rock Island Arsenal Health Clinic received a new name in honor of a heroic First U.S. Army Soldier in a moving ceremony here in Heritage Hall April 14. The new name is the Woodson Health Clinic in honor of Staff Sgt. Waverly B. Woodson Jr.

Recommended Content:

Our History

Women's History Month highlight: All-women medic team supports mission welcoming Afghan allies

Article Around MHS
4/5/2022
Military personnel taking a walk

In late August 2021, the Department of Defense issued a call for volunteers to support Operation Allies Welcome, the federal government’s effort to safely resettle Afghan refugees.

Recommended Content:

Our History

Remembering Dr. Alexander Augusta, the U.S. Army’s First Black Doctor

Article
2/25/2022
A photo of Maj. (Dr.) Alexander Augusta among the Seventh Regiment of U.S. Colored Troops where he served as regimental surgeon during the Civil War.

Dr. Alexander Augusta was the first African American to be an Army doctor.

Recommended Content:

Our History | Paving the Way for African Americans in Military Medicine: A Look Across Time

Dentally Unready: Gen. George Washington's Lifetime of Dental Misery

Article
2/3/2022
Visitors to the George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate and museum in Mount Vernon, Virginia, can see George Washington’s only remaining full denture among the collection. They include his own pulled and saved teeth, other human teeth, teeth from cows and horses that were filed to fit, and teeth carved from elephant ivory.

No, George Washington did not have wooden teeth. But he did struggle with dental problems for most of his life.

Recommended Content:

Our History | TRICARE Dental Care | Medical and Dental Preventive Care Fitness

The British 'Limeys' Were Right: A Short History of Scurvy

Article
1/10/2022
Scurvy, a disease caused by lack of vitamin C, sickened sailors who had no access to fresh food supplies, and killed more than 2 million sailors between the 16th and 18th centuries alone.

How citrus fruits quelled the scourge of scurvy.

Recommended Content:

Health Readiness & Combat Support | Nutritional Fitness | Our History

Remembering the Military Medical Heroes of Pearl Harbor

Article
12/6/2021
Army Nurse Corps Maj. Annie G. Fox, in the newspaper

On the 80th anniversary of the attacks on Pearl Harbor, MHS remembers the medical heroes that selflessly aided the casualties.

Recommended Content:

Our History | MHS Honors and Remembers

From Prosthetic Legs to Cranial Implants: How the MHS is using 3D Tech

Article
11/8/2021
3D MAC Director Peter Liacouras

30 years after the Gulf War, 3D technology is transforming medicine and lives.

Recommended Content:

Our History | Health Care Technology

USU Students Examine Civil War History to Understand the Future of Medicine

Article Around MHS
9/22/2021
Nearly 300 students from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences participated in a 30-year-old-tradition of marching through the battlefield of Antietam on Aug. 20

During the Battle of Antietam, Union Major Jonathan Letterman implemented his ideas for reshaping the Army’s Medical Corps, earning him the nickname the “Father of Battlefield Medicine.”

Recommended Content:

Our History | Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences

Gen. George Washington Ordered Smallpox Inoculations for All Troops

Article
8/16/2021
Old photo of George Washington in battle

George Washington’s tactics included directing the first mass military inoculations

Recommended Content:

Our History | Immunizations

How Spec Ops and DHA Teamed Up to Build an Inexpensive DIY Ventilator

Article
7/28/2021
Nurse checks up on a patient in a mechanical ventilator

Military inventiveness is seen in the history of ventilators

Recommended Content:

Our History
<< < 1 2 > >> 
Showing results 1 - 15 Page 1 of 2
Refine your search
Last Updated: May 17, 2022

DHA Address: 7700 Arlington Boulevard | Suite 5101 | Falls Church, VA | 22042-5101

Some documents are presented in Portable Document Format (PDF). A PDF reader is required for viewing. Download a PDF Reader or learn more about PDFs.