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The Massachusetts General Hospital

Early history and neurosurgery to 1939

Fred G. Barker

✓ The early history of the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) is reviewed with emphasis on the development of neurological surgery. The hospital opened in 1823. Early trephinations were performed by Dr. John Collins Warren and others for treatment of trauma and epilepsy. In the 1880's, interest in brain surgery increased, and Dr. John Elliot performed several trephinations for brain tumors, three of which were witnessed by Dr. Harvey Cushing during his years at the MGH as medical student and intern. In 1911, all brain surgery was placed in the hands of Dr. S. J. Mixter. He later shared the assignment with his son, Dr. W. J. Mixter, who described herniation of the intervertebral disc with Dr. J. S. Barr and became the first Chief of the Neurosurgical Service at MGH in 1939.

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Fred G. Barker II

✓ In 1848, Mr. Phineas Gage suffered destruction of his left frontal lobe in a unique fashion: passage of a metal rod through his head after a freak explosion. His change in character after the accident is the index case for personality change due to frontal lobe damage. Yet, from 1848 to 1868, it was widely believed among American physicians that he was mentally intact. The case was used as evidence against phrenology, a crude precursor of modern cerebral localization theories.

The two original reports of the case by Drs. John Harlow (Gage's physician) and Henry J. Bigelow show subtle differences in attitude toward Gage's posttraumatic character change. In his 1848 report, Harlow promised a further communication that would address Gage's “mental manifestations.” Bigelow's article portrayed Gage as fully recovered. Although delayed by 20 years, Harlow's second report rapidly changed the perception of the case in the medical community, as reflected by contemporary citations.

The educational backgrounds of Harlow and Bigelow are examined to explain their differing attitudes toward the case. Harlow's interest in phrenology prepared him to accept the change in character as a significant clue to cerebral function which merited publication. Bigelow had learned that damage to the cerebral hemispheres had no intellectual effect, and he was unwilling to consider Gage's deficit significant. Although Bigelow's paradigm was initially more influential, Harlow's more closely matched emerging theories of cerebral localization. His version of the case was used by David Ferrier as the keystone in the first modern theory of frontal lobe function, and this is how the case is remembered today.

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Edward R. Smith, William E. Butler, and Fred G. Barker II

Object. Death after ventriculoperitoneal (VP) shunt surgery is uncommon, and therefore it has been difficult to study. The authors used a population-based national hospital discharge database to examine the relationship between annual hospital and surgeon volume of VP shunt surgery in pediatric patients and in-hospital mortality rates.

Methods. All children in the Nationwide Inpatient Sample (1998–2000, age 90 days—18 years) who underwent VP shunt placement or shunt revision as the principal procedure were included. Main outcome measures were in-hospital mortality rates, length of stay (LOS), and total hospital charges.

Overall, 5955 admissions were analyzed (253 hospitals, 411 surgeons). Mortality rates were lower at high-volume centers and for high-volume surgeons. In terms of hospital volume, the mortality rate was 0.8% at lowest-quartile-volume centers (< 28 admissions/year) and 0.3% at highest-quartile-volume centers (> 121 admissions/year). In terms of surgeon volume, the mortality rate was 0.8% for lowest-quartile-volume providers (< nine admissions/year) and 0.1% for highest-quartile-volume providers (> 65 admissions/year). After multivariate adjustment for demographic variables, emergency admission and presence of infection, hospital volume of care remained a significant predictor of death (odds ratio [OR] for a 10-fold increase in caseload 0.38; 95% confidence interval [CI] 0.18–0.81). Surgeon volume of care was statistically significant in a similar multivariate model (OR for a 10-fold increase in caseload 0.3; 95% CI 0.13–0.69). Length of stay was slightly shorter and total hospital charges were slightly higher at higher-volume centers, but the differences were not statistically significant.

Conclusions. Pediatric shunt procedures performed at high-volume hospitals or by high-volume surgeons were associated with lower in-hospital mortality rates, with no significant difference in LOS or hospital charges.

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Edward R. Smith, William E. Butler, and Fred G. Barker II


Concern for patient safety, among other reasons, recently prompted sweeping changes in resident work policies in the US. Some have speculated that the arrival of new interns and residents at teaching hospitals each July might cause an annual transient increase in poor patient outcomes and inefficient care.


Data were analyzed for 4323 craniotomies for tumor resection and 22,072 shunt operations performed in pediatric patients between 1988 and 2000 in US nonfederal hospitals (Nationwide Inpatient Sample, Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project, Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Rockville, MD). In-hospital mortality rates, discharge outcome, complications, and efficiency measures (length of stay [LOS] and hospital charges) for patients treated in July and August were compared with similar data for patients in other months.

There were no significant increases in any adverse end point for either tumor or shunt operations in July and August. Odds ratios (95% confidence interval [CI]) for outcome of tumor craniotomies performed in July and August compared with outcome for tumor craniotomies performed in other months were as follows: for mortality rate, 0.43 (0.14–1.32); for adverse discharge disposition, 1.03 (0.71–1.51); for neurological complications, 1.00 (0.63–1.59); for transfusion, 0.70 (0.41–1.19). Hospital charges were 0.5% lower (range −6 to 5%) in July and August, and LOS was 3% shorter (range −8 to 3%). Odds ratios (95% CI) for July or August shunt surgery compared with shunt surgery performed in other months were as follows: for mortality rate, 0.96 (0.58–1.60); for adverse discharge disposition, 0.85 (0.66–1.11); for neurological complications, 1.27 (0.75–2.16); for transfusion, 0.81 (0.48–1.37). Hospital charges were 0.2% higher in July and August (range −3 to 3%), and LOS was 3% shorter (range −5 to 0.5%).


Although moderate increases in some adverse end points could not be excluded, there was no evidence that brain tumor or shunt surgery performed in pediatric patients at US teaching hospitals during July and August is associated with more frequent adverse patient outcome or inefficient care than similar surgery performed during other months.

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Fred G. Barker II and Christopher S. Ogilvy

✓ The authors report findings from a metaanalysis of all published randomized trials of prophylactic nimodipine used in patients who have experienced subarachnoid hemorrhage (SAH). Seven trials were included with a total of 1202 patients suitable for evaluation. Eight outcome measures were examined, including good versus other outcome, good or fair outcome versus other outcome, overall mortality, deficit and/or death attributed to vasospasm, infarction rate as judged by computerized tomography (CT), and deficit and/or death from rebleeding.

Nimodipine improved outcome according to all measures examined. The odds of good and of good plus fair outcomes were improved by ratios of 1.86:1 and 1.67:1, respectively, for nimodipine versus control (p < 0.005 for both measures). The odds of deficit and/or mortality attributed to vasospasm and CT-assessed infarction rate were reduced by ratios of 0.46:1 to 0.58:1 in the nimodipine group (p < 0.008 for all measures). Overall mortality was slightly reduced in the nimodipine group, but the trend was not statistically significant. The rebleeding rate was not increased by nimodipine. A metaregression yielded findings indicating that the treatment effect of nimodipine in individual trials was positively correlated with the severity of SAH in enrolled patients.

Although the majority of individual trials examined did not have statistically significant results at the p < 0.01 level according to most outcome measures, the metaanalyses confirmed the significant efficacy of prophylactic nimodipine in improving outcome after SAH under the conditions used in these trials.

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Fred G. Barker II

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Mitchell J. Ramsey, Michael J. McKenna, and Fred G. Barker II

✓ The authors present the case of a man who had superior semicircular canal dehiscence syndrome in addition to chronic otitis media. This case is atypical because the patient coincidentally had middle ear and mastoid disease, which previously had been treated surgically. The prior ear surgery delayed the diagnosis of superior semicircular canal dehiscence syndrome and increased the complexity of the repair of the superior semicircular canal dehiscence.

Superior semicircular canal dehiscence syndrome is a recently recognized syndrome resulting in acute or chronic vestibular symptoms. The diagnosis is made using history, vestibular examination, and computerized tomography studies. Neurosurgeons should be aware that patients with superior semicircular canal dehiscence syndrome who experience disabling chronic or acute vestibular symptoms can be treated using a joint neurosurgical—otological procedure through the middle cranial fossa.

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Fred G. Barker II