The history of neurosurgery at the University of Nebraska Medical Center

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  • 1 Leon S. McGoogan Health Sciences Library, and
  • | 2 Department of Neurosurgery, University of Nebraska Medical Center, Omaha, Nebraska
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The Department of Neurosurgery at the University of Nebraska Medical Center has grown considerably from one neurosurgeon in 1923 into a first-class department with diverse subspecialty care and innovative faculty. Founding neurosurgeon Dr. J. Jay Keegan, a student of Harvey Cushing, instituted a legacy of clinical and research excellence that he passed on to his successors. The department created a lecture series to honor Keegan’s pioneering techniques and impact in the field, featuring prominent neurosurgeons from across the country. Keegan’s successors, such as Dr. Lyal Leibrock, grew the department through a unique partnership with private practice. The current faculty has continued the tradition of exceptional resident training and innovative patient care.

ABBREVIATIONS

SNS = Society of Neurological Surgeons; UNMC = University of Nebraska Medical Center.

The Department of Neurosurgery at the University of Nebraska Medical Center has grown considerably from one neurosurgeon in 1923 into a first-class department with diverse subspecialty care and innovative faculty. Founding neurosurgeon Dr. J. Jay Keegan, a student of Harvey Cushing, instituted a legacy of clinical and research excellence that he passed on to his successors. The department created a lecture series to honor Keegan’s pioneering techniques and impact in the field, featuring prominent neurosurgeons from across the country. Keegan’s successors, such as Dr. Lyal Leibrock, grew the department through a unique partnership with private practice. The current faculty has continued the tradition of exceptional resident training and innovative patient care.

In Brief

The article is a history of neurosurgery at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska. The article highlights the important and innovative contributions to the field of neurosurgery by University of Nebraska Medical Center faculty.

In July 2019, the Nebraska Board of Regents elevated the neurosurgery program at the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) to department status. The hard work and dedication of several committed faculty members built the foundation for the newly designated Department of Neurosurgery (Table 1). This legacy of excellence extends into the present through the faculty, residency program, and patient care.

TABLE 1.

Timeline for the Department of Neurosurgery at UNMC

DateEvent
1854The city of Omaha is established
1867Nebraska becomes a state
1869University of Nebraska is founded in Lincoln
1881Omaha Medical College is founded
1902University of Nebraska College of Medicine is founded
1917University Hospital opens
1920Dr. J. Jay Keegan joins the University of Nebraska College of Medicine
1923Dr. J. Jay Keegan is the first professor of neurosurgery at the University of Nebraska College of Medicine
1966Dr. F. Miles Skultety appointed section chief of neurosurgery
1968University of Nebraska College of Medicine becomes the UNMC
1973Pain Management Center opens under director Dr. F. Miles Skultety
1975Dr. F. Miles Skultety becomes the first chair of the Department of Neurosurgery
1981First Annual J. Jay Keegan Memorial Lecture
1987F. Miles Skultety Fellowship in Neurosurgery is founded
1987Neurosurgery becomes a section of the Department of Surgery
1987Dr. Lyal Leibrock becomes section chief of neurosurgery
1993Neurosurgery Training Program is approved by Neurosurgical RRC—John Treves first resident
1996–1997University Hospital becomes Nebraska Health System
2003Nebraska Health System becomes The Nebraska Medical Center
2004Leibrock Endowed Chair is established
2005Dr. Kenneth Follett becomes section chief of neurosurgery
2007RRC permits UNMC Neurosurgery to increase the resident complement from 1 resident/year to 1-2-1/year
2011Dr. Kenneth Follett is named first Nancy A. Keegan and Donald R. Voelte, Jr. Chair in Neurosurgery, the chair in honor of Dr. J. Jay Keegan
2011RRC permits the UNMC to increase to 2 residents/year
2014The Nebraska Medical Center becomes Nebraska Medicine
2019UNMC Neurosurgery is elevated to a department
2019Dr. Aviva Abosch is appointed chair of the Department of Neurosurgery

RRC = Residency Review Committee.

Established in 1854, Omaha quickly grew as a regional center of trade and travel into the frontier. Nebraska gained statehood in 1867, which led to the development of the Union Pacific Railroad headquartered in Omaha, increasing the city’s regional importance. The increase in population necessitated the education of physicians. A group of local physicians founded Omaha Medical College in 1881. Omaha Medical College started with a 1-year curriculum in a wood-frame building. It grew through the following decades, until affiliating with the University of Nebraska in 1902, becoming the University of Nebraska College of Medicine. The University of Nebraska had received its charter from the state legislature in 1869 and officially opened in 1871 in Lincoln.1 The University of Nebraska shaped the College of Medicine into a modern medical center. To provide students adequately and conveniently with clinical cases, University Hospital opened in 1917. In the years that followed, the medical campus grew through facilities and academic programs. In 1968, the College of Medicine became UNMC, a semiautonomous unit in the University of Nebraska system (Fig. 1).2

FIG. 1.
FIG. 1.

Photograph of University Hospital, circa 1928. Copyright UNMC McGoogan Library Special Collections. Published with permission.

University of Nebraska Hospital facilities have been instrumental to the Department of Neurosurgery’s success and growth. University Hospital opened its first ICU as an 8-bed pediatrics unit in 1967. The 8-bed adult ICU opened in 1969. It acquired its first CT unit in 1975. The University Hospital installed its first MRI unit in 1983. UNMC neuroradiology capabilities have progressed beyond the radium and 250-kV orthovoltage deep x-ray therapy unit of the 1930s or the telecobalt unit and 20-MeV betatron from the 1960s.3 Today, UNMC neurosurgeons have access to noninvasive MR angiography, MR venography, CT angiography, and CT venography.4

The transition to full-time clinical faculty was an arduous process that began after World War II. As the old guard, the volunteer faculty had staffed the College of Medicine from its foundation. These volunteer physicians dedicated time away from their private practices, giving their time and talents and waiving financial gains to instruct medical students. Their opposition to hiring full-time faculty and inadequate state budget slowed the transition. One of the requirements for the College of Medicine from the Joint Commission on Accreditation was a full-time clinical faculty. In the late 1950s, the established volunteer faculty and the university reached a compromise to recruit well-qualified doctors, initially placing them on 1-year probation.2

The number of neurosurgery faculty members has increased over the years. Through the 1920s–1970s, the Department of Surgery staffed no more than 3 neurosurgeons during any one academic session. The number increased beginning in the 1990s. In 2020, the Department of Neurosurgery staffed 6 clinical faculty and 2 research faculty members, as well as 9 clinical neurosurgeons at an affiliated hospital, Methodist Hospital in Omaha.5,6

Records of neurosurgery practiced in Nebraska date back to the early days of statehood. Articles published by Nebraska physicians in the Proceedings of the Nebraska State Medical Society, Western Medical Review, and Omaha Clinic show that general surgeons performed operations on the brain, head, skull, and spine (https://www.nlm.nih.gov/hmd/indexcat/index.html). The available records of Creighton University, the other medical school in the state, show that it began teaching neurosurgery in a documented manner in the 1949–1950 session.7

Today, Nebraska residents can find neurosurgical practices, programs, and specialists across the state. In the eastern section of the state, Omaha, the largest city and the home of 2 medical schools, has the most neurosurgeons, with 19. Lincoln is the home of 6 neurosurgeons. In western Nebraska, Kearney has 2 neurosurgeons, while Hastings, Grand Island, and Scottsbluff have 1 neurosurgeon each. To date, Nebraska does not meet the minimum number of neurosurgeons to qualify for a state society. The Council of State Neurosurgical Societies includes Nebraska in the Midwest region.8

J. Jay Keegan (chair of surgery 1923–1948)

Dr. J. Jay Keegan (Fig. 2) served Nebraska as the first formally trained neurosurgeon. He received his medical degree from the University of Nebraska College of Medicine in 1915. After working as an instructor in anatomy for 2 years, in 1917, he began a neurological surgery residency under Dr. Harvey Cushing at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston. Unfortunately, World War I interrupted Keegan’s training. He served in the Navy Medical Reserves at Chelsea Naval Hospital under Dr. Milton J. Rosenau of Harvard Medical School and studied pathology with Drs. S. Burt Wolbach and Ernest W. Goodpasture.9 Keegan spent this time researching the 1918 influenza pandemic.10 After the conclusion of the war, Keegan completed his residency with Cushing in November 1920.11

FIG. 2.
FIG. 2.

J. Jay Keegan, MD, the first neurosurgeon at UNMC. Copyright UNMC McGoogan Library Special Collections. Published with permission.

Keegan returned to Omaha and joined the Department of Pathology at the University of Nebraska College of Medicine. At that time, general surgeons performed neurosurgery. Keegan reviewed autopsies on neurosurgical procedures and, on viewing errors, complained about the general surgeon’s incompetence. Because of Keegan’s complaints, in 1923, the dean appointed Keegan as the only neurosurgeon, based on his experience working with Dr. Cushing.12 As a member of the Department of Surgery, Keegan performed neurosurgery cases referred by doctors from other states and held staff membership in all Omaha hospitals. He held the chair position in the Department of Surgery from 1933 to 1948 and formed the first neurosurgery practice in Omaha. He was the sole neurosurgeon from 1923 until Dr. Alistair Finlayson joined the College of Medicine in 1945. Keegan worked as a senior consultant from 1954, until his retirement in 1959.5,11

Dr. Kenneth Browne, a neurosurgeon working under Keegan from 1953 to 1959, remembers him as an outstanding surgeon and accomplished clinician. Keegan’s practice expanded as disc surgery advanced. Browne recalls that Keegan relied on his clinical skills and intuition more than myelography when he worked with compression syndromes.12 The Society of Neurological Surgeons (SNS) admitted Keegan in 1925 on the endorsement of Drs. Cushing and Alfred W. Adson. SNS meetings and clinics provided Keegan with an opportunity to learn new techniques for complicated operations. He served as society president in 1941.11

Early in the 20th century, Keegan furthered neurosurgery with his work on dermatomes. Keegan worked to describe dermatomes, the sensory distribution of the nerve roots to the extremities,11 when confronted with cervical disc and lumbar disc herniations (Fig. 3). This method deviated from Henry Head and Otfrid Foerster’s utilization of spinal cord, cauda equina, and herpetic eruption cases to plot dermatomes. Keegan believed that surgeons should use a light pin scratch over the skin for sensory testing. Physicians could chart the dermatomal pattern from the digits up to the spinous process. Keegan instructed an intern to draw the patient’s dermatomal design in black and photograph it the night before surgery. He also studied dermatomes by injecting a local anesthetic into cervical nerve roots under radiographic control. In 1948, Keegan hosted the annual meeting of the SNS in Omaha. He demonstrated for the attendants a lumbar disc operation using the dermatomal pattern instead of myelography.9 In addition to neurosurgery, Keegan served as the dean of the College of Medicine from 1925 to 1929, overseeing the expansion of University Hospital building projects. He died in 1978.9

FIG. 3.
FIG. 3.

J. Jay Keegan’s dermatome chart, displaying the sensory distribution of the nerve roots to the extremities. Copyright UNMC McGoogan Library Special Collections. Published with permission. Figure is available in color online only.

F. Miles Skultety (section chief 1966–1973, interim chair of neurology 1974–1975, and chair of neurosurgery 1975–1987)

Dr. F. Miles Skultety, a 1946 graduate of the University of Rochester, joined the University of Nebraska College of Medicine faculty as the neurosurgery section chief in 1966, after teaching for 14 years at the University of Iowa. During his tenure, Skultety advanced neurosurgery at UNMC and helped patients return to productive lives.13

Skultety served UNMC in many capacities. In 1974, he began his service as the associate dean for clinical affairs in the College of Medicine and University Hospital medical staff president.13 In these roles, Skultety was instrumental in developing the medical center from a hospital that provided indigent care into a prominent academic health center.14

In 1975, the university appointed Skultety as chair of the Department of Neurosurgery, a position he held until his retirement in 1987. When Skultety arrived in Nebraska, the fields of neurosurgery and neurology had not been fully developed. The academic and clinical development in neurosciences at the University of Nebraska College of Medicine greatly improved after his arrival. The improvement was due to Skultety’s cooperative work with university faculty and health professionals across the state.13 The Department of Neurosurgery reverted to a section of the Department of Surgery after Skultety’s retirement.

Skultety devoted his career to improving patient care. In 1973, he established the Pain Management Center, one of the earliest in the nation, to provide specialized treatment to patients with chronic, debilitating pain. He served as its medical director from 1973 to 1987.13 The Pain Management Center was a multidisciplinary program based on the idea that pain is a psychophysiological phenomenon. The center concentrated on using operant conditioning and cognitive, holistic methods to treat pain. Only accepting patients whose conditions had failed to respond to traditional therapies, the center’s treatment goal was to have patients take responsibility for their well-being and return to their lives without pain interfering.15 Skultety was a visionary who realized that surgery and medication could not resolve all pain, and he created an interdisciplinary program to return patients to a functional life.14

Skultety established the J. Jay Keegan Memorial Lecture in 1981 to share the latest information in the neurosciences to Nebraska practitioners.13 Many nationally renowned neurosurgeons have lectured over the years (Table 2).16

TABLE 2.

Keegan lecturers

YearLecturer
1981William H. Sweet, MD, DSc
1982William Kemp Clark, MD
1983Ross H. Miller, MD
1984Charles B. Wilson, MD
1985Donlin M. Long, MD, PhD
1986Burton M. Onofrio, MD
1987Robert F. Spetzler, MD
1988George S. Allen, MD, PhD
1989Takanori Fukushima, MD, DSc
1990Harold J. Hoffman, MD
1991John R. Little, MD
1992Ossama Al-Mefty, MD
1993Duke S. Samson, MD
1994John James Oro, MD
1995M. Peter Heilburn, MD
1996John C. VanGilder, MD
1997Douglas Kondziolka, MD, MSc
1998Stephen J. Haines, MD
1999Arthur L. Day, MD
2000Steven L. Giannotta, MD
2001Mark N. Hadley, MD, FACS
2002Issam A. Awad, MD
2003Johnny B. Delashaw Jr., MD
2004Julian E. Bailes, MD
2005Jon H. Robertson, MD
2006Alex B. Valadka, MD, FACS
2007Richard G. Fessler, MD, PhD
2008Benjamin C. Warf, MD
2009David G. Kline, MD
2010Gary M. Bloomgarden, MD
2011R. Michael Scott, MD
2012Robert F. Spetzler, MD
2013Edward C. Benzel, MD
2014Vikram C. Prabhu, MD
2015Bernard R. Bendok, MD
2016Robert J. Dempsey, MD
2017Rocco A. Armonda, MD
2018Paul J. Camarata, MD
2019Michael W. McDermott, MD

Lyal G. Leibrock (section chief 1987–2004)

Dr. Lyal G. Leibrock (Fig. 4) received his medical degree from the University of Southern California in 1969 and completed a residency in neurosurgery at The Johns Hopkins Hospital. He joined the UNMC faculty in 1978. He became the neurosurgery section chief in 1987, a position he held for 17 years until stepping down in 2004, months prior to his death in 2005.17

FIG. 4.
FIG. 4.

Lyal G. Leibrock, MD, section chief of the UNMC neurosurgery department from 1987 to 2004. Copyright UNMC Department of Neurosurgery. Published with permission. Figure is available in color online only.

Leibrock was the director of the Neurosurgery Training Program. The neurological Residency Review Committee approved the program in 1993. When he started the residency program, only 1 resident was accepted into the program per year (L. Hellbusch, oral communication, 2017). The program has increased to 2 residents per year (email communication from UNMC Department of Neurosurgery archives). As the chair of the Council of State Neurosurgical Societies from 1999 to 2001, Leibrock helped to establish training and organizational guidelines for neurosurgery programs across the country.17 Providing opportunities to improve residency training was an essential initiative for Leibrock. He encouraged and developed cooperation between the university and private practice in Omaha (L. Hellbusch, oral communication, 2017). The relationship provided the foundation to grow the residency program. He described the valuable lessons learned with the hybrid approach in an article coauthored with Dr. Leslie Hellbusch of Omaha in Neurosurgery in Transition: The Socioeconomic Transformation of Neurological Surgery.18

Colleagues remember Leibrock as a remarkable surgeon who passed on his work ethic and skills to many residents. The former chair of the Department of Surgery, Dr. Byers Shaw, remembered Leibrock as “one of the best known academic neurosurgeons of our generation... [whose] greatest legacies can be found in the people he trained during his many years at Nebraska.” The neurosurgeons who trained under Leibrock are among the best of a new generation of neurosurgeons.17 Leibrock’s associates remember him as a national leader in organized neurosurgery. He understood the economic and legal implications of the business. Leibrock succeeded in connecting and organizing private practice physicians and academic medicine physicians.17

Leibrock served as a visiting professor at several institutions in the United States, Iran, and China. He was a fellow of the American College of Surgeons, a member of the Congress of Neurological Surgeons and the American Association of Neurological Surgeons (AANS), and a founding member of the North American Skull Base Society. The AANS elected him vice president, but he declined because of illness. After he died in 2005, the AANS honored Leibrock by naming a portion of its annual conference the Leibrock Leadership Development Conference.17

Kenneth A. Follett (section chief 2005–2019)

Dr. Kenneth A. Follett (Fig. 5) was the former chief of the neurosurgery section from 2005 to July 2019. Follett received his medical degree from the UNMC and completed his internship and residency at the University of Iowa Hospitals. He was also the program director of the Neurosurgery Residency Training Program.19 The university appointed Follett as the first Nancy A. Keegan and Donald R. Voelte, Jr. Chair in Neurosurgery in 2011. The chair is in honor of Dr. J. Jay Keegan.20 Follett’s areas of interest are stereotactic/functional neurosurgery and neurological pain management. He is the national chair of a multicenter clinical trial of deep brain stimulation to treat Parkinson’s disease. The Department of Veterans Affairs and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke sponsored the investigation.19 Follett returned to UNMC as section chief in 2005 because the university and its clinical partner were making strides to support neurological sciences. The Department of Neurological Sciences (Neurology) had a new chair, and the hospital had hired a dedicated neurosciences service line executive director. In Follett’s opinion, for the most part, neurosurgery has been able to share in the institutional support (written communication, June 2020).

FIG. 5.
FIG. 5.

Kenneth A. Follett, MD, section chief of the UNMC neurosurgery department from 2005 to 2019. Copyright UNMC Department of Neurosurgery. Published with permission. Figure is available in color online only.

Aviva Abosch (chair 2019–present)

On July 1, 2019, Dr. Aviva Abosch became the chair of the newly elevated Department of Neurosurgery at the UNMC. Abosch received her medical degree from the University of Pittsburgh in 1993. She completed an internship and residency in general surgery at the University of California, San Francisco. She participated in an epilepsy surgery fellowship at the Montreal Neurological Institute at McGill University and a functional and stereotactic neurosurgery fellowship at the Toronto Western Hospital, University of Toronto. Abosch strives to build the department in size and depth and to care for neurological patients with higher-level needs. Her priorities include recruiting more outstanding faculty to increase the department proficiency in tumor, spine, skull base, and pediatric neurosurgery.21 The university leadership, hospital, and staff support of her vision and goals for the neurosurgery program impressed Abosch and drew her to UNMC. She was also encouraged to come to UNMC because of its great sense of community and the opportunity to become only the third female chair of a neurosurgery department in the United States (written communication, 2019).

Growth of UNMC Neurosurgery

The neurosurgery program has grown in the past decade, with productivity increasing around 60%.22 The neurosurgery resident training program provides education in established and emerging neurosurgical therapies. It promotes excellent patient care (K. Follett, email communication), assisting UNMC/Nebraska Medicine to become a “regional destination center” for neurological care for the Midwest.22 In 2007, the Residency Review Committee permitted UNMC’s neurosurgery resident training program to increase from accepting 1 resident per year to accepting 1-alternating-with-2 residents a year (Table 3). UNMC’s clinical and research programs have grown beyond expectations. By 2011, the program believed that approximately 800–1000 operative cases per year without resident participation justified a resident increase every other year. From 2007 to 2011, the case volume grew by 37% from 2821 to 3851 cases annually, creating a mismatch between case quantity and the number of UNMC residents. Additionally, cranial, complex, and subspecialty cases increased. Due to the volume, case distribution, and abundant academic opportunities, the UNMC neurosurgery resident training program increased to accepting 2 residents per year in 2011. The UNMC Department of Neurosurgery has increased in general, subspecialty, and emerging therapies, including stereotactic radiosurgery; endovascular/cerebrovascular treatments; pediatric neurosurgery/endoscopy; functional/stereotactic, epilepsy, and pain surgery; minimally invasive and complex spinal surgery; and neurooncology (K. Follett, email communication). Additionally, the department is committed to investigating medical device design and implementation and clinical trials to advance patient care.23 Between January 1, 2018, and December 31, 2018, the UNMC neurosurgery section handled 2576 cases, and residents staffed 99% of the cases. The Department of Neurosurgery faculty and residents have also consistently produced research for publications (Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education, email communication).

TABLE 3.

Graduates of the UNMC neurosurgery program

NameResidency YrsLocation
John S. Treves1993–1999Omaha, NE
Tom Falloon1994–2000St. Cloud, MN
Mark Puccioni1995–2001Omaha, NE
William Thorell1996–2002Omaha, NE
Daniel Tomes1997–2003Lincoln, NE
Lloyd Mobley1998–2004Lone Tree, CO
Bradley Bowdino1999–2005Omaha, NE
Joanna Swartzbaugh2000–2006Bangor, ME
Matthew Johnson2001–2007Dakota Dunes, SD
Michael Sather2002–2008Hershey, PA
Mark Robinson2003–2009Denver, CO
Guy Music2004–2010Omaha, NE
Hendrik Klopper2005–2011Dakota Dunes, SD
Meysam Kebriaei2006–2012St. Paul, MN
Scott Boswell2007–2013Salina, KS
Joseph Cheatle2008–2014Myrtle Beach, SC
Kyle Nelson2008–2014Coon Rapids, MN
Andrew Gard2009–2015Omaha, NE
David Garcia2010–2016Kansas City, KS
J. William Robbins2011–2017Wright Patterson AFB, OH
Angelique Walstrom2011–2017St. Paul, MN
Linden Fornoff2012–2018Omaha, NE
Jordan Lacy2012–2018Omaha, NE
Kyle Schmidt2013–2020Rapid City, SD
Steven Tenny2013–2020Salina, KS

As UNMC approaches 100 years of neurosurgery, the department reflects on the past, revealing the influential personalities of the program. The growth of UNMC’s Department of Neurosurgery in the 21st century has expanded far beyond Dr. Keegan’s vision in the early 20th century.

Acknowledgments

We thank Dr. Leslie C. Hellbusch for sharing his memories of the UNMC Department of Neurosurgery. We also thank John S. Schleicher, Dr. William E. Thorell, and Kellie Devney for their assistance in locating information vital to writing this article.

Disclosures

The authors report no conflict of interest concerning the materials or methods used in this study or the findings specified in this paper.

Author Contributions

Conception and design: Pistone, Gard. Acquisition of data: Torell, Pistone. Drafting the article: Torell. Critically revising the article: Torell, Pistone. Reviewed submitted version of manuscript: all authors.

References

  • View in gallery

    Photograph of University Hospital, circa 1928. Copyright UNMC McGoogan Library Special Collections. Published with permission.

  • View in gallery

    J. Jay Keegan, MD, the first neurosurgeon at UNMC. Copyright UNMC McGoogan Library Special Collections. Published with permission.

  • View in gallery

    J. Jay Keegan’s dermatome chart, displaying the sensory distribution of the nerve roots to the extremities. Copyright UNMC McGoogan Library Special Collections. Published with permission. Figure is available in color online only.

  • View in gallery

    Lyal G. Leibrock, MD, section chief of the UNMC neurosurgery department from 1987 to 2004. Copyright UNMC Department of Neurosurgery. Published with permission. Figure is available in color online only.

  • View in gallery

    Kenneth A. Follett, MD, section chief of the UNMC neurosurgery department from 2005 to 2019. Copyright UNMC Department of Neurosurgery. Published with permission. Figure is available in color online only.

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