Our Beginnings

The establishment of the Vanderbilt Department of Anesthesiology at Vanderbilt is largely credited to Dr. Barney Brooks. Dr. Brooks was appointed Professor and Chairman of the Department of Surgery at Vanderbilt in 1925 along with other new faculty who were chosen to reopen the revised and rejuvenated Vanderbilt Medical School in 1925. Brooks had graduated from and interned with Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in 1907, but he took his surgical training at Barnes Hospital and Washington University in St. Louis.

By 1925, Brooks already had a national reputation for research and clinical practice of surgery. His biography and conversations with the few remaining physicians who knew him indicate that he was a quiet, forceful and inspiring man. He always had an interest in advancing surgical science and inspired a large number of investigations by Vanderbilt collaborators, many of whom, such as Alfred Blacock, Tinsley R. Harrison, and Sidney Burwell, became world famous. The group’s investigations included physiologic and pharmacologic studies of general anesthetic agents (but without the apparent collaboration of any physicians trained in anesthesia). (Ref: Scott-Rosenfeld).

Early in World War II it became apparent that America needed physician anesthesiologists. It was learned that a large proportion of the battle deaths at Pearl Harbor might have been avoided by better application of already well-known anesthesiology principles. At this time, the American Board of Anesthesiology was a subsection of the American Board of Surgery and did not become autonomous until 1942 after the start of the war. In fact, in 1942 there were only 100 holders of the certification “D.A.B.A” (Diplomate of the American Board of Anesthesiology).

Fewer than 50 physicians with any formal anesthesiology training entered the Armed Services (Ref. Green 1975). Therefore the War Department established a system of “Consultants in Anesthesiology” which included many now famous anesthesiology professors. These men established an emergency anesthesiology training program which quickly provided the first trained (hastily) anesthesiologists that many surgeons had ever seen. Several publications and many letters to home extolled the virtues of this new specialty and, at the end of the war, many of these young surgeons wanted physician anesthesia in their civilian practices (Collins).

At the end of World War II, the number of anesthesiology physicians in the United States rocketed from 500 before the war to 2,000 at the end of hostilities (Green). Vanderbilt University Medical Center had sent a large contingent of surgeons, nurses and physicians to the war, who were essentially allowed to stay together as the “Vanderbilt Unit.” They saw action in the European Theatre. These friends and residents of Dr. Brooks were highly impressed with the improved survivability when anesthesia physicians were involved. These views were communicated to Barney Brooks.

Even before the end of the war, Dr. Brooks began a campaign to obtain physician anesthesia at Vanderbilt University. Some of the original correspondence still exists and shows that it was not easy for him to convince colleagues that anesthesiology had a place at Vanderbilt. It is a tribute to his vision and perseverance that on December 12, 1945, the Executive Committee of Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and Dean Goodpasture created the new, independent and autonomous Department of Anesthesiology. At that time very few medical schools possessed an academic Anesthesiology Service of any type and even in those schools, Anesthesiology was usually designated as a subdivision within the Department of Surgery.