Book chronicles department’s storied history

February 10, 2014 11:00 AM

Kirby Messinger

The Tulane University Department of Surgery has a long and illustrious history as one of the founding departments of the School of Medicine. And Hurricane Katrina could have caused that history to be lost forever if not for the hard work of third-year resident, Dr. Matthew Zelhart, and surgery chair Dr. Douglas Slakey. 

Innovation and Perseverance

One of the founding departments of the medical school, the Tulane Department of Surgery is dissected thanks to Dr. Doug Slakey, left, and Dr. Matthew Zelhart. (Photo by Paula Burch-Celentano)

Their book, Innovation and Perseverance: A History of the Tulane University Department of Surgery, chronicles the department’s storied past. The book looks at the history of the department from its founding in 1835 to present day, with a special focus on the days and weeks following Hurricane Katrina. 

It was during those first post-Katrina months that Slakey, who was at that time the new chair of the department, recognized the need to compile the records and history of the surgery department. 

“Tulane has the third-oldest residency program in the country and is also one of the oldest surgery departments in the nation,” says Zelhart, “yet there wasn’t even a record of the past chairs of the department.” 

Zelhart jumped at the opportunity to help record the department’s past. He worked with the Amistad Research Center and the Rudolph Matas Health Sciences Library to create a basic timeline of the department’s history. To fill in the missing pieces, he interviewed alumni as well as current and past faculty and staff. 

While conducting interviews, he learned fascinating tidbits and colorful stories about everything from surgeons dueling outside Charity Hospital to a top-secret surgery performed on famous surgeon Dr. Rudolph Matas. 

“Working on this book reminded me why I decided to go into surgery and be a part of the Tulane residency program,” says Zelhart. “This book honors the people who have come before us and the innovations that they have made in surgery.”

Zelhart hopes that the stories and history from this book inspire current and future residents at Tulane.

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