SRS Newsletter
March 2011
Return to Newsletter >

Historian’s Corner

Dr. Russell Hibbs
Department of Orthopaedic Surgery -
Columbia University Medical Center

By Nathan Lebwohl, MD
SRS Historian

Most SRS members think of Dr. Kenton Leatherman when they think of Louisville, Kentucky, the host city for the upcoming 2011 Annual Meeting. Dr. Leatherman was a founding member of the SRS and led this society as President in 1975. He was an important contributor to modern surgical techniques, especially through his work on anterior spinal surgery and vertebral resection for severe rigid deformity. But few of us realize that another famous orthopaedist, whose name is known to anyone who has ever attended an SRS meeting, was a product of the outstanding medical center in Louisville.

Dr. Russell Hibbs graduated from medical school at the University of Louisville in 1890. Originally from Kentucky, he moved to New York in 1893 and began his orthopaedic training at the New York Orthopaedic Dispensary and Hospital in 1884. In 1890, following a bitter disagreement with his superior, the Board of Trustees appointed Hibbs to replace him as Surgeon in Chief, at the age of 29. Much of the clinical work that occupied Hibbs’ time involved the treatment of musculoskeletal tuberculosis. The mainstay of treatment was to immobilize the infected joints. Theorizing that a bony fusion would provide better immobilization than the braces and casts commonly used at that time to immobilize the spine for treatment of Pott’s disease, Hibbs performed his first spinal fusion on January 9, 1911. Though probably not the first surgeon to fuse the spine (Fred Albee claimed to have done his first spinal fusion in 1909, also to treat tuberculosis) Hibbs recognized that the operation could be used to treat spinal deformity due to causes other than tuberculosis, and titled his initial 1911 report “An operation for progressive spinal deformities.” In 1914, Hibbs performed his first operation for paralytic scoliosis. Albee included a case of spinal fusion for paralytic scoliosis in his 1915 textbook “Bone graft surgery,” so the question of who was first remains unanswered. The assumption many surgeons have, that Hibbs was first, is reinforced by the eponymous award for excellence in research given annually by the SRS. How did the awards for best clinical and basic science papers at the Annual Meeting come to be known as the Hibbs Award?

If you visit the SRS website, you can learn more about Russell Hibbs in the excellent biography posted on the Hibbs Society page. But a search of the online SRS Archive provides the answer to our question. In 1977, Hugo Keim, who practiced at the New York Orthopaedic Hospital, approached SRS President Kirklin Ashley with an offer to fund an award for the best research paper presented at the Annual Meeting. Keim had received a one million dollar gift from the family of a grateful patient which he used to endow a spinal research foundation, and he offered to use the proceeds of that fund, in part, to provide this award. The SRS Board of Directors thought that it would be better if the $5,000 offered annually would be used as "seed money" for a research project, rather than an award for a completed project. They also proposed that the award be named in honor of Russell Hibbs. "This would bring credit to your hospital from whence your many contributions have stemmed," wrote Ashley to Keim. “In addition it would recognize Dr. Hibbs, whose courage and skill revolutionized the treatment of scoliosis and other spinal deformities.” In 1980, the first grant was given to Kazuhiko Satomi and Jens Axelgaard to study the effects of selective cord transections on spinal evoked potentials, and a paper on that topic was presented the following year. In 1981, at the recommendation of Rae Jacobs, a decision was made to revert to Dr. Keim’s original proposal, awarding the best paper presented, rather than providing a grant for proposed research. Two awards of $2,500 were made annually, one for best clinical paper, and one for best basic science paper. Ensor Transfeldt and Ed Simmons received the first award for best basic science research paper, and John Herring received the award for best clinical paper. Keim continued supporting the awards through 1983. When his support ended, the Board decided to continue the Hibbs Awards, but reduced the amount awarded to $1,000. Today, there is no longer a financial prize given with the award, but I was unable to find documentation in the archive regarding when this change occurred.

Do you have a question about the history of the SRS? The archives are available online to all members. We are continually adding to the materials, and welcome contributions of historic documents, photographs and artifacts. To view the archives, just click on the link on the member’s only page of the SRS website, and enjoy your walk down memory lane.