Theodor Billroth Biography


Birthday: April 26, 1829 (Taurus)

Born In: Bergen auf Rügen, Germany

Christian Albert Theodor Billroth is remembered as one of the most innovative medical surgeons and educators of 19th century. He was a leading patron of Viennese musical scene and contributed to both surgical and musical field. Billroth is regarded as the father of modern abdominal surgery and was the first person to attempt to do a scientific analysis of music. He completed his doctorate studies in medicine and became a successful surgeon. Being a passionate learner, Billroth visited many medical universities as part of his educational tour. His amazing presence of mind and cool temper made him one of the most distinguished surgeons of his time. He penned many papers and books in medicine and also served in a military hospital during Franco-German War. He is remembered for his important role in establishing the first modern school of thought in surgery. Learn more about the life of this skillful physician from this biography.

Quick Facts

German Celebrities Born In April

Also Known As: Christian Albert Theodor Billroth

Died At Age: 64


Spouse/Ex-: Christine Michaelis (m. 1858)

father: Carl Theodor Billroth

mother: Johanna Christina

Born Country: Germany

Austrian Men Croatian Men

Died on: February 6, 1894

place of death: Opatija, Croatia

Notable Alumni: University Of Greifswald, University Of Berlin

Childhood & Early Life

Theodor Billroth was born Christian Albert Theodor Billroth, on April 26, 1829, in Pomerania, Prussia, to Carl Theodor Billroth and Johanna Christina. His father was a Lutheran minister who passed away when Theodor was five years old. His mother took Theodor with her to her father’s place in Greifswald. Her father was a Berlin Chancellor of Exchequer, and hence, Theodor did not see any financial trouble when he was growing up.

However, his life in academics was not very promising initially. He was described as a ‘slow-witted and a slow speaker’ boy. He had trouble with his academics and hence, he had to take additional tuitions along with attending school. In his teen years, he had also developed a great love for playing the piano, which somehow interfered with his education. His mother wanted him to pursue medicine due to financial reasons.

It was not a new thing for their family to be involved in music as Theodore’s grandparents had been opera singers. Following his high school graduation, he enrolled at the University of Greifswald to study medicine. But his true passion was music and he was torn between the two for quite some time. He chose music and did not attend classes during his first semester of medical college.

However, when one of his medical professors moved to the University of Gottingen, Theodor followed him and resumed his education to become a doctor. In 1852, he finally completed his medical education at the University of Berlin. For his doctoral thesis, he performed a dissertation on pulmonary infections.

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Surgical Career

He then began working at an eye clinic in Berlin and took courses in dermatology simultaneously. He wanted to practice medicine in Berlin and was hired as an assistant at the Berlin Charite Hospital, located at the University of Berlin. He worked there until 1860.

In 1860, he got a major job opportunity when he was hired as the chair of clinical surgery at the University of Zurich. However, even though he had become the director of the surgical clinic and hospital in Zurich, his career in Zurich was unremarkable during the initial few years. He had only 10 students at the university and he made just enough from his private practice to get by.

However, had an infectious personality and a great sense of humour, which compelled more students to attend his classes. He aimed at bringing the Medical Faculty of Zurich to a prominent position and he was eventually successful in doing so. For that, he had managed to earn full cooperation from his colleagues in the medical community.

In 1863, he published his famous textbook titled General Surgical Pathological Surgery and Therapy. Around the same time, he also introduced the concept of audits, in which all results are published to help in patient selection.

In 1867, he was appointed as a professor of surgery at the University of Vienna. It was in Vienna that his reputation further soared as it was among the most renowned universities in Europe.

While he was a professor of surgery, he did not limit to that field only. He also studied a common and deadly ailment, the wound fever. He concluded that infections resulting from surgeries were mostly bacterial. Thus, he promptly used antiseptics while performing surgeries and as a result, the number of surgery patients with wound fever substantially reduced.

As for his surgical methods, he pioneered removing or altering organs during the surgery, which was not done before him. In addition, he has also been deemed the man to bring many revolutionary changes to the field of surgery.

In 1872, he became the first surgeon ever to perform esophagectomy and laryngectomy. He was also the first surgeon ever to perform a rectal cancer excision and performed dozens of operations by the mid-1870s. By early 1881, thanks to Theodor, intestinal surgeries had become very common.

Despite all these revolutionary changes to the world of surgery, he was best known for performing the first-ever successful gastrectomy for gastric cancer. He had failed at that many times before and finally succeeded on January 29, 1881, when he performed the surgery on a cancer patient named Therese Heller. The successful surgery had her living for four more months before she died from liver metastases.

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His fame further soared and he ended up writing many successful books and papers. He passed on his knowledge and intellect to many of his students, which was later known as the ‘Billroth School’. He is also known as the founder of the first modern school of surgery. In addition, he also revolutionized the surgical training sphere with his radical ideas, which are being followed to this day.

Music Career

Despite establishing himself as a widely renowned surgeon, Theodor Billroth kept playing piano and violin as an amateur. While he lived in Zurich, he played string quartet with musicians such as Friedrich Hegar. His friendship with Johannes Brahms started in 1865 when they met during a concert in Zurich. Theodor moved to Vienna in 1867 and that was then they became close friends and shared insights on music with each other.

Brahms took Billroth’s opinion on his manuscripts before they went for publication and Billroth was present during Brahms’ chamber works trial rehearsals. They were so close together, that Brahms dedicated Opus 51 to Billroth.

Theodor wrote an essay titled ‘Who is Musical?’, which was published after his death. His essay was considered revolutionary as it attempted to combine science and music. It was also one of his ongoing researches as a surgeon. In the essay, Theodor mentioned many types of amusicalities such as tone-deafness and harmony-deafness. He indicated that different sections of cognitive abilities are involved in the perception of music.

He later described that both music and surgery are never in conflict with each other. According to him, they both stem from imagination.

In 1887, he became a member of the Austrian House of Lords, an honour rarely bestowed on medical practitioners.

Personal Life & Death

In 1858, Theodor Billroth married Christine Michaelis. She was the daughter of a court physician. The couple had three daughters together.

Theodor had a strong artistic inclination, which kept flourishing inside him throughout his life. Along with befriending famous musicians, he also turned his Vienna home into a musical centre for practising violin and piano.

In 1887, Theodor fell ill with inflammation of the lungs. Following that, his heart also weakened and he eventually passed away on February 6, 1894. He was 64 years old at the time of his demise.

See the events in life of Theodor Billroth in Chronological Order

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