Murphy’s Saw: Surgery With Irish Flair

The Murphy-Lane bone skid.

By Ray Cavanaugh, Contributor
November / December 2018

The extraordinarily gifted John Benjamin Murphy, who turned surgery into performance art.

Like other influential doctors, John Benjamin Murphy saved and improved lives with his medical advancements. But he also managed to turn surgery into a performance art. As a maestro with surgical tools, he welcomed – indeed, thrived on – the added pressure of operating before spectators inside an amphitheater. However, Murphy’s performances offered far more than operative entertainment: he was perhaps the finest medical educator of his age.

The son of famine refugees from Limerick, John Murphy was born in Wisconsin in 1857. He was the youngest of five children in a poor farming family that greatly valued education. His mother was fond of making the declaration: “If you are educated, there is no man’s achievements which you cannot equal or excel, provided you have industry and integrity and are temperate.” Young Murphy heeded her advice.

As a teenager, he worked at a nearby pharmacy. He also gave himself the middle name “Benjamin” and adopted the snappier appellation of “J.B. Murphy.” Like the transformation of James Gatz to Jay Gatsby, Murphy was reinventing himself.

After graduating from Appleton High School in 1876, he worked briefly as a schoolteacher and received medical instruction from a local doctor. During this time, he not only submerged himself in medical literature, but also began stalking the fauna on and around his family’s farm. An August 2015 article in the Journal of Vascular Surgery relates how Murphy, seeking to better understand anatomy, “regularly trapped birds, rabbits, and squirrels for dissection.”

He attended Rush Medical College (Chicago), from where he graduated in 1879. He then began an internship at Cook County Hospital, also in Chicago. In 1882, he went abroad to receive medical instruction in Germany and Austria from some of the world’s leading surgeons. Returning to the U.S. in 1884, he settled in Chicago, where he became a lecturer on surgery at Rush Medical College and emerged as a highly assertive surgeon who brought innovation to multiple specialties of medicine.

An enthusiastic self-promoter, he made sure to lend his surname to his surgical contributions, and so we have such medical terminology as “Murphy’s button,” “Murphy’s punch,” “Murphy’s test,” and even the “Murphy drip.” Evidently, he agreed to share his name for a device known as the “Murphy-Lane bone skid.”


An article in the May 2005 edition of Clinical Medicine & Research describes other of his important accomplishments in a medically precise way: “performance of end-to-end anastomosis of hollow viscera, early surgical intervention in cases of appendicitis, use of pneumothorax to treat pulmonary tuberculosis, surgical intervention for prostate cancer, and reconstruction of ankylosed joints.”

He spent his whole career in Chicago, where he would serve tenures as a professor of surgery at the city’s three top medical schools. “Holding such professorships at various institutions probably reflects not only his significant abilities as an educator but also his difficult personality, which caused him to transfer from one medical school to another,” according to an August 2002 article in JAMA Surgery.

Whatever interpersonal flaws Murphy might have possessed, medical students from all over the world came to attend his clinics. One of the finest testaments to his gift for teaching came from the British neurologist Rickman Godlee, who said of Murphy: “He made the most simple subjects exciting and the most abstruse subjects clear.” The British abdominal surgeon Berkeley Moynihan said point blank that “Murphy was beyond question the greatest clinical teacher of his day.”

A Classic reprint of The Surgical Clinics of John B. Murphy, M.D. at Mercy Hospital, Chicago: February 1, 1912.

At Chicago’s Mercy Hospital, where Murphy reigned as chief of surgery from 1895 until his death, his surgical performances – also known as “wet clinics” – commanded a sizable and enthusiastic fan base. And the star doctor pursued increased exposure by launching a publication called The Surgical Clinics of John B. Murphy.

Such an endeavor may sound rather like a vanity project. However, with Murphy, the content was always substantive and effectively rendered, so, in that sense, it’s no huge surprise that his self-named journal would serve as the basis for the Surgical Clinics of North America, a publication which endures to this day, spreading news about the latest developments in surgical techniques.

Realizing the importance of creativity as a surgeon, Murphy found unusual ways to improve patients’ quality of life. A 1916 article in the New York Times tells how he used a man’s finger to build him a new nose and additionally constructed a new jaw for a girl by using heavy silver wire with a metal frame. After positioning this contraption on the girl, “the flesh was quilted through the wire frame and the mucous membrane was sutured down on top of the tissue and the skin closed over the whole…The result was that the new jaw worked as well as the old.”

Murphy was a founding member of the American College of Surgeons, which now has the J.B. Murphy Memorial Auditorium at its Chicago headquarters. He also served as president of the American Medical Association for the year 1911. A sure sign of his lofty reputation was manifested in 1912, when Theodore Roosevelt was shot in Milwaukee. Immediately after the assassination attempt, Roosevelt was placed on a special train bound for Chicago’s Mercy Hospital, so that Murphy could attend to him.

At age 58, Murphy died of inflammation of the aorta on August 11, 1916. Multiple accounts say that, at the time of his death, he was in the company of doctor friends and his wife (this is one of the few mentions of his personal life; information about whether or not they had children has proven difficult to ascertain). Two days before his passing, Murphy had issued a written prediction of the specific findings at his autopsy. He was proven correct.

Some persons, though compelled to acknowledge Murphy’s talents, found his style too ostentatious, and European colleagues were generally more fond of him than his U.S. colleagues were. At least one prominent American doctor, however, was willing to pay tribute: William J. Mayo, a U.S. surgeon who helped establish the Mayo Clinic, regarded him as “the surgical genius of our generation.” One might assume Murphy would agree.♦

One Response to “Murphy’s Saw: Surgery With Irish Flair”

  1. The two articles on Dr Barry and Dr JB Murphy are fascinating– one whom fame eluded ultimately and the other who embraced fame and self-promotion. When I was researching my doctoral thesis on published series of photographs and biographies of eminent Victorian men and women, I discovered that in the UK medical men did not want to agree to inclusion in these laudatory series, issued regularly to subscription. The reason: they wanted to separate their ‘profession’ from the quacks promoting their ‘skills’ and from advertising potion sellers. So despite the fact that the series which would establish them as eminent and self-help heroes, they did not want to seem to be ‘selling’ or ‘advertising’ their services, and therefore did not appear alongside eminent barristers, the titled and lauded actors/actresses.

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