AANS Neurosurgeon | Volume 26, Number 4, 2017

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Irving J. Sherman, MD, FAANS(L) - A Centenarian Deeply Connected With Neurosurgery

1916: History, Neurosurgery and Irving Sherman
Irving J. Sherman, MD, FAANS(L), born in 1916, is a living participant of and influencer to the evolution of neurosurgery. One hundred years ago is a distant and impossible abstraction, especially in today’s technology-inundated culture. In 1916, radio was still in its infancy, TV was more than a decade in the future and of course, there was no internet, smartphones or streaming updates. However, 1916 was historically momentous. World War I, the first real multilateral, international conflict, was raging in Europe. The Battle of Verdun spanned many months in France, resulting in over half a million casualties. Woodrow Wilson was running for re-election with the slogan, “He kept us out of the war,” and Boeing Company flew their first aircraft. In November, Jeannette Rankin, from Montana, was elected as the first woman to Congress while the first “supermarket,” PigglyWiggly, opened in Memphis, Tenn. and Wrigley Field opened in Chicago. Clearly, 1916 was a significant year, even without the benefit of Facebook.

Neurosurgery as a specialty was in its infancy. Several years before, the still young Dr. Harvey Cushing had moved from Johns Hopkins to Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston, while Dr. Walter Dandy, who succeeded Cushing as the Johns Hopkins chief of neurosurgery, was still William Halsted’s chief surgical resident.

On Feb. 4, 1916, Dr. Sherman was born in Atlantic City, N.J., an event that would impact neurosurgical history and development. Dr. Sherman completed his undergraduate and medical education at Johns Hopkins, receiving his MD in 1940. While an undergraduate in 1936, Sherman and some friends disguised themselves as medical students from Columbia and made their way into the operating theater to watch surgery. There, Sherman first encountered Dandy during the nascent stage of neurosurgery. He was both shocked that a patient could survive such a procedure and so fascinated and compelled by what he saw that he chose to pursue not only medicine but also neurosurgery. Being impressed by Dandy is understandable. He had performed many ‘firsts’ for the specialty of neurosurgery, including:

  • Operating on herniated lumbar discs
  • Sectioning vestibular nerves for Meniere’s disease; and
  • Performing a hemispherectomy (1933) for the treatment of a malignant brain tumor.

In 1919, Dandy published his treatise on pneumoencephalography, a technique for imaging the intracranial contents by which cerebrospinal fluid was removed and air was injected. This imaging technique, along with cerebral angiography, would function as the mainstay for neurosurgeons until the advent of computed tomography (CT) in the 1970s and 1980s. 

Sherman Becomes a Neurosurgeon
Sherman began his surgical internship at Hopkins in 1940 followed by two years of training under Dandy. The surgical training was grueling at that time. Each surgical trainee was on duty 24 hours a day for 50 weeks, with just two weeks off for vacation. Marriage was strongly discouraged for surgical residents. First year residents received no pay but were provided room, board and laundry services; after the first year, residents were given $16 ($275 in 2017 equivalent) per month.

In the early 1940’s, Dandy was in his operative prime, working with his highly efficient “Brain Team,” often successfully completing over 1,000 surgeries a year. The cases moved fluidly and efficiently, with a team of residents, nurses and nurse anesthetists each performing their roles with alacrity and efficiency. Sherman recalls:

“The residents, one on each side of Dandy, removed the used instruments from Dandy’s hands and replaced them with new instruments as needed. Rarely did Dandy have to ask for an instrument. As residents, we knew which instrument was needed, as we were mentally performing the operation along with Dandy. In this way, Dandy rarely had to remove his gaze from the operative field, and he was able to complete his surgery rapidly and efficiently, although in an unhurried manner.”

Armed with this initial surgical training, Sherman left Johns Hopkins in 1943 to serve as a neurosurgeon attached to the 108th Mobile Auxiliary Surgical Evacuation Hospital in Europe. He participated in the D-Day landing at Normandy, and at one point, was the only neurosurgeon attached to the army in the European theater. After his military service, Sherman returned to New York to round out his neurology and surgical training. He eventually developed a private practice in Bridgeport, Conn., becoming the sixth neurosurgeon in the state in 1947. He would remain in private practice for the next 40 years before retiring in 1986.

During his long career, Dr. Sherman witnessed the dramatic evolution of neurosurgery as a specialty. In 1975, he helped develop the first neurosciences center in Connecticut. By the time of his retirement, the imaging techniques available to neurosurgeons had advanced to include CT and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Open, maximally-invasive techniques to remove brain tumors had been replaced by stereotactic, image guided procedures.

Sherman: Retirement, Philanthropy and Ongoing Influence on Neurosurgery
After retirement, Sherman resettled in Palm Beach, Fla.; however, his affiliation with neurosurgery was far from over. In addition to having a long and productive neurosurgical practice, Sherman had been a successful businessman. In his later years, he developed a long-standing relationship with his alma mater, serving as the founding member of the Department of Neurosurgery’s Advisory Board as well as in several other advisory roles to the university and medical center.

As a benefactor, Sherman has left a tremendous impact. He has been instrumental in the development of several endowed chairs in the Department of Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins, including the Walter Dandy Professorship, dedicated to his mentor. Over 50 travelling fellowships facilitating Johns Hopkins clinicians and scientists to learn new techniques and perform ground-breaking research through visiting other institutions and countries have benefitted from his largesse. Taken together, his philanthropy to his alma mater allowed him continued impact on continued evolution of the specialty. Dr. Gary Gallia’s travelling fellowship, used to study with surgeons in Australia and acquire new minimally-invasive, endoscopically guided techniques to approach skull base tumors, is representative of this.

When asked why he has given so generously, Sherman replies quite simply and modestly, “I like to help people, that’s what doctors are for.” Sherman has been a tremendous positive influence in the Johns Hopkins Department now for several decades as a teacher, mentor and benefactor. He and his wife, Florence, are seen as exemplars of civility and elegance.

100+ Years: Health and Longevity
For centuries, people have sought for the secret to health, longevity and even immortality. Although the proverbial “fountain of youth” does not exist, scientific research has demonstrated that some social factors are associated with longer life. In particular, long life has been positively correlated with social connection and relationships. In contrast, social isolation has been associated with increased mortality. As a centenarian, Dr. Sherman represents an outlier of longevity. There are likely multiple factors, including his maintenance of healthy connections with his specialty and with Johns Hopkins, that have certainly played a role in this life long lived.

Still vital in his 101st year, Dr. Sherman maintains his faculties and sense of humor while regularly staying in touch with neuroscience leaders at Johns Hopkins. During his life, he has experienced the growth of neurosurgery from a fledgling specialty into a vibrant, international, multidisciplinary specialty. He represents many of the best qualities of our specialty: hard work and dedication, moral integrity, social responsibility and generosity and excellent long-term vision. Dr. Sherman is an excellent example of someone who did not passively observe the rapid evolution of our specialty, choosing to remain actively involved in the transformation of our specialty.

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