History of Endocrine Surgery

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Early beginnings - the history of endocrine surgery

Most would agree that endocrine surgery began with the Swiss surgeon Theodor Kocher (1841-1917).

Kocher's contributions built on the work of Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) and Joseph Lister (1827-1912).

During his career, Kocher was able to reduce the death rate following thyroid surgery from approximately 50% to 1% - truly a remarkable feat. Many of these deaths were caused by infection, a process that had not been well understood prior to this era.

Kocher's groundbreaking work on the physiology, pathology and surgery of the thyroid gland culminated in his receipt of the Nobel Prize. A large number of surgical instruments and techniques that remain in current use bear his name.

Endocrinology and endocrine surgery

Though knowledge of the existence of endocrine glands dates back to antiquity, understanding of their function only began during the late 1800s. The exocrine glands of the body (those that release their secretions through a duct, such as the salivary glands) possessed an obvious product and purpose. The function of the endocrine (ductless) glands remained mysterious until a number of investigators demonstrated that glandular extracts were capable of curing certain disease states, such as myxedema (now known as hypothyroidism, first treated with thyroid extract in 1891), Addison’s disease (adrenocortical deficiency, first treated with adrenal extract in 1896), and later diabetes mellitus (insulin deficiency, first treated successfully with pancreatic extract in 1922).

The term “hormone” (from the Greek hormao: “to excite”) entered the English lexicon in 1905 when renowned British physiologists William Bayliss (1860-1924) and Ernest Starling (1866-1927) discovered secretin, a compound from the intestine that functioned as a chemical messenger when injected into the bloodstream. Through these events, the field of endocrinology emerged.

Rather than channeling their secretions through ducts, the endocrine glands were discovered to release minute amounts of hormone directly into the bloodstream. As biochemical techniques evolved, individual hormones were purified and characterized throughout the 20 th century and into present day. Notable landmark achievements include:

Collectively, these discoveries enabled physicians to recognize, diagnose, and treat:

  • Disease states resulting from hormone excess, managed with endocrine surgery or medicines to inhibit (block) hormone action.
  • Disease states resulting from hormone deficiency, managed with pharmacologic hormone supplementation.

1. Welbourn RB: The emergence of endocrinology. Gesnerus, 49 Pt 2: 137-150, 1992.