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By William L. Newmeyer, III, MD, FACS
It falls to few men to originate a surgical specialty. Sterling Bunnell, MD (1882-1957) did just that for surgery of the hand. He was a general surgeon in the true meaning of the word, and believed that surgery of the hand was a composite problem requiring the correlation of the various specialties–orthopaedics, plastic and neurologic surgery–the knowledge of any one of which alone is inadequate for repairing the hand.
From July 1936 until January 1941, Norman T. Kirk, MD, one of the first US army surgeons specializing in orthopaedics, served as Chief of Surgical Service at Letterman General Hospital in San Francisco, California, where Dr. Bunnell had a thriving practice.
In 1943, Dr. Kirk was appointed the Surgeon General of the US Army. Realizing that a large group of patients in need of reconstructive surgery required specialized care, he asked his friend, Dr. Bunnell – a general surgeon with an overwhelming interest in hand surgery -- to organize nine regional hand centers at Army Hospitals in the United States.
This Bunnell did, and between November 1944 and February 1947 he visited these centers eight times teaching the proper care of patients with hand injuries and organizing the surgical treatment. Dr. Bunnell’s monumental book, Surgery of the Hand (JB Lippincott, 1944), became the bible for hand surgeons and remained so for about 25 years.
As World War II drew to a close, Dr. Bunnell started to talk about forming an organization to continue to foster interest in problems of the hand. Several hand surgeons, especially Joseph H. Boyes, MD, picked up on this idea, and 35 hand surgeons, mostly but not exclusively those who had worked in one of the nine hand centers, were designated as Founding Members of the American Society for Surgery of the Hand (ASSH).
The first meeting, held in Chicago in January 1946, was timed to precede the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS).
The early format of the meetings was to have a half-day meeting for members only, followed by a one-day meeting opened to any physician interested in surgery of the hand. In the late 1940’s, the Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery (JBJS) became the de facto journal of the ASSH.