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Elliott Cutler Elliott Cutler

Born: July 30, 1888 in Bangor, Maine
Died: August 16, 1947
Nationality: American
Occupation: surgeon

Elliott Carr Cutler (July 30, 1888 - August 16, 1947), surgeon and medical educator, was born in Bangor, Maine, the son of George Chalmers Cutler, a lumber merchant, and Mary Franklin Wilson. Cutler attended both Harvard College and Harvard Medical School, receiving his medical degree in 1913. He traveled to Heidelberg where he studied pathology for one summer. Cutler then served as surgical intern at the newly opened Peter Bent Brigham Hospital, where he assisted surgeon Harvey Cushing. In 1915 Cutler joined the Harvard Unit of the American Ambulance Hospital in Paris, and upon his return he was named resident surgeon at the Massachusetts General Hospital. In 1916 Cutler declined William S. Halsted's invitation to run the Hunterian Laboratory at Johns Hopkins, opting to study immunity at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in order to benefit "from the stern discipline of a meticulous laboratory worker," Simon Flexner ("The Education of the Surgeon," p. 467). America's entry into the First World War Prompted Cutler's return to France as a captain in the Army Medical Corps assigned to the Harvard Unit, Base Hospital Number 5.

After the war, Cutler returned to Boston, joining Cushing's staff at the Brigham Hospital as resident surgeon. In the spring of 1919 he married Caroline Pollard Parker, who had also worked at Base Hospital Number 5 in France. The couple had five children.

From 1921 to 1923 Cutler directed the laboratory of surgical research and was an associate in the Department of Surgery at Harvard Medical School. He left Harvard in 1924 to become professor of surgery at Western Reserve Medical School and director of surgery at the Lakeside Hospital in Cleveland, where he continued his laboratory work. He returned to Boston in 1932 when he succeeded Cushing as Moseley Professor of Surgery at Harvard Medical School and surgeon in chief at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital. The last fifteen years of his life were primarily devoted to surgical practice, teaching, and research at Harvard. At the outbreak of the Second World War, the governor of Massachusetts appointed Cutler medical director of the state committee on public safety. In 1942 he was again called into active service in the Army Medical Corps. During the war he served as chief surgical consultant and later as chief of the professional services division in the office of the surgeon general, European theater of operations. As chief surgical consultant, he played an active role in obtaining blood from the United States for use in treating wounded soldiers. In 1945 he was appointed brigadier general and received a second Distinguished Service Medal, as well as the Legion of Merit and the Order of the British Empire.

Cutler introduced several new techniques into cardiac surgery, a field then in its infancy. In 1923 he performed the first successful surgical operation for mitral valve stenosis. The possibility of surgical treatment for patients with constricted or diseased heart valves had been actively pursued for two decades by surgeons, who had attempted to approximate the condition in laboratory animals. Two years of research on animals at the Harvard surgical research laboratory emboldened Cutler and cardiologist Samuel A. Levine to attempt a surgical intervention in a young female patient with mitral valve stenosis. The surgery, hailed as a milestone by the British Medical Journal, proved to have a mortality rate of 90 percent; abandoned by Cutler in 1928, surgical repair for mitral valve stenosis was not reattempted until 1945. Cutler's other surgical innovations included the development of surgical instruments and techniques for treatment of pulmonary embolism and pericarditis and the development of surgical methods to treat patients with congestive heart failure, including the surgical removal of normal thyroid glands for relief of angina pectoris. In addition to more than two hundred scientific papers, he published in 1939, with Robert Zollinger, the ATLAS OF SURGICAL OPERATIONS. (In 1993 Zollinger and Robert Zollinger, Jr., published the seventh edition of the ATLAS.)

As an animal experimenter and director of a surgical research laboratory, Cutler, like other researchers of his era, encountered criticism from American antivivisectionists concerned about the welfare of animals, especially dogs, used in research. In his laboratories, Cutler gave humane treatment of research animals high priority. In 1926 he became actively involved in organized medicine's defense of animal experimentation when he succeeded Harvard colleague Walter Bradford Cannon as chair of the American Medical Association's Committee for the Protection of Medical Research. For twelve years, until he reentered military service in 1942, Cutler monitored professional and popular reports of animal experimentation in an effort to forestall legislative restrictions on animal experimentation. In order to demonstrate humane conditions in research laboratories, Cutler arranged in 1938 for a photographer from LIFE magazine to photograph experimental surgical procedures on anesthetized dogs at Harvard, surgery that allowed students to "perform their first operation on man as surgeons and not as butchers."

In addition to his activities in defense of animal experimentation, Cutler held leadership positions in a number of medical societies, including the presidencies of the American Surgical Association (1947) and the Society for Clinical Surgery (1941-1946). He was one of the founders of the American Board of Surgery and served on the editorial boards of several major medical and surgical journals. The recipient of a number of honorary degrees, he was named an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1943 and awarded the Henry Jacob Bigelow Medal by the Boston Surgical Society in 1947. Cutler died from prostate cancer in Brookline, Massachusetts. In 1965 Harvard Medical School established a professorship of surgery in his name.


The Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine at Harvard holds a large collection of Cutler's office files from the years 1921 to 1942, which encompasses his teaching, hospital work, research, publications, and activities in defense of animal experimentation. In addition to the ATLAS, Cutler's major works include "Cardiotomy and Valvulotomy for Mitral Stenosis," BOSTON MEDICAL AND SURGICAL JOURNAL 188 (1923): 1023-27, with S. A. Levine; and "The Surgical Treatment of Mitral Stenosis: Experimental and Clinical Studies," ARCHIVES OF SURGERY 9 (1924): 691-821, with Levine and Claude S. Beck. For Cutler's role in efforts to upgrade surgical training, see his remarks delivered at his acceptance of the Bigelow Medal, "The Education of the Surgeon," NEW ENGLAND JOURNAL OF MEDICINE 237 (1947): 466-70, and Peter D. Olch, "Evarts A. Graham, the American College of Surgeons, and the American Board of Surgery," JOURNAL OF THE HISTORY OF MEDICINE 27 (1972): 247-61.

For biographical information, see Frederick P. Ross, "Master Surgeon, Teacher, Soldier and Friend: Elliott Carr Cutler, MD (1888-1947)," AMERICAN JOURNAL OF SURGERY 137 (1979): 428-32. Cutler's role as a surgical innovator is discussed in Judith P. Swazey and Renee C. Fox, "The Clinical Moratorium: A Case Study of Mitral Valve Surgery," in EXPERIMENTATION WITH HUMAN SUBJECTS, ed. Paul A. Freund (1970). Useful obituaries can be found in SURGERY 23 (1948): 863-66; NEW ENGLAND JOURNAL OF MEDICINE 237 (1947): 681; JOURNAL OF THE AMERICAN MEDICAL ASSOCIATION 135 (1947): 47; and the NEW YORK TIMES, 17 Aug. and 24 Aug. 1947.

-- Susan E. Lederer

Photo: Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.

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Source: From THE AMERICAN NATIONAL BIOGRAPHY, copyright 2000 American Council of Learned Societies. Published by Oxford University Press, Inc. Used by permission of Oxford University Press.


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