Howard Lilienthal and the Creation of Modern Thoracic Surgery

A portrait of Howard Lilienthal, MD done by Frank Netter, MD. Netter served in a Mount Sinai surgical clinic in the early 1930s.

This year marks the centennial of the creation of the Thoracic Surgery Service at The Mount Sinai Hospital, today’s Department of Cardiothoracic Surgery. Howard Lilienthal, MD was the first Chief of the Division and was a pioneer in the field. Later that same year (1914), he performed the first successful pulmonary lobectomy for inflammatory disease of the lung in the United States.  Much of his surgical work was made possible by the 1910 development by Charles Elsberg, a fellow surgeon at Mount Sinai, of a successful method of endotrachial anesthesia, allowing for open chest surgery.

Howard Lilienthal lived from 1861-1946.  Over his long career, he developed seven instruments and devices (a bullet probe and forceps, a portable operating table, a rib spreader, etc.), pioneered new operations, wrote many articles, and served in a variety of roles in various professional groups.  He was President of the New York County Medical Society as well as both the New York and the American Society for Thoracic Surgery, and a founder of what became the American Cancer Society.  In 1925 he published a two volume work on Thoracic Surgery, the first such textbook in this country; it was an instant classic.  Lilienthal was an officer in World War I, serving with Mount Sinai’s Base Hospital No.3 in France, as well as being placed in other hospitals that needed his expertise.  He was cited for a Distinguished Service Medal, but it never arrived. His only son, Howard Jr., died in 1918 while serving with a British regiment.

Lilienthal has been described as “elegant and aristocratic, very much in keeping with the Mt. Sinai tradition” of his time. He enjoyed fly fishing and painting, and when his failing eyesight ended his artist’s career, he wrote short stories for children. When he died in 1946, Mount Sinai mourned the loss of one of their best and most beloved surgeons.