William Stewart Halsted was born on September 23, 1852 in New York City. In 1870, he graduated from Phillips Academy Andover after developing a strong academic reputation and interest in sports.
After graduating, he applied for and was accepted at Yale University. There, he became the captain of the first American 11-player football team. He also participated in other sports, including rowing, gymnastics, and baseball. As far as his academics, Halsted was considered mediocre, but this could be due to a lack of interest.
In his senior year, Halsted developed an interest in medicine and decided that he would attend medical school after graduating from Yale. In 1874, he did graduate and applied at the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City. He was accepted and mentored during his schooling by Henry Sands and John Dalton, two famous physicians at the time.
In 1876, Halsted began his first internship in the field at Bellevue Hospital in New York. Although he had only been through two years of medical school, he displayed a great deal of motivation, interest, and aptitude in medicine. In July of 1878, he was hired to work as a house physician at New York Hospital, but he left in November to move to Vienna, Austria.
In Vienna, he was trained to conduct surgery by Theodor Billroth. In 1879, he moved to Germany to study more, then returned to New York City in 1880. There, he resumed working at Bellevue Hospital, where he had had his first internship.
In 1881, he discovered that his sister had suffered from a postpartum hemorrhage after giving birth. He decided to bravely attempt an emergency blood transfusion using his own blood, by drawing it from his arm with a syringe and injecting it into one of her veins. The operation was the first of its sort it medical history and it managed to save his sister's life.
Later that year, he visited his mother in the city of Albany. She had been feeling ill and he diagnosed her with Charcota's triad, a collection of three symptoms: fever, right upper quadrant pain, and jaundice. This indicated to him that she had gallstones and he decided to operate to remove them, performing on the first gallstone surgeries in the United States. The operation was successful and his mother soon returned to normal.
In 1882, Halsted was researching breast cancer, a disorder that was becoming better understood by this time. He decided that the best way to prevent the spread of the cancerous cells was to simply remove them surgically, effectively removing the root of the problem. He performed this operation, known as a radical mastectomy, successfully numerous times and it became common practice in the medical field.
Between 1883 and 1886, Halsted published many papers on advanced topics that other doctors had not even considered. One of his proposals was the usage of blood transfusion during surgery to replace the massive quantities of blood lost either before or during surgery. Another paper suggested the injection of a saline solution into the blood to dilute it and treat shock. Unfortunately, the medical practice was at that time unable to realize the importance of these ideas and they were largely ignored for some time until they were established as standard operating procedures.
In 1884, a physician named Karl Koller demonstrated the use of cocaine for local anesthesia. Halsted began experimenting with this method on himself and managed to develop a severe addiction to the drug. He kept his addiction secret while he privately fought the addiction over several years. In 1885 he published a paper about his research that proposed several new methods of using cocaine for anesthesia.
In 1886, Halsted was still fighting his addiction, but managed to kick the habit after undergoing detoxification. The struggle notably changed his personality and his colleagues said that he went from being very outgoing to very withdrawn.
In 1888, he moved to Baltimore, Maryland, where Johns Hopkins Hospital was being constructed. When it opened, he was hired to work as a surgeon along with other famous physicians, including William Osler and Howard Kelly.
In 1889, his head nurse developed a bad case of dermatitis from the chemicals then used to disinfect hands before surgery. This prompted him to contract the Goodyear company to make rubber gloves for medical purposes. It wasn't until later that he realized the importance of rubber gloves in preventing infection and the spread of pathogens. That same year, he developed a method for the repair of inguinal hernias that had a lower mortality rate than other previous methods.
In 1890, he was appointed chief of surgery at Johns Hopkins. That same year, he married his head nurse, Caroline Hampton. Although they never had children, they shared a love for daschunds and lived in a house with four of the animals.
In 1892, Halsted performed the first successful suclavian artery litigation. In 1893, Johns Hopkins accepted its first medical students, a group of 18 people. Halsted worked closely with the students to educate them about surgery and medicine in general.
Over the next two decades, Halsted continued working at Johns Hopkins, but failed to invent any new surgical techniques. It appeared that his era of innovation was over, but he continued focusing on teaching young students in his old age. In 1918 he was elected president of the Maryland Medical Chirugical Society and in 1919, he had to have his gall bladder removed by Richard Follis, a former student.
In 1922, Halsted developed a case of choledocholithiasis (gallstones) and had to undergo surgery again, at the hands of two of his former students. They utilized Halsted's own surgical technique that he had performed on his mother, but he suffered complications, including a gastrointestinal hemorrhage and pneumonia. On September 7, 1922, he died from the complications.