Authors: Christopher Michael Honey, MD; Christopher Honey, MD; Alan Rheume, BSc (Winnipeg, Canada)


January 19, 1911, Dr. Edward Martin made a midline incision in the back of Iguatz Yokua. The procedure would be the first ‘chordotomy’ ever performed on a patient. This paper is the story of the people behind that operation. Who conceived of the idea to cut the spinal cord to relieve pain? Who dared to perform the operation? 


A comprehensive literature and archive review was preformed in order to piece together the story of the first ever chordotomy. 


The genius behind the idea of chordotomy was Dr. William G. Spiller. He was Professor of Neuropathology at the University of Pennsylvania and ran a neurology service at the Philadelphia General Hospital. He had completed medical school at UPenn in 1892 with distinction. His classmate and friend, Charles Harrison Frazier, would embark on a career in neurological surgery at his suggestion and become a founding member and President of the AANS. Why a general surgeon (Martin), who often mocked Spiller, performed the first chordotomy rather than his gifted neurosurgical friend remains a topic for speculation.


Though Martin preformed the initial chordotomy, Frazier would be the one responsible for popularizing the technique in America. At a meeting of the Philadelphia Neurological Society less than a year later, Frazier was reported to have said, “When surgeons first began operating upon the brain, there was general outcry against experimenting upon so delicate an organ. But this feeling was gradually overcome and in the like manner, must surgeons get away from the attitude of “hands off” concerning the spinal column.” His textbook Surgery of the Spine and Spinal Cord published in 1918 had a chapter devoted to Chordotomy. In it, he reported that his experience with three cases ‘substantiated in the most gratifying way all that Spiller anticipated.’

Vesalius Award