Herbert Olivecrona

1952, Chicago

Herbert Olivecrona began his brilliant career in the surgical department of Serafimer Hospital. He established the first neurosurgery department at that hospital in 1930. In 1935, he was appointed professor of neurosurgery at the Karolinska Institute, a post he held until his retirement in 1960. He was a member of the Swedish Academy of Science and numerous Scandinavian, European, and American medical and surgical societies. He was a champion of international scholarship, sparked by a year he spent as a young man in 1919 at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Harvey Cushing planted the seed of neurosurgical interest in the young Dr. Olivecrona. Cushing offered him a year's residency, but Dr. Olivecrona was unable to finance the year abroad.

During the 1920s Herbert Olivecrona single-handedly established the neurosurgical program at Serafimer Hospital and became a contemporary expert in brain tumor surgery. Shortly thereafter he embarked on his career at the Karolinska Institute for which he is most recognized. One of his earliest collaborators was Eric Lysholm, the Swedish radiologist who developed the art of pneumoencephalography. Eric Lindgren later became Dr. Olivecrona's radiologist and Dr. Lindgren's work helped neuroradiology become a distinct and respected subspecialty. Dr. Olivecrona's disciples are equally known and respected in the international community and include Lars Leksell, Gosta Norlen, Olath Sjoqvist, Einar Bohm, and Eduard Busch.

Dr. Olivecrona was not satisfied merely to operate with low surgical mortality. His aim was always to restore his patients to good functional condition and to cure them whenever possible. He was one of the first to save the facial nerve in operations for removal of acoustic neuromas and gradually improved his results until he was able to save the nerve function in 65% of the cases in which he operated. He was also an adept and skilled cerebrovascular surgeon, contributing much to the current understanding and care of patients with cerebral aneurysms and arteriovenous malfunctions. Herbert Olivecrona was probably the first to realize that competent anesthesia in neurosurgery could only be obtained by having a specialized neuroanesthesiologist, and he found one in Emerick Gordon.

Herbert Olivecrona's unique prominence for so many decades can be comprehended fully only if his achievements are viewed in the appropriate historical perspective. Until the early 1920s, when he began neurosurgery, the diagnosis of a brain tumor was equivalent to a death sentence. Neurosurgery had only begun to make its first faltering steps.

Dr. Olivecrona traveled widely, observed others, and synthesized their insights. At the same time he developed his own neurosurgical techniques and principles, bringing about giant steps of progress in the field. In the annals of international neurosurgery, he is remembered with a reverence similar to that reserved for Harvey Cushing and Walter Dandy. Herbert Olivecrona died in January 1980.