James L. Poppen

1963, Denver

James L. Poppen embarked upon his neurosurgical career in 1933 when he joined the staff of the Lahey Clinic. By the time he had completed a 2-year surgical residency at the Illinois Research and Educational Hospital, his major interest seemed to be in neurological surgery although he also trained in general, thoracic, and genitourinary surgery. His formal tutelage in this field, brief by present standards, was provided by Dr. Eric Oldberg.

In the early 1930s the newly formed Lahey Clinic was beginning to expand its surgical and medical practice, and Dr. Frank Lahey quickly recruited Gilbert Horrax to head his neurosurgical department upon Dr. Cushing's retirement from the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital. The long and fruitful association of Drs. Horrax and Poppen is well known and led Dr. Lahey to comment 20 years later, "They have always complemented each other."

But Dr. Poppen's early experiences were disappointing. As a restless and imaginative young surgeon, he was dissatisfied with the tedious and often unrewarding procedures. In addition he deplored the frequent recourse to temporal decompression as a means of dealing with deep-seated brain tumors. His extraordinary skill might have been lost to neurosurgery had it not been for several visits to the clinics of Drs. Dandy, Peet, and Adson where he learned that seemingly inoperable tumors could be removed successfully. He credits Dr. Dandy with providing the inspiration he needed to develop an operative technique which he reasoned could readily have been combined with the careful neurosurgery of Drs. Cushing and Horrax, but in those days of burgeoning surgical practice, not much time could have been devoted to observation. It was largely his own ingenuity and resourcefulness which led to the development of a remarkable surgical ability.

Dr. Poppen was born in Drenthe, Michigan, on February 27, 1903. His father and mother were both of Dutch ancestry and lived on a farm which had been the family homesite. Even as a young boy he was interested in hunting and had a dog and a gun at a very early age. His mother died when he was 10 years old, but his father was a source of strength as were other members of his father's family. Several of his relatives became physicians and medical missionaries. Dr. Poppen was educated at Hope Preparatory School in Holland, Michigan, and then at Hope College, from which he later received the degree of Doctor of Science. During this time he managed to teach school for 2 years in the upper elementary grades. A hard-working student, he was also an excellent athlete, particularly in basketball and baseball. The latter sport provided a livelihood for him during summer vacations from college and early medical school, but his experiences as a professional baseball pitcher also helped in the molding of his character and thinking.

Upon graduation from Rush Medical College in 1930, he spent a year of internship at St. Luke's Hospital in Chicago before entering his residency. In April 1933 he married Nancy High, a young lady from Wyoming, whom he met in Chicago. They lived in the Boston area since July 1933 with their two children and now have two grandchildren. Through the years he continued to have an interest in baseball and became an active golfer, and hunted big game wherever it could be found.

In his 30 years of neurosurgical practice, Dr. Poppen found time to describe his enormous surgical experience in a large number of publications, culminating with his well-known Atlas of Neurosurgical Technique, but he was best known for his unique and exceptional operative skill. His residents and associates always marveled at his ability to accomplish what often seemed the impossible in the operating room, yet it was a mark of his character that he always treated the most minor operation or procedure with just as much care and dignity. The same challenge existed to complete a lumbar puncture accurately and painlessly as to clip an intracranial aneurysm. He demanded much of his associates and assistants and much of himself. No task was too menial; there was no patient who could not be seen, no human feeling that was not considered. His aggressiveness and capacity for work throughout his career earned him the respect, if not always the endearment, of his colleagues. His surgical approach was neither ritualistic nor fussy, but his insistence upon an orderly "chronological" sequence was the keynote of every operation. This, coupled with knowledge and judgment based upon thousands of cases, led to the development of a school of neurosurgery which was badly needed and will be long enduring.

His achievements were recognized by many awards and honors from North and South American and European institutions. He served as president of the Boston Society of Neurology and Psychiatry, the Harvey Cushing Society, and the Society of Neurological Surgeons. He was also a member of the American Neurological Association, the American Surgical Association, the Boston Surgical Society, The Massachusetts Medical Society, the American Medical Association, and was a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons. Dr. James Poppen died in 1978.