About Owen H. Wangensteen

Early life

Owen H. Wangensteen at graduation from University of Minnesota, 1919 From L’Etoile du Nord, 1994, Peltier & Aust

Owen H. Wangensteen (1898 to 1981) is namesake and benefactor of the Wangensteen Historical Library.

Owen was born on September 21, 1898 in Lake Park, Minnesota to a Norwegian immigrant, Ove Wangensteen, and his wife Hannah, a daughter of Norwegian immigrants. Owen grew up working on the family farm while his father ran various business enterprises in town. His mother passed away from complications of tuberculosis in 1905, but not before she shared her teaching skills and love of learning by teaching him to read before he entered public school.

Owen was a bright student even if he was active enough to get himself into occasional trouble. He demonstrated his remarkable memory (for which he became well known) at an early age. He described himself as a “brash youngster” who ran afoul of a particularly strict teacher. It was his sixth grade teacher, Lizzie Hanson, who encouraged Owen and whom he credited with his success in academics.

I owe a debt of gratitude to Lizzie Hanson, a spinster lady who gave me encouragement. When she died, she was buried next to my own forebears in the Norwegian Lutheran cemetery at Lake Park, Minnesota. Whenever I go to visit my people in that area, I always go to the grave of Lizzie Hanson and shed a tear for what she did to incite my interest in learning.

Owen began his medical practice in caring for the animals on the farm. He is thought to have been the first in his county to vaccinate for anthrax. While still in high school, he learned about anthrax vaccine from his father’s journals. He wrote to the dean of the College of Agriculture at the University of Minnesota; the dean sent the vaccine, and Owen vaccinated the herd, preventing further loss of livestock to the disease. His successes with farrowing pigs convinced his father that Owen should attend the University of Minnesota to study medicine, though Owen wanted to be a veterinarian. His father won out and Owen came to Minneapolis in 1915. 

Path to the Chair of Surgery

Owen began medical school in 1919 in a class of 73 students, seven of whom were women. He initially intended to be an internist but after attending his first lecture by the animated Dr. Arthur Stachauer, Chief of Surgery, he changed course and devoted his interest to surgery.

In 1921 Dr. Wangensteen graduated from medical school at the top of his class. He interned at the University’s Elliot Hospital. There was no position available at the time he completed his internship so he traveled to Rochester and the Mayo Clinic for a year-long surgical fellowship under Dr. Henry S. Plummer and Dr. William Mayo.

Return to Minneapolis

OHW (as he was known by his staff and friends) completed his fellowship and moved back to Minneapolis in 1925. It was a year of decision for he completed his thesis for doctor of philosophy in surgery (The Undescended Testis: An Experimental and Clinical Study), his first child, Mary, was born to him and wife, Helen, and he accepted his first professional position. He was offered a post in private practice in North Dakota for $15,000 a year. Despite pressure from his family to accept this offer, he chose to remain at the University of Minnesota for a salary of $3,600 a year.

The call to Europe

In 1926 Owen was promoted from instructor to Assistant Professor.  Dr. Lyon, Dean of the Medical School, then arranged financing for a year’s sabbatical ($2,400 to support a family of three and their travel) to study in western Europe, a common practice at that time.  In the fall of 1927, OHW joined his good friend and fellow surgeon, Dr. George Eitel in training under Professor Fritz de Quervain, Dr. Emil Kocher’s successor in Bern, Switzerland, and Professor Leon Asher at the Physiological Institute, also in Bern. Folklore has it that OHW, in his great enthusiasm to observe as much as possible during an operation in the clinic, fell on top of the patient.

On a more serious note, Dr. de Quervain and Dr. Asher, instilled in Dr. Wangensteen an appreciation for history, physiology, and research in surgery. Study began with an exploration of the problem from a historical standpoint followed by research for answers for the future

His years as Chief of Surgery

Dr. Wangensteen began his academic career at a turning point in the teaching of medicine in the United States, particularly with regard to the way a medical school was staffed. The University of Minnesota, like other academic institutions, was moving from clinical, part-time faculty to full-time teachers.

Potential candidates for the position of chief of surgery from out-of-state made such comments as “There is nothing here and there never will be” or “Minnesota’s medical school offered no bright prospects”.

When options for candidates from eastern institutions failed, university administration turned to one of their own. Dr. Wangensteen was appointed chairman of the Department of Surgery in 1930 with the support of Dean Lyon and William Mayo. He was promoted to full professorship in 1931 and served as department chair until his retirement in 1967.

Wangensteen’s teaching impact

Dr. Wangensteen held the philosophy that first you recruited the most talented students you could find, and then found the funding to support their research interests. Working with Dr. Maurice Visscher of the Department of Physiology, Dr. Wangensteen developed a program that required surgeons to conduct research, a marked departure from the norm in medical education and practice.

Many of his residents went on to do remarkable things. Dr. Norman Shumway developed the technique for heart transplantation, and Dr. Christaan Barnard performed the first transplant in South Africa in 1967. Dr. F. John Lewis led the world’s first successful open heart surgery in 1952 using hypothermia; Dr. C. Walton Lillihei introduced the technique of cross-circulation in 1954 for open heart surgery, and Dr. Richard A. DeWall introduced the heart-lung machine a year later. Dr. Clarence Dennis also worked with DeWall and Dr. Lillehei on the development of the bubble oxygenator.

Wangensteen suction

Dr. Wangensteen was a highly energetic individual who was described as “having twenty original ideas a day” but perhaps his most significant achievement was the Wangensteen suction apparatus developed in 1931. It is a modified siphon that maintains a constant negative pressure to remove gases and fluids from the stomach and intestines after surgery or other injury. It was estimated by Dr. Visscher that by 1944, the device had saved some 100,000 lives, and a million by the time of Dr. Wangensteen’s death.

Dr. Wangensteen concluded that intestinal procedures were required because of the damage from the excess pressure in the stomach and intestines caused by gastric and intestinal secretions. Going against conventional wisdom, Dr. Wangensteen and his students devised animal experiments to prove the point. The results of the experiments lead to the design, construction, and world-wide adoption of the Wangensteen tube, a procedure which remains in wide use today.

The original apparatus was constructed of glass bottles, rubber tubing, and clamps. A tube is passed through the patient’s nose, down the esophagus, through the stomach, and into the intestines to remove the gas and fluids that cause extension, and in essence, vacuum them out. The apparatus was never patented because, according to Mrs. Wangensteen, Dr. Wangensteen felt it was wrong to personally profit from his invention and that his concepts and inventions should be available for the benefit of all.

Publication of his research findings proved difficult because by the accepted standards of the period, surgeons didn’t conduct research and publish results.  Therefore, Wangensteen created the Surgical Forum at the American College of Surgeons to provide up-and-coming surgeons a place to share their ideas and research findings. Originally called the Society for University Surgeons, it began life as a session at the annual meeting, then grew to include the publication called The Surgical Forum, a publication that is still in existence today.

The device and procedure were so well known by the general public, that Ogden Nash created a poem about it 1951 and the device was incorporated into Episode 173 of the popular television program, M*A*S*H.


In addition to his teaching and surgical career, Dr. Wangensteen was designated as one of the two founding editors of the journal Surgery by Dr. William Mayo.

His achievements and talents were recognized by his peers, and he received numerous medals, honorary degrees, and prizes at home and abroad. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1966, and was an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in England, Scotland, and Ireland. He was also an honorary member of the Hellenic Surgical Society, the Norwegian Academy of Sciences, the French National Academy of Medicine, the Argentine Surgical Society, Societe Internationale de Chirurgie, the International Academy of the History of Medicine, and a corresponding member of the German Surgical Congress.

He awards included the Samuel D. Gross Award and Medal of the Philadelphia Academy of Surgery in 1935, the John Scott Award and Medal in 1941, the Alvarenza Prize in 1949, the Distinguished Service Award of the University of Minnesota in 1960, the Passano Award in 1961, the Lannelongue Medal of the French Academy of Surgery in 1968, the Distinguished Service Award of the American Medical Association in 1968, and the Scientific Achievement Award of the American Surgical Association in 1976.


His efforts to develop an enduring financial endowment and physical presence for a world-class historical library and degree program in the history of medicine were legendary and tireless. In addition, he was  the driving force behind fundraising efforts to complete the Phillips-Wangensteen Building in the Academic Health Sciences complex, as well as raising money for a medical library next to the hospital where it would be more readily available to staff and students.

Dr. Wangensteen operated under two self-imposed policies during his tenure at the University of Minnesota; he set a limit on the amount of personal income he would accept from his own practice and turned over any excess to a University Surgical Research Fund. Secondly, he wrote his more affluent private patients a letter saying he preferred not to bill for his services, requesting instead that they send a contribution to the Fund in an amount they themselves deemed appropriate. This practice extended to the establishment of endowments for continued building of the historical collections of the Wangensteen Historical Library of Biology and Medicine as well as his research lab.

History of medicine

Throughout his career, Dr. Wangensteen had a passion for the history of medicine and its importance in a professional career. When he retired from surgical practice in 1967, his interest intensified. He and his wife, Sarah Davidson Wangensteen, collaborated on a comprehensive history of surgery entitled “The Rise of Surgery: From Empiric Craft to Scientific Discipline” (1978) that was published three years before his death.

Private funding was negotiated by Dr. Wangensteen for the addition of a fifth floor to Diehl Hall to house the Program in the History of Medicine and the Wangensteen Historical Library.

Because of the tireless effort of Dr. and Mrs. Wangensteen, the Library continues to develop and serve students and scholars from Minnesota and abroad. The Program in the History of Medicine continues to host a lecture series on historical topics related to the History of Medicine.

The Wangensteen Historical Library remains one of the exemplary collections of historical medical works in this country and is a testament to the intense interest and support of Dr. Owen Wangensteen.