As the year 1917 dawned, the United States was close to involvement in a conflict which was destined to become a war of totality. Never had a war covered so large a part of the earth. Never had so many nations dedicated their full and total resources to the pursuit of destruction.
This was a violently emotional war. And a bloody war. The United States, still separated by an ocean not yet easily spanned by rockets, suffered its repercussions primarily through its men moved to the field of battle. But the people at home were not spared restrictions, privations, and the demands of total mobilization. The draft was instituted. Rationing, limited travel, overtime work, war gardens, and war bond drives became part of every American's daily life.
Now, fifty years later, one would hardly picture those rimes as most favorable for the founding and growth of an organization not directly involved in the war effort. Yet, during that time of trial, a small group of doctors in New York refused to become fettered by the world situation. They had been deeply impressed, over a period of years, with the need for a society for thoracic surgery and were determined to take action, guiding their project to successful fulfillment.
In retrospect, the impetus to determined action stemmed from the status thoracic surgery had already attained and from a confident faith in the benefits it could offer. Previous to the Society's founding in 1917, extensive advances had been made both in the United States and abroad. Medical problems involving the lungs, pleural space, and chest wall, and the place of aspiration, drainage, lobectomy, pneumonectomy, thoracoplasty and decortication were being actively researched and evaluated. Dilatation, drainage, short circuiting and resection were being used in various esophageal lesions. Surgery for tuberculosis was gaining with the increased use of thoracoplasty, phrenic operations and occasional excision. The sternal split was advocated for tumors, pulmonary emboli and other conditions of the mediastinum.
When war became imminent, a more reasoned and aggressive approach was assumed toward thoracic injuries and their sequelae. New methods and ideas were avidly discussed. Experimental surgeons had laid open the field of cardiac and vascular surgery with successful operations on the aortic and pulmonic valves, cardiac by-pass, suture and anastomosis of arteries and veins, and organ transplant. The emergence of endotracheal insufflation as a safe and effective method of maintaining respiration while providing anesthesia, made possible dramatic increases in the number of clinical successes utilizing the foregoing methods.
And so, in the hands of pioneers, thoracic surgery began to take shape and grow. In the general realm of activity, however, this fertile field met with dire neglect. The pioneers were few in number. Of the over-all body of medical men, only a small portion took an interest in or were aware of what was being done, and of those who were familiar with the record, only a handful envisioned the future.
New York contributed its fair share to the small group of pioneers. Through the work of Meltzer, Auer, Crump, Lambert, Lilienthal, Meyer, Torek, Carrel, and others, the New York area had made its voice heard on the subject of thoracic surgery. While these men were intensely involved in the field, it still remained for one individual to spark into being the movement toward a Society. Destined to provide this leadership was Dr. Willy Meyer, Director of Surgery at the German Hospital in New York. The seed foreshadowing Dr. Meyer's action had been sown some years back as the result of an occurrence exemplifying the lack of enthusiasm toward thoracic surgery so prevalent in the profession at the time.