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Transcript: Abraham E. Hiebert, 1975

Please note: The Becker Medical Library presents this oral history interview as part of the record of the past. This primary historical resource may reflect the attitudes, perspectives, and beliefs of different times and of the interviewee. The Becker Medical Library does not endorse the views expressed in this interview, which may contain materials offensive to some users.

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This is Oral History interview #18 with Dr. A. E. Hiebert of Wichita, Kansas.  Dr. Hiebert is a graduate of the class of 1925.  Dr. Hiebert, could you tell us something about your family and your early childhood?

My father was a minister and we were raised on a farm.  My mother and father both came to this country from the Ukraine when they were small children.  We were raised in the heart of Kansas.  There were five children in my family.  The boys, four of us, all became M.D.s in various fields and [our] sister was _____(?) of college of women.  None of us became farmers; all of us went into medical or other professional enterprises.  I received both my high school and college training in several schools.  I graduated from a small college in Hillsboro [Kansas] named Tabor College with an A.B. degree and then transferred to the University of Kansas, where I took a B.S. degree in preparation for medicine.  I had two years of training in the School of Medicine at the University of Kansas, then transferred to Washington University and graduated in 1925.

Could you tell us something about your interests and activities while you were attending high school and college?

I lived at home on the farm during both high school and early college education.  This gave me some other responsibilities than if I had not lived at home, so that I did not participate in a good many of the interscholastic things that I might have otherwise.  I did, however, represent the school several years at debates interscholastically, and won some prizes.

How did you decide to enter medicine?

I had a little bit of an idea about medicine because my grandmother was a homeopathic physician out in the country.  I never decided to go into medicine because I really didn’t want to be a doctor that would be called at all hours of the night.  I wanted to go into law.  But in the meantime, the First World War came and I saw a good deal of things that turned my interest to medicine.  I had the opportunity of pursuing [this] when I got into medical school later on.

Did you serve in the armed forces during World War I?

I had a position in the Red Cross in which I spent essentially two years.  It had to do with reconstruction in France and with food administration in Germany and also in Austria.

What made you decide to enter Washington University?

I wasn’t quite sure where I should go, so I made applications to three universities, Washington being one.  Since they were hard up for students in the other universities, also, I was accepted [by all three].  I chose Washington out of these three for several reasons.  One, I knew something about the reputation of this school and two, it was closer to home than any of the others.

Could you tell us something about the professors that you had while you were at Washington University Medical School?

Yes.  There were a number of them that were outstanding in my experience.  The one that probably had the most influence on me was Dr. Vilray P. Blair, the plastic surgeon.  I had the opportunity to scrub with him or his assistants during the years that I was a student and also in my internship.  I also had the opportunity of going with Dr. Blair to Jefferson Barracks to see some of the mutilated soldiers that needed reconstructive surgery.  This was in continuity with my earlier experience in reconstruction.

Another doctor that was very influential with me was Dr. Ambrose Evarts Graham [ed. note: Evarts Ambrose Graham].  He laid the foundations for a good, solid background in surgery and has played a very important part in my career.  Dr. Ernest Sachs was an interesting and influential person in my career, also.  He used to have us half scared to pieces when we were junior students and were brought down into The Pit to be especially examined.

Could you tell us what made you decide on plastic surgery as your specialty?

First of all, [there was] the fact that my face was mutilated in an early childhood accident, which made me very self-conscious in the early years.  Then, when I came under the influence of Dr. Blair and saw what could be done, I had very much sympathy with what happened to patients with problems like mine.  This probably, together with the wonderful inspiration of Dr. Blair and his staff, [encouraged] me to go into the subspecialty of plastic surgery.

Where did you have your internship?

My internship was at Barnes Hospital in surgery.  We went through the paces of the various specialties in surgery.  I went through the various departments in general surgery, including plastic, but always when the opportunity arose I would deviate to the plastic side.  Dr. Blair was very kind to me and his staff likewise, so that I was taken in as a preceptee in his office and I went with him to the other hospitals, too, for surgery.

What was your further sequence in training?

I left Barnes Hospital and Dr. Blair’s office for a residency in Boston, where I was a resident in the North End Dispensary.  This was really an experience to a general practice exposure, although I did surgery, as I saw many other cases with various other problems.  This was for two years.  Then I spent two more years at the Boston City Hospital as one of the residents and was given especially an opportunity to do plastic surgery, as much as was available.  It happened that the Head of Surgery, Dr. David Scannell of the Boston City Hospital, was a close friend of Dr. Blair’s, so they both were kind to me.  I might interpose that Dr. Blair wired me and asked me to come back with him.  [He offered] to double my salary if I came.  Like a fool, I didn’t accept it because I was already committed.

Where did you set up practice after your training?

I spent almost seven years in Topeka as Associate Chief Surgeon for the Security Benefit Association Hospital.  This included general surgery, and it was my duty also to do the G.U. [genitourinary] surgery.  I was the pathologist for the hospital with a consultant in the city of Topeka.  I stayed there longer than I intended to because of circumstances that I could not control.

What were your experiences in this hospital?

First of all, I did very much surgery; I did more than 1,000 major operations while I was over there.  Many of them were in the line of plastic surgery.  There was one dark spot which made me stay in this hospital longer than I had planned and that was a law suit – a woman that was injured after she had had surgery.  She broke her hip and because of a failure to recognize this when she was discharged, in my absence, there was a law suit.  This was quite an ordeal, but the Supreme Court reversed the decision of the lower court and exonerated me.

Where did you next practice medicine?

I went to Wichita, Kansas, which is the largest city in Kansas, and opened up a practice in general surgery with the emphasis on plastic surgery.  I made a living there with this and in about the latter part of the forties I completely discontinued general surgery and limited myself to plastic and reconstructive surgery

Did you have any further training in plastic surgery?

Yes, I did.  All through the following years, after being out of [medical] school and hospitals, training, I would take many weeks off each year to go to various plastic centers to study, since there were no residencies.  I sometimes spent three months out of the year trying to learn plastic surgery and to augment the [skills] that I had.  During this time I visited many places hoping to acquire further knowledge of the subspecialty.  Mostly, I spent time with Dr. Blair.  On one occasion, after we had gone through surgery, I asked him, “Dr. Blair, how do you become a plastic surgeon?”  He looked at me kind of quizzically and said, “Why, Hiebert, what’s the matter with you?  You are a plastic surgeon; go home and saw wood.”

Dr. Hiebert, have you had the opportunity to do any teaching during your professional career?

I had the opportunity of teaching both French and German to prospective candidates for doctors of philosophy [degree], and have also taught German in public schools as a specialty.  In the medical school I spent one year in Pharmacology in which I was assistant in the department and also head of the laboratories in Boston(?) University.  The second year, I was in charge of the anatomic laboratories and checked the various assistants.

Could you tell us something about your publications?

Yes.  Most of my publications were in the field of plastic surgery, really before I ever limited myself to this field.

Could you tell us some of your experiences with patients?

One of my early publications was one of a G.U. nature: a vaginal urethral _____(?), done on a very fat woman.  This was very simple; we were able to open the ureter and remove a large stone through the vagina and this was no problem to the patient.  Later on, when the same patient came to surgery with a very markedly thick _____(?) wall from her weight of about 300 pounds, she had her gall bladder removed but almost died of multiple fat emboli.

Other publications are pertinent to congenital deformities and burns and corrective reconstructions of parts of the face – some original editions, I think.  One of the other things that we have written about was an original approach to the implantation of a nasal strut for support.  Instead of opening the columella externally, we entered the columella sublabially without leaving a scar and were able to implant the L-shaped support in this manner.

Is there any special interest that you are following at the present time?

Yes.  I have an interest in further rehabilitation of patients with earlier clefts that have been reconstructed but can further be improved.  We have had them come back [from] as far back as thirty or more years and have, hopefully, improved the end results.

Could you tell us more about your scientific research?

One of the things that we were interested in was the removal of scars from the hair-bearing portions of the body, especially the scalp.  In the conventional incisions, the end result would usually show a scar where there was a certain amount of alopecia.  Evidently this was due to the transection of hair follicles, and they were then destroyed.  In an effort to overcome this, we made our incisions parallel with the roots of the hair so that we would not cut across so many.  This proved that we didn’t have a lot of the loss of hair [follicles] resulting in scars.

Could you tell us something about your hobbies and your community activities?

Regarding the hobbies, I like to spend some time on the farm, do a little fishing and just get away from the telephone.  I also like to play golf.  In regard to community affairs, I belong to a good many organizations, hopefully for the betterment.  I’ve been on the board of directors of the Chamber of Commerce, at one time [for] four years, and have taken an interest in a good many other civic affairs.

Could you tell us something about your professional affiliations?

I belong to all the local and national medical organizations – the College of Surgeons, and the various plastic units.  Right now, I happen to be President-Elect of the Midwestern Association of Plastic Surgeons.  Regarding meetings, we have traveled quite a bit.  We have attended most of the national meetings since I’ve been interested in this field and [gone] to many of the regional meetings.  [I have also attended] the International Congresses of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, which includes special study periods and such.

Dr. Hiebert, can you think of anything else that you would like to add to this oral history interview?  Could you tell us about your philosophy as a physician?

This is a bit hard to put in a few words, but from the point of view of a plastic and reconstructive surgeon, I would say that the only thing that counts is the happiness of the patient.  Anatomically, we can do many things, but this does not necessarily mean that this is going to be the answer to the patient’s problem.  One should analyze very carefully before one decides on a policy in regard to whether or not to operate [on] a patient, so that one knows what the motivating forces are, and whether one thinks one can make the patient happy in doing what we can.

One further thing I would say: when patients come to consult the doctor they come because they are sick, or think they are.  They are very serious about this.  It ill behooves us to make light of this [attitude].  One should certainly establish whether this is a tangible problem or at least what can be done about it.  I might, however, say that a certain amount of levity mixed with the seriousness in medicine is a great help at times.

To further elucidate about my military experience, I want to say that I was in the army for six months and a year and a half other than that I spent in the Red Cross, abroad.

This concludes Oral History #18, conducted with Dr. A. E. Hiebert on May 16, 1975.


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