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  • William H. Sweet

    1975, Atlanta, GA

    William Herbert Sweet was born on February 13, 1910 in Kerriston, Washington, the center of the timber industry in the foothills of Mount Ranier. It was soon apparent to his father, a surgeon, and his mother, a university graduate, that their first child possessed an exceptional mind. He did the first four grades in 2 years and graduated from high school at the age of 14. During this time it was also evident that he was a gifted musician and after graduation from high school he spent a year studying piano. Realizing that he did not wish to devote his life to becoming a concert artist, and undecided about his future, he worked for a year in a sawmill in Centralia, Washington.

    At this point he entered the University of Washington and in 1930 graduated summa cum laude, first in a class of 1,000 graduates. With this brilliant academic record, he was accepted into Harvard Medical School in 1930. During his second year, he received a Rhodes Scholarship and the years of 1932 to 1934 were spent at Oxford University (Magdalen College) where he did research work in neurophysiology in the department of Sir Charles Sherrington. He received his B.Sc. degree from Oxford in 1934. On the basis of subsequent research work and publications, he was awarded a D.Sc. degree from Oxford University in 1957.

    Not one to waste time or remain idle for even a short period, he utilized the Oxford vacation periods to study at the University of Wtirzburg (Germany) Medical School. In 1934 he took (in German) and passed the German Government Written and Oral Examinations in internal medicine. He then returned to Harvard Medical School and graduated cure laude with the class of 1936.

    Training in neurosurgery began at the Massachusetts General Hospital in 1936 and then was continued for the next 3 years at the University of Chicago Clinic and Billings Hospital under Dr. Percival Bailey. Upon completion of his resident training in 1940, he returned to Harvard Medical School and the Massachusetts General Hospital as a Commonwealth Fund Fellow in research and for further special training in neurosurgery, especially of the autonomic nervous system.

    In the early years of World War II and long before the United States' entry into that war, he actively sought a means to make explicit both his appreciation of his Rhodes scholarship and his concern over the threat to the world implicit in Hitler's Germany. This opportunity came in mid-1941 when he was asked to return to England to be the acting chief of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Birmingham and regional consultant in Neurosurgery to the British Emergency Medical Service in the Midlands. He served in these capacities until June 1945, and in recognition of his efforts, he later received His Majesty's Medal for Service in the Cause of Freedom. Returning to the Massachusetts General Hospital in 1945, he resumed his career in academic neurosurgery.

    Early in the 1950s, Dr. Sweet, with the support of Dr. J. C. White, head of the neurosurgical service at that time and a former honored guest of the Congress, determined that advancement in knowledge in clinical neurosurgery would be accelerated if the neurosurgical service included a group of basic science investigators. To this end, Dr. Sweet established laboratories in the department of neurosurgery to include biophysics, neurophysiology, electro-microscopy, neurochemistry, and immunology with full-time members devoting their efforts to basic problems in the neurosurgical field. He was one of the first individuals to emphasize the importance of research training as part of the residency program.

    In 1961 Dr. Sweet became chief of the neurosurgical service of the Massachusetts General Hospital and at the present time also holds the appointment of professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School.

    His contributions to basic and clinical neurosurgery are numerous and wide ranging. His major areas of interest have included basic studies of the flow and formation of cerebrospinal fluid in man, application of radioactive isotopes to the investigation and treatment of central nervous system disorders, improvements in the techniques of clinical neurosurgery, treatment of extracranial and intracranial vascular disorders, treatment of pain, experimental investigations with primary malignant brain tumors, treatment of aggressive behavior disorders associated with organic brain disease, and medicolegal problems of neurosurgery.

    In 1951 he established, with the help of his biophysical colleagues, one of the first brain scan research laboratories and the first such laboratory to be utilized routinely for clinical diagnosis. The use of coincidence counting of the annihilation radiation from positron-emitting isotopes for clinical localization of focal brain lesions was first brought to fruition there. With Dr. James C. White, he has published two classic texts on the neurosurgical treatment of pain.

    He has been active in many other scientific endeavors which includes service on councils and committee Study sections for the National Institute of Health, membership on the Science and Technology Advisory Committee in the office of Manned Space Flight, scientific trustee from Harvard of Associated Universities, Inc., and an editor of Neurochirgia and the series of volumes entitled Progress in Neurological Surgery. He was founding member of the Neurosciences Research Program and has been an active associate of the program since its inception. He is an honorary member of the leading neurosurgical societies of Great Britain, Spain and Portugal, Egypt, France, and a corresponding foreign member of Swiss, Italian, and Scandinavian neurosurgical societies, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine of England. He is a diplomate of both the American Board of Neurological Surgery and the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology. Membership is also held in the American Academy of Neurology, American College of Surgeons, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Biological Sciences (vice president, 1964-1967), American Academy of Neurological Surgery, American Association of Neurological Surgeons, American Neurological Association (vice president, 1971-1972), American Society of Stereotactic Surgery, American Physiologic Society, American Surgical Association, American Medical Association, Association for Research in Nervous and Mental Diseases, Research Society of Neurological Surgeons, Society for Neuroscience, Society of Neurological Surgeons (president, 1969-1970), Electroencephalographic Society, Boylston Medical Society, Alsted Society, New England Neurosurgical Society (president, 1957-1958), Massachusetts Medical Society, and Boston Society of Psychiatry and Neurology (president, 1957-1958).

    Possessing a brilliant mind, superb technical skill, and a meticulous approach to problems in the operating room, he has supplied seemingly boundless energy to a vast number of important endeavors. Neurosurgery has been fortunate in having such an individual in its ranks for 4 decades.

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