Dr. William W. Keen (1837-1932) of Swedish and Dutch extraction, was a man of stern principles and unwavering convictions and a diligent worker in the Calvinist tradition. He was born on the last day of Andrew Jackson’s tenure as president; and he died in the waning months of Herbert Hoover’s administration. He saw active service during the Civil War as a battalion surgeon in the Battle of Bull Run, was a consultant to the U.S. Army during the Spanish-American conflict, and served as a commissioned medical officer in World War I.
With William Halstead, Samuel Gross and a handful of others, he was one of the acknowledged founders of modern American surgery. His active friends and professional colleagues included Oliver Wendell Holmes, Weir Mitchell, Joseph Lister, and William Osler. His patients included presidents from Grover Cleveland to Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Dr. Keen’s collegiate education was at Brown University where he was class valedictorian in 1859. Other than his years abroad, Keen attended every Brown commencement exercise until 1931. He received his M.D. degree from Jefferson Medical School in Philadelphia; and then studied abroad, principally in Vienna, learning the craft of surgery from the great European masters.
Dr. Keen taught the principles and rudiments of surgery at Jefferson College to over 10,000 American physicians. His rigorously disciplined operative skills set new standards for aseptic surgery.
In his later years, Keen assumed the presidency of the American Baptist Missionary Union. In this position he traveled the world in support of the many medical missions implanted by his church in Africa, Asia, and Oceania. His greatest admiration was reserved for those professional colleagues who answered a higher call to labor as medical missionaries bringing the precious gifts of anesthesia, vaccines, and the general principles of public health and sanitation to distant lands. Dr. Keen took pride in the 379 hospitals, 783 dispensaries and 533 orphanages established by his Union.
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