Howard Atwood Kelly, 1858 - 1943

Howard Atwood Kelly

1858 - 1943
by David F. Coppedge

One of America’s greatest surgeons and gynecologists, Howard Atwood Kelly was one of the “big four” who led the Johns Hopkins Medical School from its inception to a leading institution of the world. He was also a devout, Bible-believing Christian who put its teachings into the fabric of his life.

Dr. Kelly’s heart-warming story is told wonderfully in Christian Men of Science by George Mulfinger and Julia Mulfinger Orozco (see The story of a man who simultaneously was an authority on snakes and on women’s diseases and who spent a year as a cowboy in Colorado has to be interesting! Readers are encouraged to order this book to learn about Howard Atwood Kelly and 10 other great Christians in science “who changed the world” with their discoveries.

For now, a few snippets of information about our featured scientist might tempt you to add this book to your library. Howard A. Kelly had a life-long fascination with nature, including snakes, turtles, bugs and other creatures which he liked to collect. His parents steered his youthful curiosity toward a career more likely to provide a good income—medicine. Good thing they did; Kelly became one of the most sought-after physicians and surgeons in the world. His skill as a teacher was equal to his reputation as a surgeon. It influenced a generation of gynecologists to come.

Born just a year before Darwin published the Origin, Dr. Kelly lived during the period of the rise of scientific skepticism but also that of the revolutionary germ theory of disease. He learned the new antiseptic techniques coming from the work of Louis Pasteur and Joseph Lister. Soon, though, he preferred asepsis – preventing germs through hygiene – to antisepsis, the mere killing of germs with chemicals. His fastidious cleanliness and his skill with the scalpel gave him a high success rate. He performed a successful Caesarean section and helped make the risky procedure much more reliable. For many years, C-sections usually proved fatal to both mother and child. The previous successful operation had been 50 years prior. Dr. Kelly was determined to improve the situation; he studied the German methods, and greatly increased the survival rate. Women saved by his techniques filled his files with thank-you letters.

Dr. Kelly transformed gynecology, the medical practice concerned with the special needs of women, from a fledgling subject into a respected field. In this he can be considered one of the founding fathers of gynecology. Women who suffered in silence due to modesty began to trust the expertise and sensitivity of a male surgeon thanks to the professionalism of Dr. Kelly and his results. His legacy includes thousands of women saved by cleaner, safer, more effective techniques he developed; but his skill was matched by his gentle, bedside sensitivity to his patients.

Though he charged high fees for students, Kelly funneled the money back into helping the poor. 75% of his patients were unable to pay for his services. Dr. Kelly bought up four adjacent houses in Maryland and personally staffed them as his own private hospital. The men he trained at Johns Hopkins Medical School fanned out across the world and leveraged his achievements to the benefit of millions of women. Some of his achievements can be found at the Medical History site at Johns Hopkins Medicine. You can also watch a video clip about the 125th anniversary of Johns Hopkins Hospital. Dr. Ben Carson, another creationist, led his illustrious career in pediatric brain surgery at this world-renowned institution.

Dr. Howard A. Kelly wrote 500 medical papers and 10 textbooks. In his surgical textbooks, he revolutionized medical illustration. Dissatisfied with the crude woodcuts of earlier textbooks, he found a German artist skilled at providing clear, accurate anatomical illustrations that surgeons could trust. He also incorporated photography. Medical textbooks were much improved by his innovations. In addition, Dr. Kelly was among the first to use radiation therapy for cancer. He even bought his own radium mine in Colorado and owned the largest stock of radium of his day. This illustrates his willingness to push the envelope to advance medical knowledge.

A bookworm to the extreme, Dr. Kelly’s personal library included 100,000 volumes. That was in addition to the ones he read and gave away. He had 10,000 books on fungi alone. Imagine the surprise of one visitor who commented on how one man could own so many books, only to learn that the thousands of volumes he was looking at were just part of the section on theology and the Bible. Dr. Kelly collected rare books, too. To him, books were like dear personal friends. How he had time to read so much while serving an active career as one of America’s premiere surgeons and being personally involved in the spiritual education of his nine children (five daughters and four sons) will be a profound mystery to many parents.

Speaking of his family, Kelly was a model father and husband. Rather than delegating education to the wife, as many professional men do, he made their spiritual upbringing his responsibility as father. His stamina was exceptional; he stayed physically active into his eighties. He swam each morning with the kids before breakfast (his rule) when at the lake property he owned in Maryland. The Mulfingers wrote that in his student years, “He thought nothing of a twenty-eight mile hike or a mile-long swim.” (That, of course, was in addition to learning 5 languages, teaching himself astronomy and architecture, practicing the piano and flute, and writing for the school newspaper while carrying a full load of classes.)

The only thing that started slowing him down was a diving accident at age 66. He was still doing fancy dives and somersaults from a 24-foot platform at that age. Though he learned his lesson to be more careful as a senior citizen, he continued performing surgeries till he was 80 years old. Gifted with a sense of humor and an incessant love of nature, Howard continued to collect snakes, plants and Indian artifacts. He even published a book on the snakes of Maryland and co-authored other non-medical works. The Mulfingers tell some amusing anecdotes of snakes that got out of their cages at inappropriate times, to the horror of visitors. Any screenwriters looking for a documentary subject here?

The influence of one man’s life can be astounding. The medical achievements of Howard Atwood Kelly would seem sufficient, but his spiritual legacy is far greater. Kelly was raised a Christian but knew what it was like to struggle with doubt when, as a young surgeon beginning his career, he was exposed to higher criticism and scientific attacks on the Bible. How did he overcome them?  He decided to approach the criticisms scientifically: he became skeptical of the skeptics! He also systematically examined the truth claims of the Bible. He subjected them to the test of experience.  The diagnosis of man’s problem appealed to him as a physician. “Where else,” the Mulfingers paraphrase his thoughts, “can we find a book that can so completely transform a man’s nature and change a lifetime of sinful habits?”  By probing into the validity of the skeptics’ arguments, and by testing the truth of God’s word in his own life, his faith emerged stronger than ever.

Oh – and about that cowboy story – that was for one year to recover his health from the stress of medical school. In that year he had learned to deal with the crude anti-Christian beliefs of cowhands on the ranch. It forced him to study the Bible more diligently to provide reasons for his faith. Through testing, Kelly’s Christian life became rich and powerful. It was his practice to pray with his nurses and assistants before each surgery. Ever generous to the poor, he was consistently and conscientiously involved with good deeds. Social righteousness was a passion of his. He opposed legal prostitution and spoke out against evil. “Nothing so dampens zeal in a great cause,” he said, “as the refusal of good people to be roused and stirred up to take and maintain a strong stand for right.”

In addition, Dr. Kelly supported missionaries, like his personal friend Hudson Taylor, the famous missionary to China. He prayed earnestly and faithfully about everything. As a Christian, he lived his convictions consistently and honorably. And he witnessed. Frequently, he would initiate conversations about Christ using simple object lessons or ice-breakers, even with cab drivers or total strangers. Dr. Kelly did not believe any Christian should delegate the work of witnessing to ministers. “The only excuse I have for insisting on breaking through the reserves of every man I meet is that Jesus Christ died for him as well as for me, and I want him to know it.”

His personal witnessing was augmented by financial support – up to 30% of his income – for numerous Christian ministries like camps for boys, orphanages and hospitals. He died at age 85, within hours of the death of his wife, complete in Christ and ready for heaven. His last words were, “Nurse, my Bible.”

What stirs a man to be so incredibly active in serving the Lord, when his career would seem enough to bring fame and satisfaction? Taking thought on the boy Jesus’ words at age 12 that he must be about his Father’s business, Dr. Howard Atwood Kelly said, “Christianity is a business, a work lasting all through life. God needs three talents: a will given over to Him; willing service; [and] persistence in service in spite of failure.” Would that we all take heart in Dr. Kelly’s true story of the potential for one life surrendered to the will of God.

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