I am fascinated by history. As an undergraduate English major, I loved poetry, novels, and short stories. As a 20-year old, I thought history dull, dim, and irrelevant. Oh, how wrong I was! The drama created by real-life stories are far more unpredictable and riveting than fiction. In holding 48 previous world congresses, the International Society of Surgery/Société Internationale de Chirurgie (ISS/SIC) has participated in a few stories I’d like to share with you.
Many of the stories of the ISS/SIC are a little like the story of Switzerland, the home of our beloved society, an oasis of neutrality surrounded by a chaotic world, punctuated with pandemics, wars, and global politics. Our Swiss leaders, whether their last names were deQuervain, Nissen, Allgower, Harder, or Givel, have served as neutral intermediaries in many critical negotiations over the years, holding this society together against strong global currents and nationalistic ideology which—in some circumstances—led to major wars between nations and created rifts between close professional friends within our society. Yes, there was even an attempted assassination of a world leader at a World Congress of Surgery, one that would have changed the 20th century, had it been successful. So hang on and bear with me for a few minutes.
Let’s start 130 years ago, here in this most beautiful city of Vienna. Most of you know of Theodor Billroth, the patriarch of Viennese surgery depicted in the famous painting by Adalbert Seligmann (Fig. 1). Billroth attracted surgeons from around the world to his operating theater, many of whom would later become surgical giants in their home countries. From the USA, William Stewart Halstead spent time in Billroth’s theater, also appearing in the Seligmann painting to the left of the cabinet of instruments. Halsted returned to Baltimore and—with William Osler—started the first university-based program of medical education in the USA, at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, Maryland.
Additionally, Billroth was a good friend of Johannes Brahms, whose music you heard as you came in this morning. I thought about focusing my address on music and medicine, but would a violin concerto in d major capture your attention as well as the story an Irishwoman attempting the assassination of a tyrant? Or waves of global epidemics and pandemics forcing the cancelation of two world congresses in Asia, 16 years apart? Or controversies over which surgeons from which countries would be invited to the World Congress, the result of two great 20th century world wars.
With apologies to our Viennese hosts, the story of the ISS/SIC does not start in Vienna, and Billroth wasn’t even a member of our society. Nonetheless, Vienna has played an important role in our history, never so important as today, when Albert Tuchmann and a dedicated team from the ISS/SIC office (thank you Mike, Chris, Laurie, and Denise!) committed to bringing us back together in this lovely city, our first in person meeting since 2019, in Krakow. It was only 3 years ago, but so much has happened. It’s hard to remember.
Much of the history that I will be recounting here comes from a book by Dorothea Liebermann-Meffert  (Fig. 2). If you want to learn more of the history, the ISS/SIC office still has copies of Dr Liebermann-Meffert’s book, also available through our website. The more recent history, in the 21st century, has been collected and collated by our former secretary general, Felix Harder and former executive director, Victor Bertschi of Basel. Many of the early papers and letters are in the hands of Professor Ulrich Tröhler and Professor Hubert Steinke of Berne. To them, I owe a great debt of gratitude for helping me with this address.