Dr. Rudolph Matas: Learned trailblazer, father of vascular surgery

Dr. Matas’ Presidential portrait

Dr. Matas’ Presidential portrait

Rudolph Matas, MD, FACS (1860–1957), was one of the towering figures of 19th- and 20th-century American surgery, and the ninth President of the American College of Surgeons (ACS). His long life and extraordinary career—inextricably linked with Tulane University, New Orleans, LA—were marked by innumerable surgical innovations and scholarly accomplishments. By all accounts, Dr. Matas, who was fluent in six languages, was also among the most erudite individuals in the history of modern medicine.

Dr. Matas was born in Bonnet Carre, LA, in 1860. His parents were Spanish immigrants, and his father was a physician. During his childhood the family lived in many locales in the U.S. and abroad, but Dr. Matas returned to New Orleans in 1877 to study medicine at the University of Louisiana (the forerunner of Tulane University).1

After graduating in 1880 at age 19, Dr. Matas became an intern at New Orleans’ Charity Hospital. He was named demonstrator in anatomy at the medical school, as well as editor of the New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal at age 23. He published his first significant paper, showing that the cecum and appendix are intraperitoneal structures, the following year.2

On May 6, 1888, Dr. Matas performed the first successful endoaneurysmorrhaphy on a traumatic brachial artery aneurysm.3 This episode is widely regarded as the birth of modern vascular surgery.

In 1895, Dr. Matas became chief of surgery at Tulane, a post he retained until 1927. His contributions to the advancement of surgical science were myriad: the development of intravenous fluid therapy, spinal as well as locoregional anesthesia, and positive pressure ventilation, to name just a few.4 He authored more than 600 scientific articles.

Dr. Matas was one of the founding members of the ACS in 1913 and among the first members of the Board of Regents. He was elected to serve as the ACS President in 1926.

Dr. Matas in his library (date unknown)

Dr. Matas in his library (date unknown)

Unfortunately, Dr. Matas’ personal life was not marked by the conspicuous favor that attended his professional career. Although his marriage to Adrienne was happy, their only child was stillborn. In mid-career, Dr. Matas lost his right eye as a result of gonococcal conjunctivitis contracted while draining a tubo-ovarian abscess.5 These events, along with Adrienne’s death from pneumonia in 1918, cast long shadows over the professor’s life. Nevertheless, he retained a fundamentally positive, intellectually curious outlook.

His reading was legendary, and Dr. Matas’ home was said to resemble a library. He also was a renowned cinephile, advocating film as a means of surgical training as early as 1912.5

One of the famous episodes in Dr. Matas’ life was the “secret operation” performed by his close friend William S. Halsted, MD, FACS. This event took place at Dr. Halsted’s home in Baltimore, MD, in the fall of 1903. Neither man ever divulged this procedure during his life, nor even the nature of it in their private correspondence. It was only after Dr. Matas’ death that he was noted at autopsy to have undergone a right orchiectomy.6

Rudolph Matas died September 23, 1957, at age 97. He left his estate to the Tulane University School of Medicine.


  1. Friedman S. A History of Vascular Surgery, Second Edition. Mount Kisco, NY: Futura Publishing Company, Inc. 2005:112.
  2. Cohn I, Deutsch H. Rudolph Matas: A Biography of One of the Great Pioneers in Surgery. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Co; 1960.
  3. Matas R. Traumatic aneurysm of the left brachial artery. Med News Phil. 1888;53:462-466.
  4. Hutson L, Vachon C. Dr. Rudolph Matas: Innovator and pioneer in anesthesiology. Anesthesiology. 2005;103(10):885-889.
  5. Ochsner J. The complex life of Rudolph Matas. J Vasc Surg. 2001;34(3):390-392.
  6. Nunn D. Dr. Halsted’s secret operation on Dr. Matas. Ann Surg. 1992;216(1):87-93.

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