Tracy J. Putnam, MD
Tracy Jackson Putnam was born in Boston in 1894 to a family of notable academic achievement, bred in a distinguished and social intellectual climate. He graduated from Harvard College in 1915 and from Harvard medical school in 1920. His training included general surgery at the Massachusetts General Hospital, and neurological surgery at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital under Harvey Cushing where he early on described the chronic subdural hematoma which was not well recognized at that time. He continued at Harvard working with Stanley Cobb, a wise and able physician with a broad range of interests in experimental neurology and neuropathology, and with other notable neurologists of that time including Houston Merritt.
Dr. Putnam assumed the Directorship of Neurological Unit at the Boston City Hospital in 1934 as Professor of Neurology at Harvard. His intellect, scientific bent, and exceptional teaching and writing skills, all developed to the fullest in the exceptional period of Harvard’s eminence in the neurosciences, soon catapulted him into the international prominence.
During his research years at Harvard, he developed novel fields of study and surgical approaches to neurological disorders, he developed novel ideas about subdural hematoma, hydrocephalus, motor disorders and epilepsy, and participated in the early studies with Houston Merritt and others, eventually developing the drug Dilantin as he described in his book in 1970 “The Demonstration of the Specific Anticonvulsant Action of Diphenylhydantoin and Related Compounds.” He was appointed Professor of Neurology, Professor of Neurological Surgery, and Director of the Neurological Institute of New York in 1939, just before the onset of World War II and the departure of a number of the talented younger people who he brought as supporting staff to New York.
Dr. Putnam’s years at the Neurological Institute of New York were not happy ones for him, since World War II decimated the younger and potentially helpful members of his staff, and his gentility and generosity of spirit were commonly misunderstood as weakness and vulnerability.
He was beset by administrative and wartime personnel problems while at the same time maintaining a major editorship in Neurology and important governmental responsibilities.
Because of the various pressures and other factors, he moved to California in June 1946 to become Director of Neurology at the Cedars of Lebanon Hospital. As Dr. Edward Schlesinger* has written, “Rarely has an individual brought so many talents to neurology and neurosurgery, or pointed out so many directions of ground-breaking research. Unfortunately, coincidences of time and place exacted a catastrophic toll on his career and he died on March 29, 1975.” *Courtesy of Surgical Neurology 1988;29:89-90.
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