Rudolf Nissen, MD

This article is part of the series "A Moment in History" where we honor those who have contributed to the growth of medical knowledge in the areas of anatomy, medicine, surgery, and medical research.To search all the articles in this series, click here.
Dr. Rudolf Nissen (1896 - 1981).  Dr Nissen’s life is extraordinary. Born in the city of Neisse, Germany in 1896, he was the son of a local surgeon. He studied medicine in the Universities of Munich, Marburg, and Breslau. He was the pupil of the famous pathologist Albert Aschoff (discoverer of the heart’s AV node, along with Sunao Tawara).

Nissen became a professor of surgery in Berlin, and in 1933 moved to Turkey where he was placed in charge of the Department of Surgery of the University of Istanbul. In 1939 he moved to the US, first to the Massachusetts General Hospital and later to the Jewish Hospital in Brooklyn, New York. After becoming a US citizen, he moved again in 1952 to Basel, Switzerland as Chief of the Department of Surgery, where he retired in 1967. He died in 1981.

His contributions to surgery are innumerable. He wrote over 30 books and 450 journal articles. Known for the development in 1956 of what is today known as the “Nissen fundoplication” for esophageal hiatus hernia surgery, Nissen also worked with his assistant, Dr. Mario Rossetti to develop the “floppy Nissen fundoplication”, also known as the “Nissen-Rossetti procedure”. This would be enough to honor this man, still, he (with Sauerbruch) performed the first lung lobectomy and the first pneumonectomy (called then a total pneumonectomy). In 1949 he performed the first esophagectomy with a gastroesophagostomy for lower esophageal cancer.

Dr. Rudolph NissenOriginal imagecourtesy of Universit?t Basel.
His personal life is even more interesting. Drafted at 20, he fought in WWI and was wounded several times. In 1933, under the Nazi regime, he was ordered to fire all the Jewish-German assistants under his care. Being Jewish himself, he was told that he would keep his job, Nissen could not take this. He resigned his position and moved out of Germany.

Another little known fact is that he operated on Albert Einstein in 1948. He operated on Einstein because of intestinal cysts. Having found a developing abdominal aortic aneurysm, he reinforced it with cellophane, undoubtedly giving his patient a few extra years to live. Einstein died in 1955.

As a personal side note, our good friend Dr. Aaron Ruhalter scrubbed in with Dr. Nissen while serving as a surgical resident at the Brooklyn Jewish Hospital!

1. “Rudolf Nissen: The man behind the fundoplication” Schein et al. Surgery 1999;125:347-53
2. “Rudolf Nissen (1896–1981)-Perspective” Liebermann-Meffert, D. J Gastrointest Surg (2010) 14 (Suppl 1):S58–S61
3. “The Life of Rudolf Nissen: Advancing Surgery Through Science and Principle” Fults, DW; Taussky, P. World J Surg (2011) 35:1402–1408
4. “Total Pneumonectomy” Nissen, R. Ann Thorac Surg 1980; 29:390-394
5. “Historical Development of Pulmonary Surgery” Nissen, R. Am J Surg 80: Jan 1955 9- 15