History of Scoliosis Surgery at HSS

This is the fourth in a series of blog posts celebrating the?150th anniversary?of HSS. Throughout the year you?ll hear from varied departmental representatives on the evolution of their clinical service and the hospital overall. We hope you?ll enjoy this look back as we continue to lead musculoskeletal medicine into the future.

Dr. David B. Levine was chief of Scoliosis Surgery at HSS from 1967 to 1994 and is director of?alumni affairs?and chair of the HSS Archives Committee.?Dr. Levine spoke to us about the history of scoliosis surgery at HSS. Visit the blog tomorrow for a perspective on emerging research in the prevention and treatment of scoliosis.

How did you become interested in scoliosis?

When I came to HSS in 1961 as a first year orthopedic resident, Dr. John Cobb, the long-time chief of Scoliosis and world famous expert in the field, was recovering from a stroke. Young surgeons-in-training had come to HSS from all over the world since the early 1950s to learn from Cobb. Dr. Philip D. Wilson, Jr., had temporarily taken over as chief of the scoliosis service, but there was a need for someone trained in the newer methods of treating scoliosis patients with associated pulmonary disorders. HSS arranged for me to train further at Ranchos Los Amigos Hospital in California, a county center for post-polio patients.

What was the standard of care when you began your practice?

Back in the days of Cobb, surgeons used a full body turnbuckle cast. The whole treatment process lasted about year, with the child unable to get out of bed. The patient first wore a cast from the head down to one thigh. We then cut the cast in half with a big tree saw and applied a metal screw-type lever called a turnbuckle on one side. Over a period of about five weeks, we turned the turnbuckle.

This turning motion corrected the curve. The patient had to lie down in this cast for five to six weeks. After the curve was corrected, surgeons cut a window in the cast, through which they performed surgery. Since anesthesia in the late 1950s and 60s was limited, surgeries could not last longer than two hours, so several surgeries on one patient were staged at two week intervals. Recovery from surgery was often nine months. Finally, the patient needed to learn how to walk again before going home.

What changed?

Everything changed in 1963 when Dr. Wilson, Jr., and Dr. Konstantin Veliskakis performed the first Harrington rod procedure at HSS. The Harrington rod was attached to the spine with hooks. A wire was then used to pull the vertebrae together so the curve would straighten. The vertebrae were then fused together so they would stay straight. Once Harrington rods were developed, recovery became much easier for patients.

David B. Levine, M.D., is director of?alumni affairs?and chair of the HSS Archives Committee. He joined the staff of HSS in 1961 and served in many HSS leadership positions before retiring from HSS in 1995, including chief of the Scoliosis Service (1968-1994), director of the Department of Orthopedic Surgery (1987-1990) and chairman of the Orthopedic Residency Training Program (1987-1990). In 2002, HSS established the Annual David B. Levine Honorary Lecture in the field of scoliosis. In 2006, the David B. Levine, M.D., Chair was established in his honor. In 1988 Levine served as president of the HSS Alumni Association, a role that stimulated his interest in the history of HSS and medical history in general. Levine returned to HSS in his current roles with alumni affairs in 2003. He is author of the book ?Anatomy of a Hospital,? on the history of HSS.

Topics: Orthopedics
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The information provided in this blog by HSS and our affiliated physicians is for general informational and educational purposes, and should not be considered medical advice for any individual problem you may have. This information is not a substitute for the professional judgment of a qualified health care provider who is familiar with the unique facts about your condition and medical history. You should always consult your health care provider prior to starting any new treatment, or terminating or changing any ongoing treatment. Every post on this blog is the opinion of the author and may not reflect the official position of HSS. Please contact us if we can be helpful in answering any questions or to arrange for a visit or consult.


  1. I had the 2-part surgery in 1963 at age 14 at another facility. They corrected my curve from 90 degrees but it is not straight and shows in clothes. I never had any pain and am happy to have had surgery instead of a brace. Treatments have improved a lot since then, especially activity that is now allowed. I’ve always been careful to not damage by back and am quite flexible.

  2. I was the first double-scoliosis patient Dr. Cobb operated on, in 1940. It was so hot that June that the second operation had to be delayed–no air conditioning then. He was not only a brilliant doctor and surgeon; he was also a wonderful, caring human being who visited each of us 17 girls in the ward whether they were his patients or not and brought his little girl with him to visit us. He examined my sisters, sending one to a cardiologist for her heart murmur and another to a different hospital to cure her anemia. I saw him again in 1960, when my 11-year-old daughter was diagnosed with scoliosis and susequently was operated on by Dr. Velis and others on the team, using the cast and methods Dr. Cobb had developed. Sadly he had suffered a stroke in the interim, but he still had a great spirit.

    1. Hi Jessie, thank you for sharing this great story with us! We hope all is well with you and your family! We’d love for you to share your experience at HSS with others seeking care. If you are interested, please visit https://backinthegame.hss.edu/ and click the “Share Your Story” button on the top right corner to get started.

  3. i was a patient of Dr. Cobbs from 1948 to 1962. He saved me from a horrendous operation and I lived a normal life. He said I would have needed a long rehab. He was my savior.

  4. I was actually a patient of Dr. Cobb’s. He was a wonderful man and doctor.

    I heard stories now about the rod breaking,
    coming throughout the skin.

    I think Dr. Cobb’s method was the best.

    Thank You

    Mrs. Marianne Perrone

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