Sterling Bunnel

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Sterling Bunnel (born June 17, 1882 , † August 20, 1957 in San Francisco ) was an American surgeon and pioneer of hand surgery .

Ancestors and parental home, adolescence

One of his ancestors, a Peter Bunnel, sailed to America on the Mayflower from Plymouth, England, in 1620 . The parents of Sterling Bunnels moved from the eastern United States to California under the influence of the gold rush .

Even in childhood, Bunnels developed an extraordinary interest in the animal world and nature. In his younger years he made a name for himself as an ornithologist . At the age of 21, he already took part as a recognized ornithologist on an expedition to explore the Revillagigedo Islands off the coast of Mexico , which was organized by the San Francisco Academy of Sciences. He could determine all birds by ear.


He studied medicine at the University of California at Berkeley until 1904 and finished it at the University of California at San Francisco in 1908. This was followed by a medical assistantship from 1908-1909 at St. Luke's Hospital in San Francisco and a general surgical training in the eastern United States. As inventor, he developed at that time a flap valve for anesthesia masks , the intervention enabled open chest.

Professional activities

During World War I he worked with the rank of captain in the US Army Medical Corps, both in a base hospital and on the front lines in France . During this activity he was increasingly confronted with the problems of reconstructive surgery.

In 1918 on his return to San Francisco he opened a general surgery practice. In the period up to the Second World War he brought out numerous publications on hand surgery .

Scientific activity

In addition to his passion for collecting, he studied comparative anatomy . These studies played an important role in his later publications on hand surgery. In his work on the ability of the thumb to grip , he gave an overarching picture of the development of the opposition of the thumb in earthbound bipedes in relation to the opposition of the big toe in tree-bound quadrupeds. Through his anatomical preparations on fish, reptiles and mammals (especially in primates in phylogenetically ascending order) he showed that the so-called intrinsic muscles are already present in the pectoral fins of fish.

In 1929, he restored a hand that was injured by a circular saw and amputated the thumb in the thumb saddle joint by pollizing the index finger . His 1938 publication on the opposition of the thumb is famous.

Bunnel published in 1944, the monumental work The Hand Surgery (Surgery of the Hand), which represents a milestone in this specialized field.

Other areas of interest

He was particularly interested in studying bird flight, which also accompanied him in later years. He published a work, already recognized as a hand surgeon, on bird flight ("Aeronautics of Bird Flight"). However, studying bird flight alone was not enough for him, as he learned to fly himself during the First World War. He flew more and more later to visit patients or to conferences, which earned him the nickname "flying surgeon". For a short time he was even President of the National Aeronautical Society of the West. When he began medical school a few years later, he sold his entire collection of native California birds to the Philadelphia Museum.

Development and transfer of the special surgical technique

For the concept of the atraumatic surgical technique, he relied on studies of non-specialist working methods. So he observed how jewelers and watchmakers work: in a sitting position with forearms on rollers in order to be able to carry out fine movements without jolts. He was the one who recognized the important role of tourniquet in hand surgery operations. He wrote the important sentence: "Could a jeweler repair a watch if you were constantly drizzling it with ink?"

He adopted the economic way of working with few, but purposeful movements from industry. Efficiency played a very big role in his life. It is said about him that he always put his jacket and coat on and off at once, or often swallowed coffee powder without water, just to save time. He recognized the special problem of hand surgery that could not be solved by conventional surgical operation technology: the annoying scarring after the surgical procedure.

The tendon - and nerve - transplants he performed for bridging defects were groundbreaking and new . He developed the extension wire sutures named after him for the tendon sutures. He developed and manufactured many of the dynamic splints that are still in use today.

His demand, namely the hand surgeon who wants to treat injuries to skin, tendons, nerves, bones and blood vessels, must be equally well versed in plastic-surgical, orthopedic and neurosurgical techniques, has lost none of its validity to this day.

After the end of the Second World War , at the request of the Army, Bunnel was commissioned to look after the war-wounded soldiers (injuries to the upper extremities). In the next 3 years he held a total of 23 operation courses for prospective hand surgeons. With this, he rendered valuable services to the homogeneous establishment of hand surgery on American soil.

Foundation of the American Society of Hand Surgery

The interest he sparked led in 1946 to the establishment of the first American Society for Surgery of the Hand (ASSH), of which he deservedly became president for the first two-year period.


From 1947 he took up his previous activity in his practice in San Francisco. There he worked almost exclusively in the field of hand surgery. He was able to continue his operational activities at 72. But he also liked to pursue his other passions (fishing, hunting). The day before he died, the innovative surgeon constructed a backpack to carry an oxygen bottle so that he could hunt despite his heart failure. He died of heart failure.

Important publications

  • S. Bunnel: Physiological reconstruction of a thumb after total loss In: Surg. Gynecol. Fruit. 52: 245-248, 1931
  • S. Bunnel: Opposition of the thumb In: J. Bone. Jt. Surg. 20. 267-284, 1938
  • S. Bunnel: Surgery of the Hand. JB Lippincott Company, 1944

Individual evidence

  1. a b c d e f g h i D. Buck-Gramcko ; A life for hand surgery. ; Steinkopff Verlag; Darmstadt 2007; ISBN 978-3-7985-1776-9
  2. a b Sterling Bunnell; Surgery of the hand; Maudrich Verlag, Vienna, Bonn (inter alia: JB Lippincott Company); 1944 (1st ed.), 1956 (3rd ed.)