History of Anesthesiology in Brooklyn

The history of Anesthesiology in Brooklyn goes back to the earliest days of the 20th century.  In 1905, Dr. Adolph Erdmann was appointed hospital anesthetist at Long Island College Hospital (LICH), which at the time granted medical degrees.  In 1930, the Long Island College of Medicine was spun off from LICH under separate governance.  In 1950, the medical school merged with the State University of New York and became SUNY Downstate College of Medicine.

On October 6, 1905, Dr. Erdmann convened the first meeting of the Long Island Society of Anesthetists in the LICH’s Polhemus Building (which would later become the home of the Department of Anesthesiology).  For an annual membership fee of $1, hospital anesthetists and other qualified physicians with special interest in the field of anesthesiology could join and participate in monthly scientific sessions.  As the London (U.K.) Society of Anesthetists was founded in 1893, evidence suggests that the Long Island Society was the second organized anesthesiology society in the world.

Intent on expanding the scope of the Society, members voted to rename their group “The New York Society of Anesthetists” in 1911.  The following year, members of the New York Society approached the American Medical Association with plans to develop a national society.  For the first but not the last time, these efforts were rebuffed.

In 1934, the Society’s Committee on Certification established plans to conduct examinations that would lead to a “Fellow in Anesthesiology” certification, which represented the first step in obtaining recognition as a medical specialty.  These efforts came to fruition in 1938 with the formation of an American Board of Anesthesiology (ABA), affiliated with the American Board of Surgery.  In 1941, the ABA separated and became an independent entity.  On April 12, 1945, the Society was officially renamed the “American Society of Anesthesiologists” (ASA), and thus, in a very real sense, SUNY Downstate was the progenitor of our national society.

Downstate’s academic Anesthesiology department was formed by Merel Harmel, M.D., who fashioned a strong legacy of commitment to research, education, and patient care.  He departed in 1968 to become Chairman at the University of Chicago, and was succeeded by Dr. Benton King from upstate New York.  In 1979, Dr. James E. Cottrell was recruited from New York University to become Professor and Chairman.  An outstanding clinician, researcher, teacher, leader and perhaps the most distinguished neuro-anesthesiologist of our generation, he had a significant influence on the practice of neuro-anesthesiology and an equally important role in organized anesthesiology. He served in multiple leadership roles at the state, national and international levels, including a term as President of the ASA.  He had an enormous influence on all who have worked and trained with him.  

In April 2018, Dr. David Wlody, former Chair at Long Island College Hospital and Residency Program Director, was appointed Chair of Anesthesiology at SUNY Downstate College of Medicine, and I was appointed Chair of Anesthesiology at SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University.   In collaboration with Dr. Wlody, we hope to continue the outstanding leadership that Dr. Cottrell has demonstrated throughout his 39-year tenure at Downstate. 

Since 1979, our program has grown from 13 to 75 residents with over 1,200 graduates.  The strength of our training program is recognized throughout our specialty and our graduates continue to obtain prestigious fellowship, academic and private practice positions.  Many have established themselves nationally and internationally as clinicians, teachers, and leaders and continue to have enormous impact on our specialty and beyond.  We are proud of all our SUNY Downstate graduates and their legacy of professionalism and commitment to patient care and safety in our specialty.

Audrée A. Bendo, M.D., M.S., FASA
Distinguished Service Professor and Chair
Department of Anesthesiology
SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University
University Hospital of Brooklyn