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Nevada City boy became first neurosurgeon in the West

Howard C. Naffziger, who hailed from Nevada City, was a pioneer neurosurgeon.
Nevada County HIstorical Society |

This story was originally published by The Union in 1997.

As a boy growing up in Nevada City, Howard C. Naffziger professed his distaste for studying. By the age of 15, however, he was a senior in high school.

After taking some time off before college, Naffziger had earned his bachelor’s degree at 23, his master’s degree at 24 and his medical degree at 25.



It wouldn’t be long before he was one of the most prominent neurosurgeons of the early 20th century, earning a place in the history of the then-fledgling science.

Naffziger was born into middle-class life in the Union Hotel on Main Street in Nevada City. His father was a German immigrant who owned a butcher shop on Commercial Street.




Young Howard lived on Nevada Street among chickens, ducks, horses and 13 dogs. He might have ended up a farmer if not for the prodding of his mother, his native intelligence and a broken leg suffered in a sledding accident when he was 9.

Naffziger recalled the accident and his treatment by Dr. Robert M. Hunt, a Nevada City general physician, later in life when reflecting on his decision to enter the medical profession.

“My admiration for Dr. Hunt, and I’m certain the family’s fondness for this country doctor must have been a factor for my choice of medicine,” Naffziger wrote in his memoirs. “Shortly after the accident, I recall reading a book about a brain surgeon which made me want to be one.”

But Naffziger didn’t realize his dream right away.

After his father died in 1903, Howard went to work for the Culbertson Mine on the Yuba River near Graniteville, snaking timber, sharpening drills, and mucking underground.

After 1 1/2 years of toiling for $3 a day, Naffziger left for San Francisco, studying at the University of California medical school and working at Ingleside Race Track, which was set up as a makeshift medical clinic after the old San Francisco Hospital was destroyed because of plague.

Conditions at the race track were grim, Naffziger recalled, with patients sharing space with horses and birds that sometimes distracted doctors with their droppings.

A University of California doctor recognized the talent in the young physician, and Naffziger was dispatched to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore as an assistant resident surgeon. There he studied under two of the modern pioneers of brain surgery, where he learned the techniques that made brain surgery safer and more effective.

One of them was Dr. Harvey Cushing, who is considered the father of modern neurosurgery.

When Naffziger returned to the University of California in 1912, he was the first neurosurgeon in the West. Previous brain doctors could only touch the surface of the brain to lessen pressure, not remove tumors.

When the United States entered World War I, Naffziger suspended his practice in San Francisco to serve at bases in South Carolina, New Jersey and France. In France, Naffziger was reunited with Dr. Cushing, where they headed the most advanced mobile hospital before the armistice.

Upon his return to the United States, Naffziger married, settled in San Francisco, and became the first full-time professor of surgery at the University of California Hospital in San Francisco.

There he pressed for a department of neurological surgery, which was established in 1949 with Naffziger as chairman. Having left his medical practice, Naffziger pioneered neurosurgical techniques for trauma, spinal injuries, nerve surgery and the reconstruction of paralyzed swallowing mechanisms.

After retiring as an active professor, Naffziger slowed his pace only slightly, serving as a UC regent and professor emeritus of neurosurgery. He continued to watch over the neurosurgery department that he had nurtured in its infancy, helping the department grow into one of the world’s best.

Naffziger died in 1961 at the age of 76. To this day, he is remembered fondly by his understudies at the University of California, where the Howard C. Naffziger Laboratories for Neurological Research stand as a monument to his accomplishments.


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