Edgar M. Housepian Papers Now Open for Research

Edgar Housepian: photograph documenting newly purchased surgical and x-ray equipment

Archives & Special Collections is pleased to announce that the Edgar M. Housepian Papers are processed and open for research.

Edgar M. Housepian, P&S class of 1953
Edgar M. Housepian, P&S class of 1953

Edgar M. Housepian was associated with Columbia University throughout his life. A graduate of Horace Mann (1946), Columbia College (B.A. 1949), and the College of Physicians and Surgeons (M.D. 1953), he was an esteemed faculty member in the Department of Neurological Surgery and the Neurological Institute and established international relationships within medical training programs. Housepian’s personal papers reveal many interesting aspects of his contributions as a neurosurgeon, faculty member, Armenian-American, and disaster relief leader.

A pioneer in the development of stereotaxic surgery, Housepian had a talent for surgical innovations. He designed the “Housepian clip” to treat aneurysms, a modification of the clip and plier earlier devised by Herbert Olivecrona, though Housepian believed his version, “reduc[ed] the size of the aperture required to place the same sized clip.”[1]  These drawings were submitted to Codman & Shurtleff, Inc., manufacturers of surgical instruments based in Boston, Massachusetts:

In 1995, Housepian reflected on his rationale for developing the device:

“The notion first came to me in the early 1960s when we struggled for any type of decent aneurysm clip. I noticed at that time the Weck clip had a U shape locked at the tip and did not slide off nearly as easily as the old silver clips or the Olivecrona clips. It was easy to then reinvent the Olivecrona clip by angling it so that it would lock at the tip. Also adding a feature which allowed swiveling of the clip at any predetermined angle. A further advantage was the clip was held at its bend and therefore the jaws could be slipped about an aneurysm neck much as our spring clips do today. The additional advantage of opening the clip by pressing on the wings was very helpful.”[2]

Edgar Housepian: photograph documenting newly purchased surgical and x-ray equipment

Housepian's papers also provide an invaluable window into the Neurological Institute's operations and facilities during the last half of the 20th century. They contain architectural plans for renovations done to the 4th and 10th floors, operating rooms and waiting rooms; and include photographs documenting newly purchased surgical and x-ray equipment.

In addition to renovations and equipment upgrades, the papers also document the adoption of new technology. Biomedical informatics professionals may be fascinated by the Neurological Surgery Department’s list of neurosurgical nomenclature for data processing (1968) and the N.I. operating room automated statistics (1969).

As mentioned earlier, Housepian was also instrumental in leading a large relief effort after a catastrophic earthquake struck Armenia on December 7, 1988. His personal papers document his work with the government and charitable organization, led by the Diocesan Fund for Armenian Recovery, later known as the Fund for Armenian Relief (FAR), which he co-founded.[3] The child of ethnic Armenian emigrants from Syria and Turkey, and whose father, Moses, was also a physician, Housepian naturally channeled his skills, resources, and connections at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center and the U.S.-Armenian community into a relief effort. This work resulted in not only the immediate provision of medical supplies and volunteers to aid victims, but also in a continued collaboration within the medical professions, leading to the adoption of western-style model teaching hospitals, student exchange programs, and ultimately, Armenian healthcare reform after independence from the Soviet Union on September 21, 1991. When the Republican Scientific Medical Library of Armenia was renovated with the support of FAR, its reading room was renamed for Edgar Housepian in honor of his efforts supporting Armenian medicine.

Due to this work, he became active in the fields of disaster medicine and global health and later held a special adviser position in the Office of International Affiliations at the Columbia University Medical Center, establishing academic affiliations between Columbia University and colleges and universities in the health sciences.

A constant innovator, Housepian proposed “A Universal Labeling and Logistics System for Emergency Relief Supplies” and presented his idea at the International Conference on Disaster Medicine, held in Moscow May 22-31, 1990. In response to practical difficulties with language barriers (the different alphabets and languages of Russian, Armenian, and English), he realized that universal symbols coupled with barcode tracking could be effective for processing international shipments of supplies. He suggested:

“…an agency, such as the United Nations or International League of the Red Cross and Red Crescent develop an inventory convention utilizing a universally agreed pictorial labeling system such as exists for road signs, color coded for food, clothing, medical supplies, etc…The availability of relatively inexpensive and portable bar code readers now makes it possible to have precise identification available in the field at a disaster site.”[4]

Although this idea may seem obvious today, barcode technology was being applied to new applications at the time, so it was a logical, yet brilliant idea. A few of his mock-ups:

Housepian was active in several professional organizations, lecturing and presenting academic papers regarding his collaborative work in neuroscience and disaster medicine. Manuscripts of these items can be found in his collection, aiding researchers in locating unpublished works by Housepian and his colleagues. His personal papers will be as asset to researchers on many topics for years to come. The guide to this collection can be accessed from Archives & Special Collections: http://library-archives.cumc.columbia.edu/finding-aid/edgar-m-housepian-papers-circa-1950-2010

Edgar Housepian donated his papers to Columbia University in 2010-2011. He passed away November 14, 2014 at his home in New Jersey.


[1] Housepian, Edgar M. Letter to Eben Rice, 22 October 1964. Edgar M. Housepian Papers, b. 17 f.11. Archives & Special Collections, Health Sciences Library, Columbia University.

[2] Housepian, Edgar M. Letter to Milton D. Heifetz, 6 January 1995. Edgar M. Housepian Papers, b. 46 f.8. Archives & Special Collections, Health Sciences Library, Columbia University.

[3] http://www.columbianeurosurgery.org/2015/02/memorial-services-held-dr-edgar-housepian/

[4] Edgar M. Housepian Papers, b.29 f. 9. Archives & Special Collections, Health Sciences Library, Columbia University.