The Robert A. Chase Library and Museum

Early Pioneers

This exhibit celebrates the contributions of Drs. Sterling Bunnell, Sumner Koch, Michael Mason, Adrian Flatt, James Littler, and Robert Chase to the field of hand surgery. To see the museum’s collection for each pioneer, click on the corresponding photograph.


Dr. Sterling Bunnell (1882-1957) has been called ”The Father of Hand Surgery.” He completed his undergraduate degree in 1904 at the University of California and received his medical degree in 1908 from the University of California at San Francisco.

The specialty of hand surgery developed during World War II. Battle-induced injuries required expertise from several surgical disciplines. Dr. Bunnell was chosen by the Surgeon General to lead the training programs. As a consultant to the U.S. Army, Dr. Bunnell travelled between the military hand centers and dedicated his career to educating hand surgeons. He was instrumental in the reconstruction and rehabilitation of approximately 20,000 hands of soldiers.

In 1944, using his experience, Dr. Bunnell wrote a textbook, Surgery of the Hand, which served as the premier reference for hand surgery for nearly 30 years. Dr. Bunnell always insisted that proper care of the upper extremity required a multidisciplinary approach. Many of the great pioneers in the field of hand surgery were influenced by the teachings of Dr. Bunnell.

In 1946, Dr. Bunnell and several of his trained surgeons founded the American Society for Surgery of the Hand (ASSH). Dr. Bunnell served as the first ASSH President in 1946-1947.

Sumner L. Koch, MD, made many contributions to the field of hand surgery and to the American Society for Surgery of the Hand (ASSH).

Dr. Koch attended Northwestern University Medical School in the fall of 1910. He interned at the Cook County Hospital from 1914 to 1916 and then joined Allen B. Kanavel, MD, in the practice of surgery at the Wesley Hospital in Chicago.

Towards the end of World War I, both Drs. Kanavel and Koch served in the Army Medical Corps in France. Dr. Koch was assigned to the 12th General Hospital, the Northwestern Medical School Unit, and there developed a friendship with Michael L. Mason, MD, with whom he later became associated in practice.

Following his return to civilian life, he continued his association with Dr. Kanavel and also organized a Hand Clinic at the Cook County Hospital. Dr. Koch was a founding member of the ASSH and served as its second president from 1947-1948.

Michael Mason, MD (1895 - 1963) was a student at Northwestern University when he was recruited into the Army during World War II. He was assigned to the 12th General Hospital, which included hand surgeon Dr. Sumner Koch. This experience led him to study medicine and ultimately to his association with Drs. Allen Kanavel and Koch in Chicago.

He received his medical degree from Northwestern University in 1924. In 1926, he joined the practice of Drs. Kanavel and Koch at Wesley Hospital and Northwestern University Medical School.

Dr. Mason’s significant contributions to the field of hand surgery included the study of the rate of healing of tendons. He also contributed with Drs. Kanavel and Koch on surgical treatment of Dupuytren’s contracture, treatment of tuberculosis tenosynovitis, and the management of tumors in the hand.

Dr. Mason was a founding member of the American Society for Surgery of the Hand (ASSH) in 1946 and served as its president from 1951-1952.

A native of England, Adrian E. Flatt, MD came to the United States in 1954. Dr. Flatt served as consultant in hand surgery to several organizations and individuals, including the United States Air Force and the United States Space Program.

Dr. Flatt was professor of anatomy and hand surgery at the University of Iowa for 22 years, and taught hand surgery at Yale University School of Medicine for three years before moving to Dallas in 1982. Dr. Flatt began in 1962, as a hobby, casting and bronze-coating hands of well-known individuals in various professions. Since his retirement in 1992, Dr. Flatt continues to teach anatomy and hand surgery to medical students in the residency program at Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas. In 1992, Dr. Flatt was elected as a Pioneer of Hand Surgery by the International Association of Hand Surgeons.

James William Littler, MD (1915-2005) was a surgeon who developed many techniques for restoring function and sensation to the fingers and wrist. Dr. Littler’s early devotion to hand surgery contributed to its emergence as a separate discipline. Dr. Littler received his bachelor’s degree and medical degree at Duke University. After a medical internship at John Hopkins Hospital, he enlisted in the Army.

During World War II, he operated on soldiers at Cushing General Hospital, near Boston, and later at Valley Forge Army Hospital in Pennsylvania. Though he had yet to complete his residency training, he began shaping and refining surgical techniques still in use today. He worked on new ways to reconstruct missing thumbs, including replacing them with parts of forefingers, and he transplanted healthy bundles of nerves and arteries to areas that had lost feeling, a procedure known as sensory neurovascular island transfer. To revive arms and hands paralyzed by nerve damage, he transferred tendons from areas that were unharmed.

In 1946, he helped found the American Society for Surgery of the Hand (ASSH). In the 1950s, Dr. Littler founded the hand surgery unit at what is now St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center, a teaching hospital of Columbia College Physicians and Surgeons. Now called the C.V. Starr Hand Surgery Center, the unit was the first to devote itself to civilian hand injuries, according to the hospital. Hundreds of hand surgeons trained there under Dr. Littler. He served as ASSH president from 1962 to 1963.

Robert A. Chase, MD, is an honored surgeon, researcher and educator in the field of surgery of the hand. He received his B.S. cum laude from the University of New Hampshire in 1945 and his medical degree from Yale School of Medicine in 1947. He later received his doctorate of science from University of New Hampshire, Medicine in 1994.

Dr. Chase was appointed as an Emile Holman Professor of Surgery, Stanford University School of Medicine in 1964 - present. He also served as Chairman Department of Surgery, Stanford University School of Medicine from 1963 - 1974. Dr. Chase has received many honors in his career including the Dedication of the Robert A. Chase Hand Center, Stanford University Medical Center in 2002.

Like his mentor and friend, J. William Littler, MD, hundreds of hand surgeons trained under Dr. Chase’s direction.

Dr. Chase served as the President of the American Society for Surgery of the Hand from 1983-1984.

His current interests include research in teaching technology and computer assisted teaching programs.

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