H. Winnett Orr

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

H. Winnett Orr (March 17, 1877 – October 11, 1956) was an orthopedic surgeon who was born in Pennsylvania, raised and lived the rest of his life in Nebraska. More than any other person, Orr was responsible for the invention of plaster casts method for the treatment of broken bones.


Hiram Winnett Orr was born in West Newton, Pennsylvania, on March 17, 1877, and grew up in Nebraska. After attending the University of Nebraska from 1892 to 1895, he was accepted to the University of Michigan medical school during his junior year. He received his M.D. from Michigan in 1899, and returned to Nebraska to set up practice in Lincoln.[1] In 1911, Orr became the superintendent of the Nebraska Orthopaedic Hospital.

Fracture care[edit]

When the United States entered World War I, Orr became a Major in the Medical Reserve Corps of the Allied Expeditionary Force.[2] Before going to France, Orr worked alongside Dr. Alexis Carrel at the Welsh Metropolitan War Hospital at Cardiff in Wales. Carrel had pioneered the treatment of wounds with the expectation that infection was inevitable without proper care, and had helped create an antiseptic called the Carrel-Dakin solution.[2]

While in France, Orr took the Carrel treatment further by cleaning wounds, packing them with petroleum soaked gauze (to prevent sticking), and then setting the fracture and immobilizing it with plaster-soaked bandages that would harden quickly.[3] The results were visible within as little as three weeks, with no infection present after the primary cast was removed.[2] Dr. Orr was credited by the British Medical Research Council as being one of three American physicians to pioneer the technique.[4]

Return to Nebraska[edit]

After leaving the service he returned to Nebraska and became chief surgeon at the Orthopedics Hospital, as well as of Bryan Memorial Hospital and Lincoln General. He was associated in private practice with Dr. Fritz Teal. Dr. Orr was a member of the Lancaster County Medical Association, the Nebraska Medical Association and the American Medical Association. He was for several years editor of the Journal of Orthopedic Surgery, and was prolific writer and speaker, campaigning for his pioneer advances in treatment and for orthopedic surgery. Hiram Winnett Orr died at Rochester, Minnesota, on October 11, 1956.


Although casts are now taken for granted, the proper healing of a broken leg could take weeks, or even months, prior to the 20th Century. A severe break could lead to an infection which prolonged the healing process in the best of circumstances, and a bedfast patient encountered collateral problems. If a fracture healed improperly, the results were, literally, crippling. The loss of a limb, or even death, was a possible outcome for a broken leg prior to the invention of the cast. Brilliant in its application, yet ingeniously simple, the cast method required little expense (bandages, plaster and water), minimal time for the physician, and provided a faster and more effective cure for broken bones.[3] By the time of Orr's death, the cast had become such a routine part of childhood that a broken leg meant that one's friends would "autograph" the dried plaster while the patient endured a relatively minor inconvenience. Although his name is not as well known as that of Dr. Salk and Dr. Sabin, Dr. Orr made an important contribution in reducing crippling injuries.



  1. ^ Current Biography 1941, pp.
  2. ^ a b c Id. at p
  3. ^ a b Mercer, Walter (August 1961). "A catalogue of the H. Winnett Orr Historical Collection" (PDF). The Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery 43B (3): 621. Retrieved 2010-12-28. …he carried out in his new method by enclosing the fracture in plaster-of-Paris. Amid grave opposition he transported large numbers of American soldiers with compound suppurating fractures home in plaster, and in spite of the forebodings of disaster the patients did well. 
  4. ^ "Dr. H.W. Orr, Orthopedic Pioneer, dies," The Lincoln Star, October 12, 1956, pp 1-2.

Further reading[edit]

  • Koch, Sumner L. "Dr. H. Winnett Orr 1877-1956", obituary in Bulletin, American College of Surgeons, Chicago (March–April, 1957)
  • Orr, H. Winnett. Selected Pages from the History of Medicine in Nebraska, Lincoln (1952)