In 1890 he earned his medical doctorate from the University of Bonn, and afterwards was an assistant to pathologist Eugen Bostroem (1850–1928) in Giessen and to internist Otto Michael Ludwig Leichtenstern (1845–1900) in Cologne. In 1899 he was habilitated for surgery at Leipzig, and in 1907 he became a professor of surgery at Basel. In 1910 he attained the chair of surgery at the University of Heidelberg.
In May 1918, while performing emergency surgery on a French P.O.W. who had a swollen larynx associated with diphtheria, Wilms became infected with the disease, and died within a few days at the age of 50. Reportedly, he was successful in saving the life of the French soldier. After his death, his position at Heidelberg was filled by surgeon Eugen Enderlen (1863–1940).
Max Wilms is remembered for his work in the field of nephrology, and his pathological studies concerning the development of tumor cells. In his research of renal tumors, he proposed that tumor cells originate during the development of the embryo. He published his findings in an influential 1899 monograph titled Die Mischgeschwülste der Niere. As a result of his extensive work involving renal tumors, another name for "nephroblastoma" is Wilms' tumor, a malignant tumor of the kidney.
Wilms made several contributions as a surgeon, and is credited for introducing a partial rib resection used in the treatment for pulmonary tuberculosis. He also introduced perineal prostatectomy via lateral incision.
He did extensive work in the field of radiology, using radiation therapy for treatment of tumors and tuberculosis. Wilms is also credited for developing a manometer for measurement of cerebrospinal fluid pressure. With surgeon Ludwig Wullstein (1864–1930), he published Lehrbuch der Chirurgie, a textbook of surgery that was translated into several languages.
- Transactions of the ... annual meeting, Volume 10 by National Association for the Study and Prevention of Tuberculosis (U.S.)
- Emory University School of Medicine Wilms tumor – Department of Medicine
- Wilms' operation I @ Who Named It
- Klinikum University of Heidelberg General, Visceral and Transplantation Surgery
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