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The ingenious surgery that saved the world’s smartest man

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The last years of Albert Einstein’s life were punctuated by severe abdominal pain. To deal with it, the theoretical physicist underwent surgery involving… cellophane. This ingenious operation which allowed one of the greatest geniuses of our time to gain a few years.

It is the fall of 1948. Albert Einstein, 69, has suffered from particularly severe stomach pains for several years. He sought the advice of Dr Rudolph Nissen, an influential surgeon at the Jewish Hospital in Brooklyn, New York, who then recommended a surgery exploratory.

Einstein, initially reluctant, finally agrees a little reluctantly to pass on the pool table. What follows proves him right. Dr Nissen comes across an aortic aneurysm, an enlarged and weakened section of the body’s largest artery. Einstein’s is the size of a grapefruit.

An aneurysm wrapped in cellophane

A healthy aorta normally flows down the abdomen in the form of a long, straight tube. An aorta with an aneurysm looks more like a snake that has swallowed a balloon. And just like a balloon, a overly swollen aneurysm may eventually burst. You then suffer from a ruptured aorta, a medical emergency that can be fatal if not treated promptly.

These days, surgeons typically treat an aortic aneurysm by removing the bloated area and replacing it with a transplant. In recent decades, other less invasive options have also developed. However, at the end of the 1940s, these surgeries were not yet relevant. Instead, Dr. Nissen turned turned to a simple sheet of cellophane to wrap around the aneurysm.

Paul Langevin and Albert Einstein, 1923. Credits: Meurisse press agency

Seven years gained for Einstein

What doctors like Nissen understood was that cellophane was more than just binding wrapping. Placed in the body, this foreign body triggers a reaction of the immune system who dispatched specialized cells to destroy the invader. This attack affects not only the cellophane, but also the parts of the aorta wrapped underneath, ultimately causing the artery to narrow in the affected area.

The operation is a success. After three weeks of recovery, Einstein leaves the hospital and continues his physics work in semi-retirement in Princeton, New Jersey, relieved of these stomach problems. It will only last a while. The April 13, 1955, the physicist is again transported to Princeton Hospital, as his aortic aneurysm comes back to haunt him.

His only chance of survival is another surgery. However, now 76 years old and satisfied with his life, Einstein refuses. As he will tell his doctors: “I’ve done my part, it’s time to go. I will do it with elegance“. Wise words for a man who was just as wise. He will die on April 18 next.


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