Cellophane And A Bizarre Surgical Operation Saved Einstein's Life

An Albert Einstein wax figure at Madame Tussauds wax museum in Thailand. Image credit: Oleg Golovnev/Shutterstock.com

The later years of Albert Einstein’s life were sometimes clouded with vomit-inducing abdominal pain – which isn’t ideal if you’d rather be spending your precious last years on Earth busting open the mysteries of spacetime. To deal with this ailment, the iconic theoretical physicist underwent an extremely risky and experimental surgery involving cellophane (yep, the stuff you use to wrap sandwiches and leftovers). 

The story begins in the fall of 1948 when an elderly Einstein, sick of his intense stomach pain, sought the advice of Dr Rudolph Nissen, an influential surgeon at Brooklyn Jewish Hospital in New York, according to the Columbia University Department of Surgery. When Dr Nissen sliced open Einstein’s belly during exploratory surgery, he found a grapefruit-sized swelling in the main blood vessel that runs from the heart down to the body, medically known as an abdominal aortic aneurysm.

In a healthy person, this crucial blood vessel is relatively straight and narrow. If someone suffers an aortic aneurysm, however, an abnormal balloon-like bulge develops in the wall of the major blood vessel. A huge quantity of blood is constantly rushing through this major highway, so life-threatening bleeding can easily occur if the weakening bulge suddenly pops like a balloon. 

Nowadays, this potentially fatal condition is operated on by removing the ballooned area and replacing the aorta with a graft. However, in the late 1940s, this surgery was still over a decade off from development.

With few options on the table, Dr Nissen grabbed a roll of cellophane and got to work, covering the visible anterior portion of the aneurysm with the sheet of clear wrapping. But this wasn’t just a slap-dash attempt to stop the aneurysm from popping. Nissen realized that the cellophane would be recognized as a foreign object by the body, provoking a strong immune response. In a bid to control and contain this alien object, the immune system caused scarring within the artery, ultimately narrowing the blood vessel and reinforcing the aortic wall.

The operation was, perhaps surprisingly, somewhat of a success. After three weeks of recovery, left the hospital and continued to live a happy life of semi-retirement in the US with minimal stomach problems. He eventually died in April 1955 when, unfortunately, that pesky abdominal aortic aneurysm came back to haunt him. So, while this unusual surgery was clearly only a temporary fix, it did gift Einstein with seven extra years of life. 

[H/T Dr Karan Raj

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