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"Coca-Koller" and the discovery of local anesthesia

by Diana Bradley, Staff Writer | March 16, 2012
From the March 2012 issue of HealthCare Business News magazine

But Koller’s dream to obtain an academic career in Vienna, with a position in the hospital’s eye department, was never realized. In 1885, after being called an “impudent Jew” by colleague Fritz Zinner, Koller responded with a face-slapping. This led to an illegal duel with sabers, which left Zinner with two deep cuts, while Koller walked away unharmed. Forced to emigrate, New York eventually became Koller’s new home in 1888, where he set up a successful practice as an ophthalmologist. Four years later, he discovered the use of subconjunctival cocaine in eye surgery, refining his technique – particularly in the areas of cataract surgery and procedures involving the iris.

In his lifetime, Koller received a number of distinctions. He was nominated several times for the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine. In 1922, Koller became the first ophthalmologist to receive the American Ophthalmological Society’s Lucien Howe Medal. It was even speculated in Derek Vail’s biography of Howe that the award might have been established specifically to honor Koller’s work. Further to this, the Austrian Academy of Cosmetic Surgery initiated the Karl Koller Award to be presented for outstanding contributions in the field of local anesthesia. Because of Koller’s work, pharmaceutical companies thrived by marketing cocaine and later, safer local anesthetics like Novocain and Xylocaine.

Koller died on March 21, 1944 in New York, N.Y. he was 86.

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