Intended for healthcare professionals


William Wolff

BMJ 2011; 343 doi: (Published 09 November 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d7254
  1. Ned Stafford
  1. ns{at}

Colonoscopy co-developer

William Wolff’s idea was simple: insert a miniature camera lens and a wire snare connected to a long, flexible fibre optic tube into a patient’s anus to examine the full length of the colon, and, if necessary, excise potentially cancerous polyps. It was a simple idea, but in 1969 it represented a radical shift in the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of colon cancer. At the time, colon polyps were usually identified by rectal bleeding or through radiology, and removed either by abdominal surgery or repeated barium enemas.

Wolff, director of surgery at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City, and his young protegé-associate Hiromi Shinya thought that their technique was better, but colleagues disagreed. “As word of our successes got around in the local medical community,” Wolff would later write, “we became aware of subtle criticisms that our efforts were a fluke . . . prophets of doom abounded. Articles appeared calumniating the method and mongering rumours of horrible unreported disasters.”

Three years before, in 1966, at a conference in Copenhagen Wolff had been intrigued by a demonstration of upper gastrointenstinal flexible fibre optic endoscopes. He recruited the Japan-born Shinya, who had just finished …

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