The Boston Medical Community and Emerging Science, 1780–1820*

    THE part played by physicians in early American science deserves more attention than it has received. In chemistry, mineralogy, geology, paleontology, botany, zoology, and anthropology, as well as in the purely medical sciences, medical men played indispensable roles as organizers of scientific institutions, publishers of medical and scientific journals, and contributors to the progress of the sciences. Mathematics and natural philosophy had been part of the undergraduate curriculum in American colleges since colonial times, but the medical schools were the main avenue by which other sciences entered the academic world. Beginning in the middle of the eighteenth century, American medical students flocked to the University of Edinburgh, where they studied chemistry and botany as well as anatomy, physiology, and materia medica. Many were exposed to geology, mineralogy, and the natural history of man as well. Scottish physicians like Lionel Chalmers, Alexander Garden, John Moultrie, and John Lining emigrated to Charleston, South Carolina, where they formed the backbone of the scientific community, and native South Carolinians went to Edinburgh for medical instruction on into the nineteenth century.1

    In Philadelphia the Scottish influence culminated in the establishment of a medical school patterned on the Edinburgh model. Founded in 1765, its faculty were soon playing a leading role in American science. Benjamin Rush, the first professor of chemistry, devoted his researches largely to medical subjects, but his later successor, James Woodhouse, became an active experimental chemist, organized the Chemical Society of Philadelphia, and published a considerable number of chemical and mineralogical papers. Dr. Caspar Wistar applied his anatomical training to the study of fossils, beginning with Jefferson’s megalonyx, and established a tradition of paleontological research that was continued brilliantly by Philadelphia physicians throughout the nineteenth century. Benjamin Smith Barton made contributions to botany, zoology, materia medica, paleontology, archaeology, and comparative linguistics, founded the Philadelphia Medical and Physical Journal, organized the Linnaean Society of Philadelphia, and inspired his students, including several from Boston, with a love of botany and natural history generally.2

    The New York physicians were slower in getting organized and more contentious among themselves than their Philadelphia colleagues, but they soon rivaled them in promoting a wide range of scientific endeavors. Samuel Latham Mitchill was a veritable whirlwind of activity, “a chaos of knowledge,” as one of his contemporaries called him. He taught chemistry and natural history, including mineralogy and geology, at Columbia College and the College of Physicians and Surgeons, published the Medical Repository, which was the nearest thing to a general scientific journal in the United States before 1818, wrote on chemistry, mineralogy, geology, zoology, and anthropology, and played a leading role in the Society for the Promotion of Useful Arts, the Literary and Philosophical Society of New York, and the Lyceum of Natural History. Dr. David Hosack, founder of the Elgin Botanic Garden, was scarcely less wide-ranging in his interests and activities. Less versatile but more solid in his chosen field was Dr. Archibald Bruce, founder and editor of the American Mineralogical Journal, the first specialized scientific journal published in the United States. With the organization of the College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1807, New York began to rival Philadelphia as a center of training in medicine and related scientific subjects.3

    32. Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse (1754–1846). Stippled engraving by Samuel Harris, between 1783 and 1810. Courtesy Boston Medical Library.

    33. Specimen of Datura stramonium, Jimson weed, in the hortus siccus collated by Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse about 1790–1800. (For a transcription of the manuscript notes see page 286.) Courtesy Boston Medical Library.

    34. Dr. James Jackson (1778–1867). Painting by Spiridione Gambardella. Courtesy Boston Medical Library.

    35. Dr. John Gorham (1738–1829). Lithograph, c. 1830. Courtesy Boston Medical Library.

    36. Dissection of Hirudo medicinalis, or medical leech, from Dr. John Collins Warren’s Comparative Vieu’ of the Sensorial and Nervous Systems (Boston, 1822). Warren chose this specimen to illustrate “the nervous structure in the class of red-blooded worms.” Courtesy Boston Medical Library.

    37. “American Flathead of Columbia River” from Dr. John Collins Warren’s Comparative View of the Sensorial and Nervous Systems (Boston, 1822). Courtesy Boston Medical Library.

    38. Dr. Jacob Bigelow (1787–1879). Photograph. Courtesy Boston Medical Library.

    Boston lagged behind both Philadelphia and New York in organizing to promote medical education. It was not until 1782 that a medical school was established at Harvard, and another thirty years elapsed before this school began to exert much influence in medical and scientific circles. Of the three original members of the medical faculty only one, Benjamin Waterhouse, had been trained abroad. John Warren had acquired an extensive practical knowledge of anatomy and surgery during the Revolutionary war, but he made few contributions to pure science. Aaron Dexter introduced the new French chemistry at Harvard, but he lacked the passion for experiment of a Woodhouse and the contagious enthusiasm for science of a Mitchill. He was remembered by his students chiefly for his habit of passing off unsuccessful chemical experiments with the pronouncement: “Gentlemen, the experiment has failed—but the principle, Gentlemen, the principle remains firm as the everlasting hills.”4

    As for Benjamin Waterhouse, he had received excellent training at London, Edinburgh, and Leyden, returning to the United States with a flattering letter of recommendation from the well-known London physician and patron of science Dr. John Fothergill. But Waterhouse had several strikes against him when he came to Cambridge. He was an outsider, born and reared in Providence, a Quaker, and an anti-Federalist. To make matters worse, he had a very high opinion of himself and a correspondingly low one of his medical colleagues, whom he regarded as poorly educated. Appointed Professor of the Theory and Practice of Physic, he devoted his energies chiefly to the study and teaching of natural history after receiving permission to lecture in this field. Through his efforts Harvard received substantial donations of mineral specimens from Dr. Abraham Lettsom, Fothergill’s successor as patron of American science, and from the government of France. These were placed on display in Harvard Hall in a handsome mahogany cabinet provided by the College, which also appropriated funds for an assaying apparatus. But there is no evidence that Waterhouse ever acquired solid competence as a mineralogist. Visiting Boston in 1807 in company with Colonel George Gibbs of Newport, Rhode Island, Benjamin Silliman came to inspect the “small but beautiful” mineral collection at Harvard. “There was not at this period... much of a spirit of science in Boston,” he recalled many years later.5

    As a botanist, too, Waterhouse was more an expounder of general principles than a practicing scientist. One has only to look at his lectures on botany or his “Heads of a Course of Lectures on Natural History,” both published in the Monthly Anthology, to see how essentially popular and discursive Waterhouse’s approach was. “I was often compelled to treat my subject superficially and go gradually deeper as taste, attention and an awakened knowledge increased,” he wrote in his reminiscences. “Nay, I sometimes found it convenient, if not necessary to cloath my subject in allegory, in order more effectually to arrest attention and thus by first engaging the mind by pleasure to convey into it substantial knowledge.”6

    These lectures appear to have been well received. “They afforded much entertainment to the students, besides the scientific instruction they imparted,” President Willard’s son recalled. “In his style there was great vivacity and compass of expression, with the added attraction of anecdote and humor, all which combined made the lectures very popular....”7 But Waterhouse did not, like Benjamin S. Barton, turn out practicing botanists full of enthusiasm for fieldwork. He did suggest the need for a botanical garden and tried to enlist support for the project in London, but when one was finally established in 1805 through the efforts of the Massachusetts Society for Promoting Agriculture, Waterhouse was passed over for the professorship associated with it in favor of William Dandridge Peck, a practicing naturalist who came from a well-known Boston family. Waterhouse blamed his setback and his subsequent exclusion from lecturing in natural history on the political machinations of the Essex Junto, but the fact is that he had failed to work effectively with his colleagues in promoting the development of medicine and science at Harvard. A bookish physician and naturalist himself, he had done good work in introducing natural history into the college, but he had failed to win the respect and cooperation of his associates and of influential men in the Boston community. His dismissal from the last of his duties at Harvard in 1812 was a personal tragedy but an essential step in lifting the medical school out of the sad condition into which the bitter disputes between Waterhouse and his medical colleagues had brought it.

    The rejuvenation of the Harvard Medical School and the Boston medical community had begun several years earlier with the return of two young Bostonians, John Collins Warren and James Jackson, from their medical studies abroad. Warren and Jackson had been friends at Harvard in undergraduate days, and they now collaborated in a wide variety of activities designed to raise the level of medical science and practice in the Boston area. They joined the Society for the Study of Natural Philosophy, the Anthology Club, and the Boston Athenæum and accepted responsibility for preparing scientific news for the Monthly Anthology. They revitalized the Massachusetts Medical Society, which up to that time had been notable chiefly for its opposition to the Harvard Medical School. They put the society’s main publication on a regular basis, composed and published the Massachusetts Pharmacopoeia, and issued in 1806 a report on vaccination. About the same time they founded the short-lived Boston Medical Society, from which sprang the Boston Medical Library.8

    At the same time they were busy with plans for improving the medical school. Warren rented a room over White’s apothecary store at No. 49 Marlborough Street and gave public demonstrations in anatomy for the Boston physicians, especially the younger men. In 1806 he was appointed Adjunct Professor of Anatomy and Surgery at Harvard, and he and his father began pressing for the transfer of the medical school from Cambridge to Boston. The Corporation agreed on condition that the courses given in Boston should also be given at Cambridge. In 1810 the move was made, but a building to take the place of the hall above the apothecary’s shop was not obtained until 1815. Meanwhile Jackson had supplanted Waterhouse as Professor of the Theory and Practice of Physic, and Warren and Jackson, aided by John Gorham, had launched the New England Journal of Medicine and Surgery, the first issue of which appeared in 1812.

    Like Warren and Jackson, John Gorham had studied abroad after finishing his Harvard education. At Edinburgh he shared rooms with Benjamin Silliman and studied chemistry and mineralogy as well as medicine. Returning to Boston in 1806, he was appointed Adjunct Professor of Chemistry and Materia Medica in 1809 and began teaching chemistry and mineralogy in both the medical school and the college. Gorham was developing a real enthusiasm for mineralogy, as his correspondence with Benjamin Silliman shows. In November 1809 he informed Silliman that between sixty and seventy students were attending his chemical and mineralogical lectures. “My mineralogical cabinet increases daily, I find the study of this science becomes every day more interesting and I recollect with pleasure that I derived the first pleasant impressions of it from you, while we were together at Edinburgh,” he wrote to Silliman in September 1810.9 “It is really surprising,” he wrote nine months later, “how very suddenly a taste for mineralogy has sprung up among us. Three years ago there was scarcely a man in Massachusetts . . . who could distinguish one stone from another; now everybody here is collecting a cabinet or engaging in mines.”10

    With the retirement of Aaron Dexter from the Erving professorship of chemistry in 1816 and the appointment of Gorham in his place, chemistry and mineralogy were established on a solid footing at Harvard. The laboratory and lecture room in Holden Chapel were completely renovated under Gorham’s supervision, and his assistant, James Freeman Dana, was sent to London to buy new chemical apparatus. In 1819–1820 Gorham brought out a textbook of chemistry, praised by William Brande of Cambridge University as “a most excellent and complete digest of everything at present known on that science.” Harvard seemed ready to challenge the leadership of Yale in chemistry and mineralogy, but Gorham found the task of lecturing in both Cambridge and Boston while carrying on an extensive medical practice in Boston too exhausting. “My cabinet increases very slowly,” he wrote to Silliman, “for I cannot devote sufficient time to this pursuit without encroachment on the duties of my profession, which from principle as well as interest must not be thought of.”11 In 1827, two years before his premature death, he gave up teaching.

    Whatever Gorham’s difficulties may have been, the prospects of the medical school in which he taught were improving rapidly. In 1815 it acquired a spacious, well-equipped building, erected on Mason Street in Boston with funds supplied by the Massachusetts legislature and private subscribers. Warren and Jackson then pressed for a hospital to provide clinical training for the medical students. Support for the project was secured from the legislature and from wealthy Bostonians, and in 1821 the Massachusetts General Hospital opened its doors to the public. At long last, Boston was in a position to challenge the leadership of Philadelphia and New York in medical training and in the sciences connected with medicine.12

    Among the medical faculty, which had been augmented by two new appointments—Jacob Bigelow in materia medica and Walter Channing in midwifery and medical jurisprudence—John Collins Warren was the most prestigious, and justly so. In 1820 Warren undertook to lecture on the comparative anatomy of the sensory and nervous systems before the Massachusetts Medical Society. This was a considerable undertaking, but Warren was well prepared. He had studied anatomy, including some comparative anatomy, with the best teachers in Paris and had continued his studies on his own after returning from Europe. Learning that the National Institute of France had issued a report on the anatomical theories of Franz Joseph Gall, founder of the science of phrenology, Warren secured a copy of this report, written by the great comparative anatomist Georges Cuvier, and proceeded to investigate the matter by performing his own dissections.

    I... went to work with Cuvier’s report in my hand [Warren wrote in his autobiographical notes] and examined the structure of the brain as laid down by Gall, with the corrections of Cuvier. First I obtained a great number of human brains; then those of various animals,—as the sheep, hog, cat; various birds; among amphibia, those of turtles, frogs, and various fishes; also the brain and nervous system in the invertebral animals, —the lobster, sepia, cuttle-fish, oyster, scorpion, and medusa.

    This pursuit I continued for many years with unabating interest; especially after the publication, by Gall and Spurzheim, of their ‘Anatomy and Physiology of the Brain,’ in 1810.13

    The result of these researches was Warren’s Comparative View of the Sensorial and Nervous Systems in Men and Animals, delivered as a lecture in 1820 and published in Boston two years later. This was the first American treatise on comparative anatomy, and a very creditable one. It is interesting not only for the excellence of the technical descriptions but also for Warren’s discussion of the relation between anatomical structure and intellectual capacity in men and animals. From his own investigations and from those of Cuvier and others he concluded that there was no correlation between brain size and intelligence in the animal kingdom. This discussion led him into physical anthropology and the controversy between monogenists and polygenists as to the origin and relative intellectual powers of the various human races. From his contacts with living Indians, Negroes, and white men and from examination of the skulls of individuals of these races in his own extensive collection of crania Warren concluded that cranial differences among races were not matched by corresponding differences in intellectual ability regardless of whether these differences were congenital or whether they had been produced by artificial means, as in the case of the Flat-head Indians. Among the skulls in his collection was one from the ancient mounds of the Ohio country. The anatomical peculiarities of this specimen seemed to Warren to justify assigning it to an extinct race different from any living type, at least provisionally. Although subsequent research has not borne out Warren’s tentative conclusion about the mound-builders, his remarks on the cranial differences among human races in the Comparative View are important as the first American essay in physical anthropology based squarely on careful anatomical comparison of an extensive collection of skulls.14

    Among the younger members of the Harvard medical faculty there was a considerable interest in natural history. Jacob Bigelow and Walter Channing had both felt the influence of Benjamin Smith Barton during their studies in Philadelphia. On his return to Boston, Bigelow gave every sign of becoming the Barton of the Boston area. He collaborated with William Dandridge Peck in public lectures on botany and in 1814 brought out his Florula Bostoniensis and an American edition of Sir James Edward Smith’s Introduction to Physiological and Systematical Botany. These works were soon followed by Bigelow’s American Medical Botany, an important contribution to the field of study which his teacher Barton had pioneered.15

    It was Bigelow, too, who took the initiative in organizing the Linnaean Society of New England, launched at his house on 8 December 1814. The physicians of Boston were well represented at this meeting. Besides Bigelow, there were Walter Channing, George Hayward, John W. Webster, John Ware, and James Freeman Dana. By August 1816 the Society had a respectable museum of natural history, housed in a large hall above the New South Market House. The collections, including an assortment of quadrupeds, three hundred birds, several thousand insects and shells, four large cases of minerals, and a small herbarium of native plants, were exhibited in mahogany cases with glass fronts and arranged according to species, genera, and orders, with Latin and English titles. They soon outgrew the Society’s capacity to house and care for them, but an impetus had been given to natural history that eventually gave rise to the Boston Society of Natural History. Formed in 1830, this Society was a worthy rival of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia and the Lyceum of Natural History of New York. Physicians formed dominant groups in all three societies.16

    By 1820 the Boston medical community and its prize institution, the Harvard Medical School, had begun to come abreast of medical and scientific progress in Philadelphia and New York. For the next several decades medical men would continue to play important roles in the development of American science, partly in chemistry and natural history as before, but increasingly in the medical sciences themselves. Eventually, however, specialization and professionalization would assert their sway, and physicians would lose the special place in the history of science which the accidents of history had created for them in an earlier and, in some ways, happier age.