By Stephen J. Greenberg
It is, perhaps, a bit hard for the modern reader to imagine that a coffee table book consisting solely of portraits and brief biographies of contemporary American physicians would ever be a hot consumer item. However, at least in 1911, that may well have been the case. The collections of the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine contain just such a volume: Medical World, produced in New York by the Berlin Publishing Company and now available in NLM’s Digital Collections. It is an impressive volume: almost 16 inches high, bound in brown faux leather with plentiful gold tooling. Inside there are biographies of sixty physicians, each accompanied with a beautifully produced photogravure portrait, complete with a facsimile autograph. The fame of some of these individuals has faded with time, but quite a number are still remembered by their professional successors.
Most quickly recognized by the readers of this blog would be John Shaw Billings, director of the Army Medical Library (NLM’s predecessor institution) for thirty years, and the man whose vision of a national medical library still guides this institution today. But the Billings portrayed in Medical World is an older man (Billings had left this library in 1895, and was 73 when Medical World was published). He was no longer active in medicine by then; but still held his other great post as the first director of the New York Public Library.
Another name and face included in Medical World that would be familiar to readers of this blog is that of Silas Weir Mitchell. Mitchell had been practicing medicine for over 60 years, and was renowned for his work in neurology, toxicology, and psychiatry. His work on nerve damage due to gunshot wounds, based on his experience and observations during the American Civil War, was ground-breaking, as was his work on the neurotoxicity of rattlesnake venom. In a less flattering light, he is also remembered as the model for the unsympathetic psychiatrist in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novella, The Yellow Wallpaper.
Several of the doctors in Medical World would have known each other well. Howard Kelly and William Henry Welch worked together at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Along with Sir William Osler and William Halsted, Welch and Kelly made up the original core medical faculty at Hopkins: Osler for internal medicine, Halsted for surgery, Kelly for obstetrics/gynecology, and Welch for pathology. The four are also memorialized in John Singer Sargent’s famous painting, “The Four Doctors.” The interconnections continue: Billings was instrumental in Welch’s decision to come to Hopkins.
Another Medical World face is that of Simon Flexner, representing a younger generation of pathologists. By 1911, Flexner was director of the laboratories at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in New York City, but he had done post-graduate work in pathology at Hopkins under Welch. Perhaps better remembered today, though, is Simon Flexner’s non-physician brother, Abraham, whose revolutionary analysis Medical Education in the United States and Canada (aka “The Flexner Report”) was also published in 1911. Abraham Flexner clearly was using Hopkins as the benchmark for his evaluation of American and Canadian medical schools, and it’s worth remembering that his work was funded by the Carnegie Institution at a time when John Shaw Billings was Chair of the Carnegie’s Board of Trustees.
Yet another Hopkins connection can be found with the inclusion of the ophthalmologist William Holland Wilmer. Wilmer is also of a younger generation than some of the Medical World figures (Billings was practicing battlefield medicine when Wilmer was born). Wilmer was a Virginian, but he came north to New York City to learn about his chosen field, working at Mt. Sinai, the New York Polyclinic, and Bellevue Hospitals. He is the namesake of the famous Wilmer Eye Institute at Hopkins, but that would not be founded until 1925.
There is one last physician especially worthy of note here: the redoubtable Abraham Jacobi. Dr. Jacobi was probably the oldest physician in Medical World; he would have been 81 in 1911. He probably had the most varied career as well, which included being imprisoned for two years for revolutionary political activity in his native Germany. Upon his release in 1853, with his medical degree already in hand, he emigrated to the United States. He settled in New York City, specializing in the diseases of children, working at many of the hospitals in the city before finally settling at Columbia University in 1870. He would work there until his death in 1919, combining his devotion to pediatrics with a concern for the standards of the medical profession and an unmatched civic conscience.
Interestingly, one of the details of Jacobi’s life not mentioned in Medical World is his marriage to the pioneer women physician, Mary Putnam Jacobi, in 1873 (this was actually his second marriage; his first wife died in Germany while he was in prison). Abraham Jacobi is buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn, next to Mary, who had died in 1906. But Medical World is very much a reflection of its time: there are no women or persons of color to be found in its pages.