Dr. Mitchell’s Christmas Poem, 1913

By Laura Hartman

For his 1913 Christmas greeting card, eminent 19th century neurologist and best-selling novelist Silas Weir Mitchell (1829–1914) penned a poem entitled “The Star of Bethlehem: the Day of Gifts.” Printed beneath an eponymous gold star on a small card, the 16-line poem was to be his last. Mitchell passed away just days later on January 4, 1914. This poem was omitted from posthumously published collections of his poetry and has never been published publicly before now.

A printed poem with a gold foil star at the top.Read a transcription below.

This copy was found tucked inside the first volume of his 1898 best-selling novel, Hugh Wynne, Free Quaker, recently acquired by NLM from a Philadelphia bookdealer. The book was once owned by Dr. Elisabeth A. Ryder (1866–1941), a Philadelphia neurologist and colleague of the Mitchell family. According to the inscription on the flyleaf of the book, Dr. Ryder received it on Christmas Day, 1899. On the verso of the 1913 Christmas card Dr. Ryder wrote, “Sent to me by dear Dr. Mitchell by dear Dr. Mitchell just before he died.” The first Dr. Mitchell refers to Weir Mitchell’s son, Dr. John K. Mitchell (1859–1917). Dr. Ryder also stored other correspondence from the Mitchell family in her copy of Hugh Wynne. Handwritten on a piece of black-bordered mourning stationery is the message, “Dear Dr.—get me the G. Lymph soon if you can. Yrs truly, Weir Mitchell.” The note was likely written in 1898, shortly after Weir Mitchell’s daughter Maria died from diphtheria.

Dr. Ryder also kept an undated handwritten note from John K. Mitchell that reflects his use of his father’s methods including the rest cure, massage, and exercise for treating women: “Dear Dr. R or Miss Grace! I want Mrs. M. alone—no nurse—Please send for Mrs. Durham to give massage & exercises for me—I will see the patient this afternoon.” John K. Mitchell’s best known work is Remote Consequences of Injuries of Nerves, and Their Treatment, 1895, in which he re-examined some of his father’s patients, thirty years later. In addition to continuing the neurological work of his father, he also wrote about the physical effects of massage and the nervous ailments of women.

Another memento is a typed letter, dated November 17, 1913, and hand-signed by Weir Mitchell, who wrote: “Dear Dr. Ryder: If you conclude to take up the education and treatment of mentally deficient children and young people, you have my assurance that you are not only fitted to do this, but in every way more than usually competent….” Despite this high praise, Dr. Ryder seems not to have pursued this endeavor.

A former student of Weir Mitchell, Elisabeth Ryder was one of the first women to enter the field of neuropsychiatry. She received her M.D. from the Women’s College of Philadelphia in 1891, and maintained her medical practice at 3909 Walnut Street, in Philadelphia. From 1899–1901, she served as the first Assistant Director of Women Students in the Department of Physical Education, University of Pennsylvania.   In 1897 Ryder founded Alcluyd Hospital and Sanitarium in Devon, Pa., and served as its superintendent until her death. She also served as a neurological consultant to the Woman’s Hospital of West Philadelphia.

Poem Transcription

The Star of Bethlehem
The Day of Gifts

Brief symbol of God’s greatest gift
Beneath Thy radiance born,
To be for earth eternal light,
The sunshine of an endless morn.

Where art thou now, O virgin star!
That o’er the village stood?
Why chosen for this holy task
From night’s fair sisterhood?

You may be sent to other worlds
And equal errands given,
On gentle embassies of love
With messages from heaven.

Still in our heaven of memory keep
Remembrance of the gifts He gave;
The guiding life, the star of love,
To glow for us beyond the grave.

S. Weir Mitchell

Laura Hartman is a Rare Book Cataloger in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.