Samuel A. (Samuel Abbott) Green.

History of medicine in Massachusetts; a centennial address delivered before the Massachusetts Medical Society at Cambridge, June 7, 1881 online

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Online LibrarySamuel A. (Samuel Abbott) GreenHistory of medicine in Massachusetts; a centennial address delivered before the Massachusetts Medical Society at Cambridge, June 7, 1881 → online text (page 1 of 9)
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R246 .G82 History of medicine






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Centennial Address




JUNE 7, 1881.




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A small edition of this Address was printed before its delivery,
for the convenience of the writer ; though in its present form
some changes have since been made. It was delivered in the
Sanders Theatre, when parts of it were necessarily omitted on
account of its length.



The Massachusetts Medical Society is
about to enter upon the second century of its ex-
istence. Following the custom of this centennial
period, it proposes to celebrate the anniversary of
its origin by the story of its hfe. It was born in
troublous times ; and its founders were still en-
gaged more or less actively in a political struggle
which even to-day, by reflex action, is exerting
a powerful influence on the events of the world.
It was during the War for Independence that the
physicians and surgeons of this Commonwealth
were led to feel the need of some association in
order to encourage i3rofessional studies. A new
field was then opened for medical investigations,
and the workers were eager to cultivate it. At no
previous time had so many medical men of the
State been brought into close relations with one
another, or in contact with their brethren from
other States ; and this intercourse necessarily
stimulated inquiry and discussion, and j)roduced
a community of professional feeling, such as had
never before existed. In union there is strength ;
this was true in war, and it was true in peace.


They saw that better results were accomplished
by concerted action than by individual effort; and
they were then ready to associate themselves to-
gether for the purpose of improving the practice
and raising the standard of its study. It is a sin-
gular fact in the social economy of affairs, that
some of the oldest and most learned scientific as-
sociations, both in this country and in Europe,
have been formed during the clash of arms and
the din of war ; and this Society is no exception.
IN^othing happens in this world by chance, though
oftentimes it may be difficult to discover the law
which underlies a principle.

The Massachusetts Medical Society was incor-
porated on November 1, 1781, and its charter was
signed by Samuel Adams, as president of the Sen-
ate, and by John Hancock, as governor of the
Commonwealth. These patriotic names suggest
Revolutionary times. It will be noted that the
centennial anniversary of the birth of the Society
does not occur for some months to come ; but it is
fair to assume that the preliminary steps for its or-
ganization cover this interval. In the presence of
this audience it need not be said that a period of ges-
tation always precedes a birth ; and without attempt-
ing to fix the limit of this period I shall assume
that it is now a century since the conception of
the Society took place in the brains of its founders.

There had been before this time a medical soci-
ety in Boston, which was the first one formed in
America. It appears to have been in existence as
early as the year 17B5, though it did not continue


long. Its records are irretrieval)ly lost, and all
that is known about it is gathered from fragment-
ary sources. It is very likely that it included in
its list of members some of the ministers, as they
were interested in the study and practice of medi-
cine. Dr. AVilliam Douglass, a noted author and
physician of that day, writes, under date of Feb-
ruary 18, 1735-36, to Cadwallader Golden, of New
York, that

. . . We have lately in Boston formed a medical society, of
which, tliis gentleman [Dr. Clark, the bearer of the letter], a
member thereof, can give you a particular account. We design
from time to time to publish some short pieces; there is now
ready for the press number one, with this title-jjage : —

Number One,


1. A miscellany. Practical introduction.

2. A history of the dysentery epidemical in Boston in 1734.

3. Some account of a gutta-serena in a young woman.

4. The anatomical inspection of a spina veutosa in the vertebrce

of the loins in a young man.

5. Some practical comments or remarks on the, writings of Dr.

Thomas Sydenham.
Published by a Medical- Society in Boston, New-England.

This letter is now among the Golden PajDers, in
the possession of the jSTcav York Historical Soci-
ety ; a copy of it is printed in the second volume,
fourth series, of the Massachusetts Historical Gol-
lections (pages 188, 189) .

Gutta Serena, Englished mto drop serene, was
the cause of Milton's blindness. The poet alludes
to himself, when he says : —

" Eyes that roll in vain
To find thy piercing ray, and find no dawn ;
So thick a drop serene hath quenched their orbs."


The disease was afterwards known as amaurosis.
Spina ventosa is an affection of the osseous sys-
tem, — according to old notions, — in which the
texture of the bone dilates, seemingly distended
with air.

The first number of these " Medical Memoirs "
was never printed. It was probably Dr. John
Clark, at that time an eminent practitioner of med-
icine, who is referred to in the letter, as a mem-
ber of the Society. He was born on December
15, 1698, and was then at the height of his pro-
fessional zeal, when he would naturally be inter-
ested in a scientific association. He belonged to
a family of medical antecedents and traditions,
being himself of the fourth generation in a direct
line of John Clarks, all physicians, and he was fol-
lowed by three more, equally direct, of John
Clarks, these three also physicians, — covering a
period of more than a century and a half and in-
cluding seven generations of the same name.

During the year 1736, Dr. Douglass published
a pamphlet entitled "The Practical HISTOKY
of a ]^ew Epidemical Eruptive Miliary Fever, with
an Angina Ulcusculosa which prevailed in Boston
]^ew England in the years 1735 and 1736." It is
inscribed, " To a Medical Society in Boston^^ and
the preface begins : —

"Gentlemen, This Piece of Medical History does naturally
address it self to you, considering that I have the pleasure of
being one of your numt)er, tJiat you have been fellow labourers
in the management of this distemper, and therefore competent
judges of this performance, and that where difficult or extraor-
dinary Gases have occurred, in any of your private practice, I


loas favoured to visit the Patients in order to make a minute
Clinical enquiry : in short, vxithout your assis'ance this piece
would have been less perfect, and not so loell vouched^

In " The Boston Weekly IS'ews-Letter," Janua-
ry 5, 1737, there is a long communication, ad-
dressed "To the Judicious and Learned Presi-
dent and Members of the Medical Society in
Boston,^'' and signed '^'^ Philanthroposy It takes
strong- ground in favor of regulating the practice
of physic throughout the province, and advocates
the plan of having all practitioners examined by
a board of physicians and surgeons appointed by
the General Court. The Avriter is justly severe
on the " Slwemahers, Weavers and Almanach-
malcers, with their virtuous Consorts, who have
laid aside the proper Business of their Lives, to
turn Quacks."

In the same newspaper of J^ovcmber 13, 1741,
is an interesting report of a surgical operation per-
formed about that time for urinary calculus, on
Joseph Baker, a boy six years old. It was done
" in Presence of the Medical Society," by Dr.
Sylvester Gardiner, and " according to Mr. Chesel-
derCs late Improvement of the lateral Way." The
report begins: —

" A Medical Society in Boston New-England, with no quack-
ish Vieio, as is the vianner of some ; but for the Comfort and
Benefit of the unhappy and miserable Sufferers by the excru-
ciating Pain, occasioned by a Stone in the Bladder, do Publish
the folloioing Case."

Dr. Gardiner, the operator in this case, was a
rising young surgeon who had studied his profes-
sion in London and Paris. He began the prac-


tice of medicine in Boston, where he also lectured
on anatomy, which he ilhistrated by preparations
brought from Europe. His enterprise led him to
estabiish an apothecary's shop, in which he car-
ried on an extensive wholesale and retail business.
His career as a physician and surgeon was attend-
ed with remarkable success, and he soon acquired
from his profession both fame and fortune. His
prosperity, however, was interrupted by the poli-
tical troubles which preceded the Revolution, and
during the struggle he took sides with the mother
country. He thus became odious to the ]3atriots ;
and when Boston was evacuated by the British
troops, he was compelled to leave his native coun-
try and pass eight or ten years in exile. He finally
returned and died at I^ewport, Rhode Island,
August 8, 1786, in the 80th year of his age.

Although the Medical Society in Boston was
short-lived, no account of the history of medicine
in the State would be complete which did not
mention its existence. In its day it exerted a
good influence on the profession, and showed a
zeal on the part of the physicians which is alike
honorable to their heads and creditable to their
hearts. The origin of the Society may have had
some connection with the epidemic of diphtheria
which broke out in Boston during the summer of
1735; at any rate, it was organized about that
time. It is known to have been in existence late
in the autumn of 1711, though ten years afterward
there was no trace of it. Dr. Lloyd, who began
the practice of medicine in Boston about the year


1752, and continued in it for more than half a cen-
tury, had no recollection of such an association.
This last fact is mentioned by Dr. Bartlett, in his
address before the Massachusetts Medical Society,
June G, 1810, and shows that it had disappeared
before Dr. Lloyd's time. The founders of this
local society, the pioneer association of its kind
in the country, represented the active medical
thought in Boston ; and though they are unknown
to us even by name, deserve on this occasion a
tribute which is freely given.

A long generation passes, and the Massachu-
setts Medical Society takes the field, and occupies
the broad limits of the State, including the dis-
trict of Maine. Many of the original members
had served in the army, and were familiar with
the capital operations of the hospital and the bat-
tle-field, w^hile others had filled important public
positions of a civil character. In any presence
they would have been considered accomplished
physicians and sin*geons, and they were the peers
of other professional men. Together with the
clergy they represented the education and I'efine-
ment of the community. But before entering
npon the history of this venerable corporation, I
may be allowed to go back and give a sketch of
the rise and progress of medicine in Massachu-
setts during the colonial and provincial periods.

AVhen the. Pil^'rims landed at Plvmouth in the
winter of 1620, they found that a few years before
their arrival a deadly pestilence had raged all along
the ^ew England seaboard, and that the natives


had been more than decimated by the epidemic.
Cotton Mather says : —

" The Indians in these Parts had newly, even about a Year or
Two before, been visited with such a prodigious Pestilence; as
carried away not a Tenth, but Nine Parts of Ten (yea, 'tis said
Nineteen of Twenty) among them: So that the Woods were
almost cleared of those pernicious Creatures to make Room for a
better Growth." *

The diagnosis of this disease has been much
discussed. By some writers it has been called the
plague ; but this is a vague term and means nei-
ther one thing nor another. Johnson calls it
" a sore Consumption, sweeping away whole Fam-
ilies." ^ Gookin, who wrote many years later, and
who had talked with those who remembered the
cases, says that " the bodies all over were exceed-
ing yellow, describing it by a yellow garment they
showed me, both before they died, and after-
wards."^ According to Winslow,^ the same dis-
ease prevailed among the Indians as late as JSTo-
vember in the year 1622, which fact seems to
eliminate yellow-fever. This would seem to leave
small-pox as the disease in question, of which
the description is in some respects good. Dur-
ing many years, there had been some slight inter-
course between the Indians and stray Europeans
who came to the coast on fishing voyages, and it
is more than probable that the loathsome disease
was thus introduced. Within the period of re-

* M;if^nalia, Book i., Chap. ii. 7.

2 "\\''oncler- Working Providence of Sions Savioiu-, in New England,
Chap. viii. IG.

^ Massachusetts Historical Collections, i. 148.

* Good Newes fi-oni New-England, page 18.


corded histoiy, it is knowii that whole villages of
the natives have been swept away by this sickness.
The Indians had no knowledge of medicine, bnt
were accustomed to treat disease largely by in-
cantations and powAVOws. There is, however, a
popular belief to-day that the Indian doctor is
skilled in botanical remedies, as he is wont to use
the infusions and decoctions of various roots and
herbs. "While there is no ground for such an im-
pression, he will yet be consulted as long as the
race of simpletons continues to exist — perhaps till
the millennium. The ravages of small-pox among
the ignorant natives were fearful, as they had no
knowledge of inoculation or vaccination ; and
thus a new danger opposed the white settlers, who
were already overburdened by their cares and

During the first winter at Plymouth, the colo-
nists lost half their number by disease, and of the
other half most of them were sick, and so weak
that they could not take proper care of themselves
or of each other. Scarcely twelve men were left
alive in the settlement, and only about three times
as many women and children to share in their
misery. Fifty persons, all told, included the whole
population of Plymouth in the spring of 1621.
They suffered fearfully from scurvy, and this was
largely the cause of the great mortality which
befell them. Says "Wood, in his " j^ew Englands
Prospect : " —

..." whereas many died at the beginning of the plantations, it
■was not because the Country was unhealthfull, but because their



bodies were corrupted with sea-diet, which was naught, the Beefe
and Pork being tainted, their Butter and Cheese corrupted, their
P^ish rotten, and voyage long by reason of crosse "Winds, so that
winter approaching before they could get warme houses, and the
searching sharpnes of that purer Climate, creeping in at the cran-
nies of their crazed bodies, caused death and sicknesse " (page 4).

The colonists had left comfortable homes and
settled in a distant wilderness during the incle-
ment season of winter. With none of the cus-
tomary conveniences of life, they had almost
everythmg to exert a depressing influence. The
sensitive ones must have yearned for their native
land; and it is not strange that the scorbutic taint,
with the intercurrent and superadded nostalgia,
proved so fatal. Homesickness is always a strong
element in weakening the power to resist disease.
Among the passengers who came over in the
" Mayflower '' was Deacon Samuel Fuller, who
survived the sickly season. He was the first ph}^-
sician in the colony, and was for some time the
sole physician ; and often he must have been trou-
bled to devise means for the care of his patients.
His practice was extensive, taking him to Salem,
Boston, and other towns in the neighboring colo-
ny. During the first ten years of its existence,
the Plymouth settlement had reached a population
of only two hundred and fifty persons, and some
of these lived in places remote from the town.
Besides his practice Deacon Fuller — I am sure he
would have preferred his church title to any pro-
fessional one — eked out a livelihood by tilling
the soil, after the manner of his neighbors. He
died in the year 1633, and by his death the settle-


ment lost one of its most valued and useful

In the early days of New England, it was not
customary to address or speak of a physician by
the title of doctor. Perhaps one reason for this
was that there were so very few persons who had
ever taken a medical diploma. The custom of
giving the title has literally grown up by degrees.
The earliest instance of its use that I have found,
is in the Koxbury Church Records, — recently pub-
lished as " A Keport of the Record Commission-
ers " (Boston, 1881), — where an entry is made
under the date of November 5, 1668, which alludes
to "Doctor Emery," of Salem.— (Page 207.)

A surgeon was formerly called a "chirurgeon,"
which word by use has been worn down to its
present form. It means literally one w^ho performs
the manual part of medicine, and originally refer-
red to the external treatment of disease. It is
well derived, and was the name always applied in
colonial times to one whom we call a surgeon. In
England, even at the present time, a surgeon is
not addressed as Doctor ; but he always has the
title of Mister (^. e. Mr.) given to him.

Governor Edward Winslow was skilled in the
practice of medicine, and even among the Indians
had a wide reputation for his treatment of disease.
He was once summoned to visit Massasoit, a pro-
minent chief, who was seriously sick, but who
recovered under his care. As a mark of his grat-
itude, the faithful sachem revealed to the English
a plot that was forming against them, but which


was averted by the timely information. A full re-
port of the case with the treatment is fomid in
Winslow's " Good Kewes from Kew-England." —
(London, 1624,) pages 25-32.

Plymouth colony, owing to its small and sparse
population, had only a few physicians. At the
time of its union with Massachusetts under the
second charter, it contained but 9,000 inhabitants,
and it can easily be inferred that its influence on
the general practice of medicine was of little ac-
count. The founders of Massachusetts were men
of more education and larger means than those
who settled Plymouth, and in the natural course
of events it is not strange that they should have
politically absorbed the older colony. On the
other hand, the founders of Plymouth were men
of deep religious thought and convictions, and
they set in motion a system of ecclesiastical polity
which has since overrun Massachusetts ; and to-
day the church government prevailing in this State
is more closely allied to that which existed in Ply-
mouth than to any other form. I make this di-
gression in order to show that it is not always
numbers that count. In the plan of creation the
fittest will survive.

Before the colony of Massachusetts Bay was
fairly launched in England, the question of a med-
ical man to accompany the jDlanters Avas discussed
by the Company. At one of its earliest meetings,
held March 5, 1628, it is recorded that : —

A Proposicon beeinge made to Intertayne a Burgeon for [the]
plautacun M"" Pratt was ppouuded as an abell man vp[on]


theis Condicons Nameley That 40"* should bee allowed him viz'
for his Chist 2.? the Rest [for] his owne sallery for the first yeere
puided yt he [continue] 3 yeeres the Comp. to bee at Charge of
transporting his wiffe & a ch[ild] haue 20' a yeere for the other
2 yeeres *fc to build him a ho [use at] the Comp Chardge & to
allott him 100 acr'. of ground but if he stay but one yeere then
the comp to bee at Chardge of his bringing back for England &
he to Leaue his s'^u[ant] and the Chist for the Comp seruice."

Agreed w"' Robert 3Iorley s^iant to M' Andrewe IMathewes
late barber surgeon to s^ie the Comp. in Newe England for three
y[ears] the first yeere to haue 20 nobles the second yeere [30 ?
and the third] yeere 20 markes, to serue as a barber & a surgeon
[on all] occasyons belonging to his Calling to aney of this [Com-
pany] that are planters or there seruauts, and for his [chest
and] all in it whereof he hath geeueu an Inuentory . . . sight of
it It bee approoued ffyve pounds Is . . . and payd to him ffor
it & the same to bee fo[rthwith payd.] — (General Court Rec-
ords, i. 3».)

Mr. Pratt's given name was John; and after
coming to Xew England he lived at Cambridge.
The last entry in these records reminds us of the
time when barbers were doctors by brevet, as it
were, and performed many operations of minor
surgery, such as pulling teeth, bleeding, and cup-
ping. A noble was worth about 6s. 8d.; and a
mark was double the value of a noble.

For many years before the Puritans came to
this country, they were subjected to bitter perse-
cution ; and foreseeing the possibility of an eject-
ment, a considerable number of their ministers
studied medicine. They saw the probable needs
of the future, and fitted themselves, as best they
could, for any emergenc}- that might arise in a
new settlement; hence they formed a large pro-
portion of the early physicians of Massachusetts.
History repeats herself, and we see to-day Ameri-
can missionaries who first study medicine as a par-



tial preparation for their new duties. In fact it is
a custom as old as civilization itself, that the
priests are the ones to collect and preserve the
traditions of medicine. These Puritan ministers
were men of liberal education, and some of them
authors of the earliest medical treatises printed in
America. It was with them a matter of conscien-
tious duty to heal the body as well as to save the
soul. Each one practised in his own flock, and
for his fee generally received that which is con-
sidered better than money, though not equally
current at the counter. Occasionally they took
part in the medical controversies of the day, and
defended their views with much skill and ability.
Cotton Mather speaks of this union of the two
professions as an "Angelic Conjunction," and
says that " ever since the days of Luke the Evan-
gelist, Skill in Physiclc has been frequently pro-
fessed and practised, by Persons whose more de-
clared Business was the Study of Divinity."^

At the period when Massachusetts was settled,
medicine was an art rather than a science, and just
ready to take a new departure under the guidance
of Sydenham. Certain facts about disease were
learned by rote, as it were, and the treatment was
nearly the same in all cases without regard to the
minute symptoms. The public believed in speci-
fics; and remedies were prescribed, as if they were
infallible or sovereign. Says Shakespeare:

" The sovereign' St thing on earth
AVas parmaceti for an inward bruise."

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Online LibrarySamuel A. (Samuel Abbott) GreenHistory of medicine in Massachusetts; a centennial address delivered before the Massachusetts Medical Society at Cambridge, June 7, 1881 → online text (page 1 of 9)