Boston Society for Medical Improvement.


Paper print of a daguerreotype taken c1853. Seated, left to right: George Amory Bethune,   Oliver Wendell Holmes,   Samuel Cabot,   Jonathan Mason Warren,   William Edward Coale,   and James Browne Gregerson. Standing, left to right: Charles Eliot Ware,   Robert William Hooper,   Le Baron Russell,   Samuel Parkman.

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My proposition that Ether Dome Daguerreotype No. 1 captures an enactment, and not a re-enactment, is based on the composition of the surgical team represented by the image, particularly the identity of Dr. Samuel Parkman as the lead surgeon treating a carpenter's dislocated shoulder. There are claims that Parkman can also be identified in EDD Nos. 2-5, but in those photographs the subject's head is too blurred and foreshortened to offer a convincing match. Unfortunately, an extensive search turned up no images of Parkman other than the washed out 'Boston Society for Medical Improvement' photograph with which to make a comparison. This is a low resolution paper print, in all probability the copy of an original daguerreotype that the photographer would have copyrighted, releasing paper copies to the Society members and their associates. Dating the photo is crucial for establishing Parkman's identity and the enactment thesis of his December 9th etherization and reduction of humerus.

A copy of the Medical Improvement photograph is reproduced in Wolfe's memoir on Hinckley with the erroneous caption, "Members of the Saturday Evening Club, daguerreotyped about 1843."(103) Presumably, Wolfe's errors – in both the attribution and the date – can be traced to the archives of the Bostonian Society, where the group photo is miscataloged as "A photographic view taken between the years 1842 and 1854, representing the members of the Saturday Club, composed of the following members of the Medical profession in Boston, [etc.]"(104) However, the Saturday Club promoted Boston's elite literary and publishing savants, not medical practitioners, and was established in 1855, the year following Parkman's death.

The copy of the photograph shown here is archived at the Countway Library and is captioned "Oliver Wendell Holmes and members of the Boston Society for Medical Improvement," but misleads with the note, "The photograph was possibly taken at one of the events for which Holmes wrote and delivered a celebratory poem."(105) The Countway provides what I believe is the correct date, 1853, but Holmes is seated off to the side, uncomfortably wedged into the composition with his arms and legs crossed. The poem that Holmes wrote that year was titled, "A Poem For The Meeting Of The American Medical Association At New York, May 5, 1853," eleven stanzas of light-hearted but biting Horatian verse that made fun of the vanities leading up to the proceedings. There is a connection with his poem and the Medical Improvement photograph, but it isn't the thematic nucleus of the image.

If the image does in fact represent the Boston Society for Medical Improvement, the question arises, why portray these ten individuals and none of the fifty other doctors who were members in 1853 – what was their charter as an ad hoc committee?(106) A likely connection is that, except for Gregerson, all of their names were attached to the majority of medical reports published in the inaugural imprint of the Society's transactions, titled, Extracts from the records of the Boston Society for Medical Improvement.(107) These were extracts of cases read at meetings of the Improvement Society prior to publication in the American Journal of the Medical Sciences, the second oldest medical journal in the United States, founded in 1820. In his history of the Improvement Society, Mumford noted, "Besides being a scientific and social society, this organization attempted to meet other needs in those early days. It was a journal club. It started a library. It collected a museum. And in other ways that I have named, it flourished as a centre of medical life in Boston."(108) A collation of extracts previously published in full elsewhere seems like a supernumerary organ for such a distinguished journal club. And why isn't the Society's current secretary, William W. Morland included in the group photo, or the prolific John Barnard Swett Jackson who, as curator of the Society's museum cabinet, could be counted on to deliver a report on a novel pathological specimen at each meeting?

The answer, I believe, is found in the juxtaposition of Drs. Charles Eliot Ware & Samuel Parkman, standing in the background and bookending the composition. Ware and Parkman were co-editors of the short-lived The New England Quarterly Journal of Medicine and Surgery, prized by rare book collectors for Holmes's seminal paper on the "Contagiousness of Puerperal Fever." Except for Gregerson and Russell, this same cohort of Society members represented by the photograph also dominated the pages of the Quarterly, marking the tenth anniversary of that imprint which briefly appeared and then perished in 1843. These trace elements point to a double casus foederis for the photo session: a committee responsible for the creation of a medical journal tailored to the case reports of the Improvement Society members, chaired by Ware and Parkman, who were the two members most qualified in the editorial arts; and second, a ten year anniversary celebration of the innovative Quarterly and its authors, rekindling the youthful ambition that made it possible.

103.) Wolfe, RJ (1993). Illustration 20 ; p.63.

104.) Bostonian Society (1887). "Proceedings of the Bostonian Society, Annual Meeting." Boston : Old State House, Published by the Society ; Vol. 1, covering reports for the years 1882-1887, p. 38.

105.) Unknown photographer: "Oliver Wendell Holmes and members of the Boston Society for Medical Improvement." [Boston]; archived at the Francis A. Countway Library, Picture Collection, Ser. 249, box 3, f. 3.

106.) Mumford, JG (1901). "The story of the Boston Society for Medical Improvement." In: The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal. Boston: Cupples, Upham & Company ; vol. 144, no. 11, p. 252. "At the publication of its first catalogue in 1853 the number of members had increased to 60, of whom 3 were honorary and 5 associates."

107.) The Secretaries of the Society: Samuel Parkman & William M. Moreland (1853), Extracts from the records of the Boston Society for Medical Improvement. Boston: Printed for the Society for Medical Improvement.

108.) Mumford, JG (1901). p. 249, rt. col.

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