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Silas Weir Mitchell collection
This is a finding aid. It is a description of archival material held at the Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Unless otherwise noted, the materials described below are physically available in our reading room, and not digitally available through the web.
- Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia
- Silas Weir Mitchell collection
- Date [inclusive]:
- Call Number:
- MSS 2/0241-04
- 1.1 Linear feet
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Silas Weir Mitchell, the son of Dr. John Kearsley and Sarah Matilda Henry Mitchell, was born in Philadelphia in 1829. He entered the University of Pennsylvania in the class of 1848, at the age of 15. By his second year, he was first in his class, but was forced to withdraw the following term to assist his family during the illness of his father. In 1848, he enrolled at Jefferson Medical College (where his father was a faculty member), and obtained his M.D. in 1850. He spent the following year in Paris, where he studied with Claude Bernard and Charles Philippe Robin, before returning to Philadelphia to work in his father’s practice. He published his first scientific paper (on uric acid) in 1852, and was elected to the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia the following year. In 1858, his father died, and Mitchell took over the family medical practice. He continued his scientific investigations and issued several more scientific papers before the Civil War. These included a study of the blood crystals of the sturgeon (1858) and his “Researches upon the Venom of the Rattlesnake” (issued in the Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge, 1860).
During the Civil War, Mitchell served as a surgeon at Turners Lane Hospital in Philadelphia, a 400-bed army facility. This experience allowed him to make an extensive study of nerve wounds and their treatment, and lead to two important monographs of 1864: Gunshot Wounds and Other Injuries of Nerves and Reflex Paralysis (both of which were co-written by fellow army surgeons, G.R. Morehouse and W.W. Keen). By 1865, Mitchell had returned to private practice, where, influenced by his war-time work, he focused on neurological problems. In 1870, he was appointed to the Philadelphia Orthopedic Hospital for Nervous Diseases, where he treated patients and instructed visiting physicians for over four decades. Despite working full-time as a practicing physician, Mitchell found time to make varied and significant scientific investigations. From the end of the Civil War until the first decade of the 20th century, he published over 100 articles and books on neurological subjects, but also made contributions in toxicology, pharmacology, and physiology. Although his scientific papers are far too numerous to list here, one of the most significant was “On a Rare Vaso-motor Neurosis of the Extremities and on the Maladies with Which It May Be Confounded” (1878), in which he was the first to describe erythromelalgia, a neurosis known as “Weir Mitchell’s Disease.”
Beginning with his 1871 book, Wear and Tear, Mitchell began to lay before the medical world his famous “Rest Cure” for nervous maladies, which, in addition to bed rest, prescribed massage, electrotherapy, and dietary changes for the aggrieved. In time, the rest cure was recognized as a valuable therapy by the American medical profession and was hailed by European researchers, Sigmund Freud and Jean Martin Charcot. His other important books to advance the concept of the rest cure were Fat and Blood (1877), Lectures on the Diseases of the Nervous System, Especially in Women (1881), and Clinical Lessons on Nervous Diseases (1897). In addition to his medical practice and scientific research, Mitchell was a professor at the Philadelphia Polyclinic and College for Graduates in Medicine. As a trustee of the University of Pennsylvania, from 1875 until the time of his death, he worked to expand facilities for medical instruction and to establish the school of hygiene. He was a fellow and president of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, a member of the National Academy of Science, and an honorary or corresponding member of a number of foreign medical societies. He received honorary degrees from several prominent institutions, including Harvard, Princeton, Jefferson Medical College, University of Edinburgh, and the University of Bologna. His friends included some of the leading medical minds of the era, including William Osler and W.H. Welch.
While his professional activities would have exhausted the energies of most men, Mitchell was also a prolific author of poetry, stories, and novels. Although his literary works are not often read today, such was his success as an author during his lifetime that his name would be still be remembered today, even if he had never treated a single psychiatric patient or published a single scientific paper. Many of his works met with popular acclaim, and he received critical praise from such leading men of letters as William Dean Howells, George Meredith, James Whitcomb Riley, Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Greenleaf Whittier, and James Russell Lowell.
His first literary appearance in a book came in 1864, with The Children’s Hour, cowritten by Elizabeth Stevenson for the benefit of the Sanitary Commission. Three years later, he published the first book under his own name, another juvenile: The Wonderful Stories of Fuz-Buz the Fly and Mother Grabem the Spider. His first published story, and his first literary work for adults was “The Case of George Dedlow,” printed in the Atlantic Monthly in July, 1866. This fictional account of a Civil War soldier who lost all of his limbs was so realistic that many readers sent donations to the hospital where “George Dedlow” was supposedly being treated. In 1880, Mitchell’s issued his first book-length work of fiction for adults, Hephzibah Guinness (containing the title novelette and two other stories). His first book of poems, The Hill of Stones, was issued in 1883. Two years later, he published his first full-length novel, In War Time. Numerous novels and collections of poetry followed, the most successful and best remembered of which was Hugh Wynne, Free Quaker (1899), a work of historical fiction set during the Revolutionary War. Other works of historical fiction include The Adventures of Francois (the author’s favorite of his own books), Constance Trescot, Westways, and The Red City. Mitchell is also remembered for his character studies, including those to be found in the aptly titled, Characteristics. Of special note was his depiction of women with psychological problems, including Octopia Darnell in Roland Blake and Sybil Maywood in Dr. North and His Friends. The latter character was “probably the first example of dual personality in American literature” (DAB).
Mitchell was married to Mary Middleton Elwyn in 1858. She gave birth to two sons before dying of diphtheria in 1862. In 1875, he remarried, to Mary Cadwalader (d. 1914). With her, he fathered a daughter, Maria Gouverneur Mitchell (b. 1876), who died of diphtheria in 1898.
In addition to works by and about Mitchell, the collection contains a number of items written by or concerning other members of his family, who were themselves noted Philadelphians and may here be introduced.
John Kearsley Mitchell I (1793-1858), father of Silas Weir Mitchell, was also a prominent physician. He was born in Shepherdstown, Virginia (present day West Virginia), and educated in Scotland, where his father, also a doctor, was born. After returning to America, he studied at the University of Pennsylvania, and received his M.D. in 1819. After working for a time in the Far East as a ship’s surgeon, he settled in Philadelphia in 1822 and married Sarah Matilda Henry (b. 1800). He was appointed lecturer at the Philadelphia Medical Institute in 1824, and subsequently became chair of chemistry at the school. In 1833, he became professor of chemistry at the Franklin Institute, where he conducted important researches on carbonic acid. In 1841, he was appointed professor of theory and practice at Jefferson Medical College, and thereafter devoted himself to medical pursuits. In addition to his teaching duties, he was a visiting physician to the Pennsylvania Hospital and city hospitals, and was commended by the city for his labors during the smallpox epidemic of 1825 and the cholera outbreak of 1832. He also published on various medical subjects, and “was the first to describe the spinal arthopathies (1831)…. He left an essay `On the Cryptogamous Origin of Malarious and Epidemical Fevers’ (1849), which was the first brief for the parasitic etiology of the disease on a priori grounds – a vigorous, logical argument which, as pure theory goes, ranks with Henle’s essay on miasms and contagia (1820). A collection of essays, including a paper on animal magnetism, was published in Philadelphia in 1859, by his distinguished son.” –Kelly and Burrage. He was a member of the American Medical Association, the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, and the American Philosophical Society. He also served as physician and president of the St. Andrew’s Society of Philadelphia and as grand master of the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania.
John Kearsley Mitchell II (1859-1917), the eldest son of Silas Weir Mitchell, followed three generations of family tradition and became a physician. He earned his M.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1883 and became resident physician at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and at Episcopal Hospital. Later, following his father, he served at the Philadelphia Orthopedic Hospital; first as an assistant to William Osler and subsequently as a visiting surgeon. In 1895, he published an important study, Remote Consequences of Injuries of the Nerves, and Their Treatment, in which he reexamined patients treated by his father. His other works included Self Help for Nervous Women. Familiar Talks on Economy in Nervous Expenditure (1909).
Langdon Elywn Mitchell (1862-1935), the younger son of Silas Weir Mitchell, followed his father’s literary predilections, and became a successful playwright and poet. After studying at the law schools of Harvard and Columbia universities, he practiced for a brief period in Philadelphia. At the same time, his first literary works were brought to the press, beginning with the pseudonymously published, Sylvian and Other Poems (1885). His first play to be performed on the stage, Deborah, made its debut in London in 1892. The following year, he had his second London debut, with In the Season. His breakthrough play, bringing him financial success and critical acclaim, was Becky Sharp. It ran for two years on the New York stage (1899-1900), was revived in 1929, and, in 1935, was the first film to be produced in technicolor. In 1906, Mitchell had two further theatrical hits with The Kreutzer Sonata and The New York Idea. The latter play “is witty and highly civilized and remains the sole American comedy of this period to continue to elicit admiration when read or performed” (ANB). He was also a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, a lecturer on poetry at George Washington University, and a Mask & Wig Professor of Playwriting at the University of Pennsylvania.
In 1892, Langdon Mitchell married Marion Lea (1861-1944), a Philadelphia native, who found success as an actress on the London stage. She is best remembered for coproducing and starring in the first English adaptation of Ibsen’s play, Hedda Gabler.
S. Weir Mitchell, physician, novelist, and poet, was born in Philadelphia on 15 February 1829. Mitchell was the son of John Kearsley Mitchell (1798-1858), a physician and lecturer at Jefferson Medical College, and Matilda Henry Mitchell (1800-1872). S. Weir Mitchell entered the University of Pennsylvania at the age of fifteen but withdrew during his senior year when he became ill. In 1848, he enrolled in Jefferson Medical College, and by March 1850, at the age of twenty- one, Mitchell had completed his medical degree.
In the fall of 1850, S. Weir Mitchell departed for Europe with his sister, Elizabeth. Elizabeth stayed with her younger sister in England, and Mitchell settled in Paris to study medicine. During this influential year, Mitchell dined with Sir James Paget and Edward Jenner, studied with Claude Bernard, and purchased his own microscope. After a year in Paris, he travelled with his sister in Italy and Switzerland. At the request of their ailing father, Mitchell and Elizabeth returned home in the fall of 1851.
Upon returning to Philadelphia, Mitchell set up a demanding schedule for himself; he assisted his father during the day and worked in the laboratory in the evenings. It was during this time that Mitchell conducted experiments with snake venom and first became interested in neurology. By 1855, John Kearsley Mitchell had retired, and Mitchell became responsible for the support of his parents and siblings. A few years later, Mitchell started a family of his own. He married Mary Middleton Elwyn in 1858, and the couple had two children, John K. Mitchell (1859-1917) and Langdon Elwyn Mitchell (1862-1935). In 1862, Mitchell's wife died of diphtheria.
During the Civil War years, Mitchell worked as a contract surgeon in Turner's Lane Hospital in Philadelphia, an army hospital for nervous diseases. Turner's Lane was an ideal location for Mitchell to pursue his interest in nerve diseases and wounds of the nerves. Mitchell was joined by William W. Keen and George R. Morehouse in conducting extensive neurological research at the hospital. The three physicians took careful notes, wrote detailed case studies, and published the results of their findings in numerous articles and books, including Reflex Paralysis (1864) and Gunshot Wounds and Other Injuries of Nerves (1864). Their pioneering work was praised for its accuracy, thoroughness, and wealth of statistics. In 1864, having received some degree of notoriety from his work at Turner's Lane, Mitchell resigned as a contract surgeon. Known as an authority on nervous diseases, he soon limited his practice to this specialty. In the early 1870s, Mitchell was appointed to the Philadelphia Orthopaedic Hospital and Infirmary for Nervous Diseases where he continued his neurological research and developed innovative treatments for patients with nervous ailments. During this period, Mitchell discovered a disease called erythromelalgia, or Weir Mitchell's disease. Mitchell also discovered the connection between eyestrain and headaches, and he introduced the "rest cure", a revolutionary method of treatment for patients, especially women, who suffered from hysteria and neurasthenia. Mitchell continued to publish medical works during the 1870s, including Injuries of Nerves and their Consequences (1872), which was still used by the French as late as World War I; Wear and Tear (1873), a book on overwork and mental fatigue written for a general audience; and Fat and Blood (1877), which describes Mitchell's rest cure treatment. In terms of his personal life, Mitchell married Mary Cadwalader in 1875, and his daughter, Maria Gouverneur, was born in 1876.
By 1880, at the age of fifty, Mitchell embarked on a serious literary career. He wrote poetry and several novels, including In War Time (1882), Roland Blake (1886), Hugh Wynne (1896), Dr. North and his Friends (1900), Circumstance (1901), Constance Trescott (1905), and Westways (1913). Having secured his reputation as a "literary physician", Mitchell became a popular figure both at home and abroad; he corresponded regularly with such notable figures as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Andrew Carnegie, William Dean Howells, Sir William Osler, and George Meredith. Mitchell frequently gave speeches before social clubs and professional organizations, and when his busy schedule allowed, he travelled extensively in the United States, Europe, Japan, and Egypt.
S. Weir Mitchell was actively involved in numerous local and national medical societies. He was founder and first president of the American Neurological Society and first president of the Philadelphia Neurological Society. Mitchell also served presidential terms for the Association of American Physicians, the American Association of Physicians and Pathologists, the Congress of American Physicians and Surgeons, and the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Mitchell's honors and achievements include honorary memberships in the British Medical Association, the American Academy of Medicine, and the Royal Academy of Medicine in Rome. He was awarded honorary degrees from Harvard University, the University of Bologna, the University of Edinburgh, Princeton University, the University of Toronto, Jefferson Medical College, and Johns Hopkins University. In 1906, S. Weir Mitchell received the Franklin Medal.
Scope and Contents
The Silas Weir Mitchell collection contains material related to the personal and professional activities of Philadelphia-area physician and author Silas Weir Mitchell, as well as members of his family. This collection consists of selected manuscripts, photographs, and published material that have been separated from a larger collection by Norman Kane (A.B.A.A., Emeritus), and acquired by the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.
This collection is arranged into five series; “Letters and autographs, 1888-1952, undated,” “Works concerning the Mitchell family, 1858-1914,” “Photographs, undated,” “Book and periodical contributions by members of the Mitchell family, 1839-1840, 1992,” and “Collector’s research and resources, 1914-1992, undated.” In addition to the series-level description found below, detailed descriptions of each item may be found under the relevant entry in the container list. These descriptions provide significant contextual information for each item, and are authored by David J. Eilenberger as part of a pre-acquisition catalogue.
Series I, “Letters and autographs, 1888-1952, undated,” contains written correspondence and other documents authored or received by members of the Mitchell family. The majority of this series consists of letters authored by Silas Weir Mitchell, but includes items authored by Langdon Mitchell and John Kearsley Mitchell, as well as several items sent by individuals outside the family. This series also includes several non-letter items bearing the signatures of Mitchell family members, including a set of four Mahogony Tree menus which also bear the signatures of other notable Philadelphians. This series is arranged alphabetically by author, and further arranged chronologically.
Series II, “Works concerning the Mitchell family, 1858-1914,” contains published or commercially printed works dedicated to, discussing, or featuring the Mitchell family. This series contains a copy of Harper’s Weekly featuring a poem authored by Silas Weir Mitchell, proceedings of a Masonic lodge concerning the death of John K. Mitchell, a copy of the Philadelphia Public Ledger featuring a portrait of S.W. Mitchell, music dedicated to John Kearsley Mitchell, and an advertising broadside featuring S.W. Mitchell’s “Hugh Wynne, Free Quaker.” This series is arranged alphabetically by subject.
Series III, “Photographs, undated,” contains four albums containing multiple photographs. The subjects of these photographs are primarily members of the Mitchell family, their friends, and events of import, and were the property of Silas Weir Mitchell and Marion Lea Mitchell. Though some photographs have been annotated, the collections compiler has also provided item-level description of each photograph. These descriptions can be found under each individual album in the container list below. The albums are arranged numerically according to the numbers assigned to them by the compiler.
Series IV, “Book and periodical contributions by members of the Mitchell family, 1839-1840, 1992,” contains published and printed works authored by members of the Mitchell family. Included in this series are three items; “Oh! Fly to the Prarie” and “The Prarie Lea,” music composed by John Kearsley Mitchell, and a written appreciation of Samuel Lewis, MD, published by the College of Physicians of Philadelphia and including remarks by Silas Weir Mitchell. This series is arranged alphabetically by author.
Series V, “Collector’s research and resources, 1914-1992, undated,” contains resources and materials accumulated by one or more collectors of the Silas Weir Mitchell papers during the process of locating and acquiring manuscript material for the collection. Items in this series include bibliographies, publisher’s catalogs, handwritten notes, correspondence, and material concerning an exhibition of Mitchell’s works at the Free Library of Philadelphia central branch. This series consists of one folder.
Finding Aid Author
Finding aid prepared by Compiler: Norman Kane Biographical. Note/Item-level Description: David J. Eilenberger. Finding Aid: Brian Stewart.
Separated Materials note
Printed volumes acquired as part of the larger collection have been catalogued by the College of Physicians of Philadelphia Library.
Three-dimensional objects acquired as part of the larger collection are managed by the College of Physicians of Philadelphia's Mütter Museum.
This collection was compiled by Norman Kane (A.B.A.A Emeritus), and purchased by the College of Physicians of Philadelphia from The Americanist (ABAA). The collection was received on November 5, 2010.