Civil War Hospital Ship

The U.S.S. Red Rover, a captured Confederate vessel, was refitted as a hospital ship.

Evolution of Civil War Nursing

The evolution of the nursing profession in America was accelerated by the Civil War.

The Practice of Surgery

Amputations were the most common surgery performed during the Civil War.

Army Medical Museum and Library

Surgeon-General William Hammond established The Army Medical Museum in 1862. It was the first federal medical research facility.

Civil War Amputation Kit

Many Civil War surgical instruments had handles of bone, wood or ivory. They were never sterilized.

Monday, June 29, 2015

William A. Hammond, Surgeon General

Compiled by James M. Phalen, Colonel, Medical Corps, U.S. Army retired

WILLIAM ALEXANDER HAMMOND (Aug. 28, 1828 -Jan. 5, 1900), Surgeon General, April 25, 1862 - August 18, 1864, was born at Annapolis, Md., the son of Dr. John W. and Sarah (Pinkney) Hammond, members of two old Maryland families of Anne Arundel County.  When he was about five years old the family moved to Harrisburg, Pa., where his early education was completed at a local academy.

He began the study of medicine at sixteen and at twenty was given the degree of M. D. by the medical department of the University of the City of New York.  After a year of internship in the Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia, he settled in Saco, Me., for the practice of medicine.  He stayed there but a few months when he took the examination for the army medical service and was appointed as assistant surgeon on July 29, 1849.  Shortly thereafter he was sent with a body of troops to New Mexico, where during the following three years he served at nine different posts and was engaged a large part of the time in operations against the Indians.

After a sick leave spent in study in Europe he was stationed at West Point and later at Fort Meade, Florida, and Fort Riley, Kansas.  While at Fort Riley he served as medical director of a large force operating against the Sioux Indians and was medical officer with an expedition which located a road to Bridger's Pass in the Rocky Mountains.  From Fort Riley he was transferred to Fort Mackinac in Michigan.  During this first ten years of service he devoted his spare hours to physiological and botanical investigation and in 1857 he published an exhaustive essay "Experimental Research Relative to the Nutritive Value and Physiological Effects of Albumen Starch and Gum, when Singly and Exclusively Used as a Food", which was awarded the American Medical Association Prize.

His growing reputation attracted the attention of the authorities of the University of Maryland and on October 31, 1860, he resigned from the army to accept the chair of anatomy and physiology in the medical school in Baltimore.  Here he taught with marked success and practiced his profession until the outbreak of the Civil War.

As surgeon to the Baltimore Infirmary he attended the wounded men of the 6th Massachusetts Infantry, who while marching to the defense of Washington were fired upon by a Baltimore mob.  He resigned his professorship and on May 28, 1861, he reentered the army as an assistant surgeon at the foot of the list upon which he had formerly held high place.

His first Civil War service was as medical purveyor at Frederick, Md.  Later he organized the Camden Street Hospital in Baltimore and was then transferred to the command of General Rosecrans in West Virginia where he was made inspector of camps and hospitals.  His work in this field attracted the favorable attention of the Sanitary Commission, which, dissatisfied with the administration of the medical service of the army, urged the removal of the incumbent head and the appointment of Hammond in his place.  Surgeon General Finley's break with Secretary Stanton brought the opportunity, and despite strong backing for the acting Surgeon General, Colonel R.C. Wood, and a candidate put forward by Secretary Stanton, Hammond was appointed Surgeon General on April 25, 1862.  Colonel Wood failing in his greater ambition, asked for the appointment as assistant Surgeon General, which upon Hammond's approval was given him.  Shortly, however, friction developed between the two and Wood was relieved from duty in the office, though he retained the title of assistant Surgeon General until October 31, 1865.  Major Joseph R. Smith was brought into the office to fill Wood's position.  The year and a half of Hammond's actual tenure of the office was marked by an administration of high efficiency and by many important accomplishments.  These included a new and vastly enlarged supply table and the provision of hospital clothing for patients.

There was a general reorganization of boards of examiners for entrance to the corps and increased standards for applicants.  A new and complete system of hospital reports was introduced, furnishing an amount of information later invaluable in the preparation of the medical history of the war.  On May 21, 1862, he directed the organization of the Army Medical Museum and the collection of specimens and material for its exhibition.  It was during his term that the most definite program was made in the construction and equipment of military hospitals.

That he was a man of vision is evidenced by the highly constructive recommendations that he made, all of which in the fullness of time have come into realization.  He recommended the formation of a permanent hospital corps, the establishment of an army medical school, the establishment of a permanent general hospital in Washington, the autonomy of the medical department in the construction of hospitals and the transportation of supplies, and the institution of a military medical laboratory.

It was inevitable, however, that the masterful personality of Hammond would excite the disapproval of such an autocratic spirit as Secretary Stanton.  Their official and personal relations early became strained and there was constant friction in the conduct of business between the two officers.  This situation culminated in orders issued in the latter part of August 1863 relieving Hammond from charge of the Washington office and directing him to duty inspecting sanitary conditions in the Department of the South with his headquarters in New Orleans.

On Sept. 3, 1863, medical inspector general Joseph K. Barnes was placed in charge of the Surgeon General's office.  The anomalous situation in which he was placed caused General Hammond to demand the restoration of his office or trial by court-martial.  In consequence he was tried on charges and specifications alleging his involvement in irregularities incident to the purchase of medical supplies.  The prosecution was pushed with bitterness and apparent personal animosity.  It is said that the finding of the court-martial was for acquittal, but that this finding was disapproved and a reconsideration directed which resulted in a verdict of guilty and a sentence of dismissal from the army.  The dismissal took effect August 18, 1864.

Upon leaving the army Hammond found himself in straitened circumstances from the expense of his trial.  With the help of friends he was able to establish himself in practice in New York, and in a short time he became a leader in the practice and teaching of neurology, a specialty then in its infancy.  Soon after his arrival in New York he was appointed lecturer on nervous and mental diseases in the College of Physicians and Surgeons.  He resigned this position in 1867 to accept the professorship of the same subjects which bad been created for him in the faculty of Bellevue Hospital Medical College.  In 1874 he transferred to a like professorship in the medical department of the University of the City of New York.  At other times he was on the faculty of the University of Vermont at Burlington and of the Post Graduate Medical School of New York, of which he was one of the founders.

In 1878, then at the height of his success and popularity, he started a campaign for vindication of his conduct of the office of Surgeon General.  Under an act of Congress approved. March 15, 1878 (20 Stat. 511), he was restored to the army and placed upon the retired list as Surgeon General with the grade of brigadier general, without pay or allowances, on August 27, 1879.  In 1888 he moved to Washington where he established a large sanatorium for the care of cases of nervous and mental diseases.  It became necessary for him gradually to limit his professional work on account of a cardiac ailment from which he died at his Washington home on Jan. 5, 1900.  During his later years he became much interested in the therapeutic employment of animal extracts and did much to instruct the medical profession in their use.

Throughout his career Hammond was a facile writer.  While carrying the responsibilities of Surgeon General he found time to write a "Treatise on Hygiene, with Special Reference to the Military Service" (1863).  The most noteworthy of his other medical works were: "On Wakefulness: With an Introductory Chapter on the Physiology of Sleep" (1866), "Sleep and Its Derangements" (1869), "Physics and Physiology of Spiritualism" (1871), and "Insanity in its Medical Relations" (1883).  In 1871 he published his "Treatise on Diseases of the Nervous System", a well written book largely based on the lectures of Charcot.  This was announced as "the first text-book of nervous diseases in the English language."

He was also a playwrite and novelist.  For a time he was editor of the "Maryland and Virginia Journal", published in Richmond and Baltimore.  In 1867 he established the Quarterly Journal of Psychological Medicine and Medical Jurisprudence, of which he was editor until 1875.  He also cooperated (1867-1869) in the founding and editing of the "New York Medical Journal" and of the "Journal of Nervous and Mental Diseases" (1867-1883).

General Hammond was a pioneer in field of nervous and mental diseases in the United States.  American neurology began with the Civil War, from the experiences gained by Hammond, S. Weir Mitchell, and William W. Keen.  He was a dominant personality in any field he entered, attracting a following and developing active enemies.  From a certain penchant for theatrical action he could not escape entirely from a reputation for charlatanry.  Personally he was an uncommonly large man, six feet two inches in height, and of two hundred and fifty pounds weight.  He had a powerful voice, a pleasing delivery, and a flow of language which made him a popular speaker.  He was married twice: in July 1849 to Helen Nisbet, daughter of Michael Nisbet of Philadelphia, and in 1886 to Esther T. Chapin.

Sources:  H. E. Brown, Medical Department of the U. S. Army from 1775 to 1873 (1873);  P. M. Ashburn, History of the Medical Department of the U. S. Army (1929);  The Post Graduate, N. Y., May 1900;  J. E. Pilcher, Surgeon Generals of the Army (1905);  Kelly and Burrage, American Medical Biographies (1920); Dictionary of American Biography, Vol. VIII (1932).

[Extracted from "Chiefs of the Medical Department, U.S. Army 1775-1940, Biographical Sketches,"  Army Medical Bulletin, no. 52, April 1940, pp. 42-46]

From: history.amedd.army.mil

Clara Barton: Heroine of Nursing and Record Keeping

Excerpted from: blog.tavbooks.com

“We have captured one fort—Gregg—and one charnel house—Wagner—and we have built one cemetery, Morris Island. The thousand little sandhills that in the pale moonlight are a thousand headstones, and the restless ocean waves that roll and breakup on the whitened beach sing an eternal requiem to all the toll-worn gallant dead who sleep beside.”
-Clara Barton, Morris Island

Born in Massachusetts in 1821, Clara Barton grew up to be one of the most distinguished nurses in the United States. Perhaps best known for founding the American Red Cross, Barton also played a pivotal role during the Civil War—not only as a nurse, but also as a record keeper.

Barton first came to Washington, DC in 1854, where she took a position at the US Patent Office. She worked there for three years, until her abolitionist views made her to controversial and she returned to New England. But 1861 saw her back in the capitol, and when the Civil War broke out Barton was one of the first volunteers to arrive at the Washington Infirmary.

After Barton’s father died, she left the city hospital to care for soldiers in the field. What she found here reflected the scene in battlefields all over the country. There was a dizzying shortage of medical supplies, and Barton purchased supplies with donations and her own money. (Congress would later reimburse her for these expenses.)

Barton also quickly discovered what would turn into one of the greatest challenges in the nation’s recovery: there were no processes for documenting the wounded, the dead, the buried; no protocol for notifying families if a loved one had been wounded or killed. Barton immediately set about collecting as much information as possible. She would post lists of the missing and solicit input directly from the soldiers.

The Nation Faces a New Challenge

It became readily apparent that the isolated efforts of individuals like Whitman and Barton would not be enough. In March 1865, Abraham Lincoln appointed Barton General Correspondent for the Friends of Paroled Prisoners. Her mission was to respond to inquiries from family members who were searching for loved ones. To do this, Barton sifted through all the prison rolls, hospital records, and casualty lists she could get her hands on. These documents weren’t always accurate.

Take, for instance, the case of John Shuman. He joined the Union Army in August 1862, but died of dysentery in August 1863. Shuman left behind an extensive correspondence with his family, which offers a fascinating glimpse into Civil War soldiers’ daily lives. Though the family name appears to be “Shuman” in the letters, the local census lists the family as “Shurman.” Furthermore the office responsible for removing John’s remains identified him as Shuman, but the grave marker and index at the cemetery list him as “Sherman.” The history of John’s infantry, published in 1895, calls him “John Shewman.”

Many soldiers in the war were not so lucky; they were not identified. Whitman and Barton again led the charge, independently insisting on the identification and marking of soldiers’ graves wherever they could be tracked down. Eventually it was thanks to their efforts that our national cemetery system was developed and implemented.

Barton would go on to distinguish herself as the founder of the American Red Cross and a true pioneer in the field of nursing. But her contributions during the Civil War were an equally significant accomplishment.

Anna Morris Ellis Holstein

From: blog.tavbooks.com

Anna Morris Holstein may have been the last person you’d expect to see traveling with soldiers. She and her husband, William H. Holstein, were quite wealthy. But they still had a strong sense of duty. William had served in the Pennsylvania militia during Lee’s 1862 invasion. And when the couple witnessed the carnage at Antietam, they felt called to serve. Anna noted, “we have no right to the comforts of our home, while so many of the noblest of our land renounce theirs.”

The couple enlisted with the US Sanitation Commission. Anna struggled with the grisly realities of war and later admitted that she was of little use till she could gain control of her composure and stop crying. Even after she was more experienced, Anna would succumb to emotion when she received “earnest thanks” from a soldier.

After the war, publisher JB Lippincott capitalized on the hunger for war stories, first with "Hospital Sketches", then less successfully with "Notes of Hospital Life" (1864). Anna’s "Three Years in Field Hospitals of the Army of the Potomac" fit the bill to continue the trend.

Image 1: The Holsteins (center) on site at a field hospital

Image 2: Anna Morris Ellis Holstein

The Army Medical Department Civilian Corps: A Legacy of Distinguished Service

By Major Kenneth M. Koyle, AMEDD Center of History and Heritage, 9 March 2011

Civilians have played a vital role in Army medicine from the very beginning. In fact, virtually all medical functions were provided by civilians in the first few decades of the Army’s existence. The history of civilian support to the Army Medical Department (AMEDD) is an integral and inseparable component of our overall medical history.

On 27 July 1775 the Continental Congress established a medical department to provide care for the nascent Continental Army. Although it outlined a rudimentary system of care for the military, the legislation creating the medical department did not designate military rank for medical personnel, nor did it specify the correlation of the department to the larger army. This ambiguity left a corps of pseudo-civilian medical providers to carve out their own place in the Army structure, and spawned counterproductive infighting and confusion that persisted throughout the American Revolution and the subsequent War of 1812.

Despite the challenges of working in this ill-defined system, the civilian cadre of the early AMEDD made significant strides in planning and organizing battlefield medicine, preventive care, and basic logistical support for the Army. Under the purview of a Director General (antecedent of the Surgeon General), the surgeons, assistant surgeons, apothecaries, and purveyors worked tirelessly to overcome obstacles and provide the best care possible. These personnel served in a peculiar, indeterminate state—not exactly soldiers, because they had neither rank nor uniforms, but not exactly civilians, because they were subject to the rules, regulations, and restrictions of the Army. Their pay was meager and the conditions of service were arduous. According to one surgeon who served on the Canadian frontier during the War of 1812, most medical men were only willing to serve for a single year in these circumstances, and then only because of curiosity and a thirst for adventure.1

In 1818 Congress finally established a permanent Medical Department with a Surgeon General at its head, although neither he nor the surgeons and assistant surgeons under him held military rank. By 1840 the military surgeons had a standardized uniform and their pay was approaching that of the line officers. Although they were commissioned, they still held no military rank and were not entitled to salutes. This indistinct status was clarified in February 1847, when Congress granted official rank to medical personnel. From this point forward there would be a distinction between the military surgeons and their civilian colleagues, but their roles would often merge and their military functions were frequently indistinguishable.

The contract surgeon was the most prevalent manifestation of civilians serving the AMEDD in the 19th century. These civilian doctors were hired to fill shortages throughout the medical system, often with service at isolated frontier posts or other austere locations. Field commanders were authorized to hire contract surgeons as needed to provide adequate medical care for their units. Their numbers rose steadily over the ensuing years, and during the Civil War more than 5,500 civilian doctors served with the Medical Department. Many of these contract surgeons performed heroically in action with the units they supported. Perhaps the most striking example is the story of Mary Walker, a contract surgeon who served at Bull Run, Chickamauga, Richmond, and Atlanta, and spent time as a prisoner of war. In 1865 Dr. Walker became the first woman to receive the Medal of Honor, and she did it as a civilian in the Army Medical Department. To this day she remains the only female recipient of the award.

From: history.amedd.army.mil

Surgeon James H. Thompson's Diary

From: milwaukeehistory.net

James H. Thompson started his Civil War career as a surgeon in the 12th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment and was assigned in 1864 to the Point Lookout prisoner of war camp in Maryland. Thompson later served at the Soldiers’ Home and had a private practice in Milwaukee.  Among the items donated to the Milwaukee County Historical Society from this doctor was a small, worn, leather-bound journal with sixty-two colored pencil sketches of what life was like for a Confederate prisoner.

It appears that one of the Confederate prisoners (“Johnny Reb J. J. O.”) gave this journal to Thompson sometime in 1864.  Why a prisoner would do this is a bit of a mystery.  Perhaps J. J. O. trusted the doctor and knew he would take care of it.  Or maybe it was a payment of sorts for treatment that Thompson provided.  The sketches are still vibrant and crisp considering their age and offer the viewer a glimpse of the horrible conditions at Point Lookout, Maryland.  By many accounts, Point Lookout was the worst of the Union prisons for captured Confederate soldiers.  Established in 1863, it had a wall fourteen feet high that surrounded the forty acres that was meant to hold 10,000 prisoners.  Union officials typically crammed between 12,000 and 20,000 men into this barren space with no barracks to shelter the men from the heat and cold.  It will never be known for sure, but it is estimated that between 4,000 and 14,000 men died in this harsh environment.

J. J. O.’s etchings give the viewer glimpses of what the prisoner’s life was like in this camp. Depictions include men with threadbare clothing and no shoes looking for ways to supplement their meager rations.  They resort to skinning and eating rats.  Others were forced to pull discarded food out of the cookhouse slop barrel and eat it to stay alive.  Interaction between the prisoners and their African American guards are also portrayed in less than flattering sketches.  To no one’s surprise, they are often depicted as cruel masters over the Confederates.  In others, the guards are almost cartoonish who are outwitted by the white prisoners.

The artist, J. J.O., has given us a rare look at the less than glorious side of the Civil War, and the Milwaukee County Historical Society is fortunate that Dr. James H. Thompson decided to share this part of history with us.

Colonel John Shaw Billings: A Many-Sided Genius

By James M. Phalen, Colonel, U. S. Army, Retired

The Army Medical Bulletin, Number 60, January 1942: Beyond question, the name of John Shaw Billings belongs with the most outstanding among the many gifted men who have held membership in the Army Medical Corps. Though his works may not be familiar to the present generation, at the time of his retirement from the Government service he was undoubtedly the foremost medical man of this country if not of the world. Certainly no other American physician ever attained the international prominence that Billings held in his last years at the Army Medical Library.

He was born on March 12, 1838, on a farm in Cotton Township, Switzerland County, in southeastern Indiana. His father, James Billings, born at Saratoga, New York, was a descendant of William Billings, who emigrated from Taunton, England, to Lancaster, Massachusetts, about 1654. His mother, Abby Shaw, of Raynham, Massachusetts, was descended from John Howland, one of the Pilgrims of Plymouth. The family moved to Rhode Island in 1843, but five years later returned to Indiana, to Allensville, where the father became postmaster and operated a general store. At the age of fourteen, the son entered Miami University at Oxford, Ohio, where he graduated in 1857. Following some tutoring and lecturing at the university he entered the Medical College of Ohio, at Cincinnati, in the fall of 1858. When given his medical degree in 1860, he presented a thesis on The surgical treatment of epilepsy which was a creditable survey of the operations then employed and their indications. He settled in Cincinnati for the practice of surgery and was made demonstrator of anatomy at the medical school.

Talk of secession was stirring the southern states. South Carolina began the movement in December and hostilities began in April of the next year. In September 1861 Billings went to Washington for the examination for the regular corps. He was successful but no vacancy existed, so he was appointed a contract surgeon and assigned to duty in Union Hospital in Georgetown. A skillful operator at this time, he did much of the surgical work of the hospital. He developed a reputation for his surgical treatment of urethral strictures.

On April 16, 1862, he was appointed a first lieutenant, and on May 9 he was directed to take charge of the establishment and operation of Cliffburne Hospital, in an old cavalry barracks on the hills back of Georgetown. Union Hospital was abandoned and all equipment and patients moved to this new hospital. With the use of hospital tents, Billings soon had a hospital of one thousand beds.

In late August he received orders for transfer to a new general hospital in West Philadelphia, later known as Satterlee General Hospital. Before joining his new post he was married on September 3, 1862, in St. John’s Church in Georgetown, to Kate M. Stevens, daughter of the Hon. Hester L. Stevens, a former Congressman from Michigan. Billings served as executive officer at the West Philadelphia hospital until the end of March 1863, when he was ordered to the Army of the Potomac, at the time grouped around the village of Falmouth, Virginia, across the Rappahannock from Fredericksburg. Reporting to Medical Director Jonathan Letterman, he was assigned to the 11th Infantry in Sykes’ Division of Meade’s Corps. The Army, under General Hooker, was preparing for a turning movement by way of the upper fords of the Rappahannock and the Rapidan, with a holding attack upon Marye’s Heights back of Fredericksburg, to keep Lee’s army occupied at that point. This maneuver, which resulted in the battle of Chancellorsville, was begun on April 27. Meade’s Corps, crossing the rivers, took a leading part in the battle which filled the first three days of May.

Billings served with the division hospital, alternately occupied with operating upon the wounded and moving them and the hospital equipment to the rear. He speaks feelingly of the difficulties of operating a field hospital and transporting the wounded with a retreating army. The difficulties were the greater because of the alleged inadvisability of bringing the ambulance trains across the river fords. In contrast, the attack on Marye’s Heights was most efficiently served by the ambulance corps.

On May 16, Billings was transferred to the 7th Infantry in the same division. With it he accompanied the Army’s march northward, beginning on June 12, paralleling that of Lee’s army by way of the Shenandoah Valley. The Federal forces passed through Manassas, Centerville, Leesburg, Edward’s Ferry, and Frederick in Maryland. July 1 found Billings with the regiment at Hanover, Pennsylvania, and the whole Fifth Corps nearby. Word of the beginning battle of Gettysburg reached the corps that day with orders to march at once. On the morning of July 2 the Fifth Corps took over the left wing of the Union front around Round Top During the last two days of the battle, Billings operated the field hospital for his division close up behind Round Top at first, and later to the east of Rock Creek on the Baltimore Pike. Sykes’ Division sustained a loss of about thirty percent, causing days of work without end for the hospital.

Compelled to take sick leave, Billings rejoined the 7th Infantry in August, and went with the regiment to New York City for duty in connection with the draft vote. Assigned to temporary duty in McDougal Hospital at Fort Schuyler, he was later assigned to this hospital and shortly thereafter was transferred to command of DeCamp Hospital on David’s Island. Transferred from here to the Convalescent Hospital on Bedloe’s Island he was of a commission that sailed on February 5, 1864, to Haiti for the purpose of repatriating several hundred negroes who had been sent to form a colony on the Isle de Vache.

Returned to Alexandria, Virginia, on March 20, Billings asked for relief from hospital duty and assignment with the Army of the Potomac. Reporting to General Meade’s headquarters at Brandy Station, Virginia, he was assigned to duty as assistant to Medical Director Thomas A. McParlin. In this capacity he went through the Wilderness campaign and the subsequent operations up to the investment of Petersburg. On August 22, 1864, he was ordered to Washington, where was maintained a branch office of the medical director of the Army of the Potomac. He served in this office until December 27 when he was transferred to the Office of The Surgeon General. There he remained for over thirty years, until retirement in 1895.

Upon reporting, he was placed in charge “of the organization of the Veteran Reserve Corps of matters pertaining to contract physicians and to all property and disbursing accounts.”

For the next ten years his office hours were filled with the drudgery of requisitions, invoices and receipts, bills of lading, treasury allotments, and auditors’ decisions. After his office day he spent long hours over microscopy, comparative anatomy, the history of medicine, and the German language. In the field of microscopy he investigated the possible cryptogamic origin of certain cattle diseases and published his observations. In August 1868 The Surgeon General issued a circular calling for a detailed semiannual report upon the sanitary condition of his post from each station surgeon, including in the first report a description of the post itself with its buildings and surroundings. From these reports Billings compiled his Report on Barracks and Hospitals (1870) and later his Hygiene of the United States Army (1875). A tribute to his growing reputation was his assignment as a “consulting surgeon” to the Secretary of the Treasury, in 1869, to assist in the reorganization of the Marine Hospital Service. He served in this capacity until 1874. The Secretary gave great credit to Billings for the new organization based upon army standards and for its highly increased efficiency. By this time he was regarded the foremost authority on public hygiene in the country, with a further high reputation  in hospital construction.

Shortly after Billing’s detail in The Surgeon General’s Office he was given charge of the office library, with the property accountability involved. With the rapid growth of the library a clerical organization for its administration grew up in the main office in the Riggs Bank Building on Fifteenth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, while the library collection was housed in assigned space in the Army Medical Museum, the new name given the old Ford’s Theatre on Tenth Street, under the direct charge of Doctor Thomas A. Wise.

It was not until December 1883, when Billings was appointed curator of the Army Medical Museum and librarian of The Surgeon General’s Office, that the office of the library was moved to the Tenth Street location. In the meantime, the first catalogue of the library to bear his name was issued in 1873, and in 1876 he published the Specimen Fasciculus of a Catalogue of the National Medical Library. The enthusiastic reception of this work by the medical profession of the country spurred the work on the Index Catalogue, the first volume of which appeared in 1880. In this work Billings had for his invaluable assistant Dr. Robert Fletcher, who was appointed to the library on September 1, 1876, and who continued on the editorial work of the Catalogue until shortly before his death in 1912. This is no place to speak of the monumental character of this great work, nor of its epochal influence. The first series of the Catalogue, completed in 1895, will remain a more lasting tribute to Billings’ name than any monument of stone that will be raised in his memory.

With the passing years he had been advanced to a captaincy in the Medical Corps on July 28, 1866, to major on December 2, 1876, and to Lieutenant Colonel on June 16, 1894. He had been given the brevet of lieutenant colonel on March 13, 1865, for his service in the Civil War. In these same passing years the library had grown from a few thousand volumes until it ranked with the largest in the world.

In June 1876, Billings accepted the position of medical advisor to the trustees of the Johns Hopkins Fund, the purpose of which was the erection in Baltimore of a hospital which was to be the nucleus for a medical school for the University. Skipping details, Billings drew the ground plans for the hospital, made a tour of the famous hospitals of Europe and drew up a detailed memorandum upon the proposed scope of the institution, with a discussion of its departments and services. His plans were adopted practically without change. On account of the decision to build only with the income of the fund the hospital was not completed until May 1889, at a cost of somewhat over a million and a half dollars. Billings’ official connection with this work ended in August 1889. In the meantime, he was carefully drawing plans for the proposed medical school. He was instrumental in securing for the first members of the new faculty, Dr. William H. Welch, of Norfolk, Connecticut, in 1884, and Dr. William Osler, Professor of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, in 1889. He had much to do with the selection of the remaining brilliant men who made up the first faculty of the Johns Hopkins Medical School. He himself lectured at the school for a number of years on the history of medicine. Billings’ connection with hospital construction began with various post hospitals of the Army, and included a cooperation in the planning for the Marine Hospital Service, for the National Soldiers’ Home, for the Memphis City Hospital, and for the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston.

Shortly after the completion of his work on the Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1889, Billings was approached with a proposal that he go to Philadelphia to become director of the hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and of a laboratory of hygiene to be constructed, and that he become professor of hygiene on the University faculty. He accepted the offer with the provision that he should remain with the Washington library until the first series of the Index Catalogue was completed. Under this arrangement, he began, early in 1890, the plans for the laboratory, and, with the 1891-92 session, began his lecture courses on hygiene and vital statistics. The laboratory was completed in February 1892.

With the first series of the Index Catalogue completed in June 1895, and with thirty-three years of service to his credit, Billings was ready to retire from the Army and carry out in full his contract with the University of Pennsylvania. His retirement effected, he moved to Philadelphia in October 1895, where, however, his incumbency of the new post was of short duration.

Prior to May 1895, there existed in New York City three large public libraries, the Astor, the Lenox, and the Tilden, each the gift of an estate to the city. At this time an agreement for consolidation was effected, the combined collections to be known as the New York Public Library. The trustees of the new foundation voted to invite Colonel Billings to accept the post of superintendent. With the consent of the university authorities he resigned his professorship to take effect on June 1, 1896, and accepted the New York position for the same date.

The plans for the library contemplated the erection of a new central building and the establishment of numerous branch lending libraries throughout the city. Colonel Billings moved to New York in September 1896, and began at once upon the plans of administration for the institution. It was not until the spring of 1897 that the site for the new building had been secured, and in the meantime Billings had made careful examinations of the plans of the leading libraries of the United States and Europe. In April 1897, he drafted a pencil sketch for the proposed building, forming the basis upon which the final plans were made and upon which the library was ultimately completed. In the meantime he was faced with the gigantic task of reclassification and recataloguing the consolidated collection of books and pamphlets. In this work he used the system of the Army Medical Library of an author catalogue for official use and an alphabetical index catalogue of both authors and subjects for public use.

In 1900 there was a further consolidation of numerous free city circulating libraries with the New York Public Library, and, in 1901, Billings conducted the negotiations with Andrew Carnegie by which the latter provided something over five million dollars to furnish sixty-five city branches of the main library.

It was not until May 1911 that the new building was opened to the public, and Colonel Billings did not long survive the completion of his cherished plans. The death of his wife on August 19, 1912, was a serious blow to him. During the last two decades of his life he was the subject of two serious surgical conditions, which brought him to the operating table a number of times. A cancer of the lip developed in 1890, which was controlled after two operations. In 1900 he was first operated upon for biliary calculus, and in 1906 the gall bladder was removed. His death on March 11, 1913, was due to pneumonia, following an operation for urinary calculus. After funeral services at St. John’s Church in Georgetown, on March 14, the remains were interred in Arlington Cemetery.

It is impossible in a few words to do justice to the qualities of Colonel Billings. He was a many-sided genius with outstanding qualifications in a number of fields. It will be wondered why this great man was apparently never considered for the post of Surgeon General of the Army. He was the recipient of great honors outside the service at the same time that men of much lesser gifts were made chiefs of the corps. Certainly it was from no lack of administrative ability. Undoubtedly the determining factor was that only shortly before his retirement did he attain a military grade which would warrant his consideration for the position of Surgeon General.

Physically he was a tall man of powerful build and commanding appearance in his prime, with a handsome head, a straight nose, and clear open blue eyes. In manner he was quiet, patient, and businesslike, with a cool detachment, and isolation of mind that gave the impression of a distant manner. When not so preoccupied he showed himself not devoid of humor and possessed of a vast amount of gentle sympathy. His detachment of mind gave him a rare ability to see things exactly as they were, in their proper proportion. Medical history will always give Colonel Billings a high place among the immortals who have practiced the profession.

From: history.amedd.army.mil


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