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Thursday, October 3, 2013

Reed B. Bontecou, M.D. and Civil War Surgical Photography

Excerpted from: civilwarmed.blogspot.com

Reed Bontecou was born April 22, 1824, in Troy, New York. During his schooling, he demonstrated an exceptional aptitude for the natural sciences. His work was so expertly done that he was often entrusted with the teaching of botany and zoology, even though a student himself.

In 1842, Bontecou began the study of medicine under the tutelage of several prominent Troy physicians and surgeons, and from 1844 to 1845, he attended lectures at the Medical Department of the University of the City of New York. He finished his studies in Vermont at Castleton Medical College, receiving his M.D. in 1847.

When the Civil War broke out, Bontecou was commissioned a surgeon with one of the Union infantry regiments supplied by the Troy area, and performed his first field operations after the Battle of Big Bethel in June 1861. He was present at the famous battle between the Monitor and the Virginia, the capture of Yorktown, and was placed in charge of hospitals at Fortress Monroe, Virginia, and Beaufort, South Carolina.

In late 1863, Bontecou was ordered to Washington, DC, to take charge of the Harewood General Hospital, and was on duty there until it was disbanded in 1866. It was during his tenure at Harewood that he made his most important contribution: he is credited with being the largest contributor to the Army Medical Museum. The thousands of specimens and hundreds of photographs that Bontecou contributed became a major foundation of the museum, which subsequently developed into the National Museum of Health and Medicine (NMHM), in Washington, DC.

Bontecou’s photographs, however, had a more immediate impact than the museum’s mission. Dr. Rogers credits him with being the first to apply photography for clinical purposes, showing the condition of the wounded when the soldiers were first admitted to the hospital, and many times when they were discharged. Indeed, the photographs were invaluable in qualifying disabled veterans for pension payments.

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