S. Weir Mitchell
( Originally Published 1907 )
ABOUT sixty years ago Oliver Wen-dell Holmes, taking dinner one night in Philadelphia with his friend, Dr. John K. Mitchell, was so pleased with one of Dr. Mitchell's boys, by name Silas Weir, then a little more than ten years old, that he gave the boy a copy of his famous ballad on the frigate Constitution.
Some seventeen years later, in 1856, when Silas was a young doctor, with a brand-new degree, he showed Dr. Holmes a book of poems which he hoped to have published. Dr. Holmes advised the young man to put the poems away until he was forty, and then to reconsider his determination to have them published. " The publication of these verses at this time," said the genial but shrewd Autocrat," " will do you no good. They will not help you in your life as a physician, and they cannot stand alone." The soundness of Dr. Holmes's judgment was later proved by the circumstance that the young man blossomed into one of the most distinguished physicians of his time. Dr. Mitchell's volume of poems, " The Hill of Stones," published about four years ago, contains just one of the poems offered to the Boston poet in 1856, namely, " Herndon." As an author, Dr. Mitchell is less celebrated than his friendly counsellor ; but as a doctor he is far more celebrated than was Dr. Holmes in his palmiest days.
S. Weir Mitchell, one of the six sons of Dr. John Kearsley Mitchell, was born in Philadelphia on February 16, 1829. His father was then a leader in his profession.
He was one of the first Americans to investigate scientifically "animal magnetism," as hypnotism was called in the early part of the last century ; and, more-over, he was a highly valued contributor to the medical periodicals of the day. It is noteworthy that he had a taste for literature. Two of his lyrics, " The Old Song and the New Song " and " Prairie Lea," had a wide popularity in their day.
At the age of fifteen Weir Mitchell entered the University of Pennsylvania. There he spent three years ; and afterward he entered Jefferson Medical College, Philadelphia, in which his father was a professor. One of the severest disappointments in the son's life came in 1870, twenty years after graduation, when, not-withstanding the solicitation of influential friends, he failed of election to a professorship in Jefferson College. However, this disappointment, like the one which he met when he consulted Dr. Holmes about his first book of poems, worked eventually to his greater glory.
After graduation from Jefferson College Dr. Mitchell, as we shall call our author henceforth, went to Paris, whence, owing to an attack of smallpox, he was obliged to return in less than two years.
By this time the young doctor had lost sight of his literary star. His ambition was to teach medicine. The first article from his pen appeared in the American Journal of Medical Science. Other articles followed with quick regularity, but to none of these early writings, we believe, does Dr. Mitchell attach much importance. From 1858 until 1862, when he enlisted as an army surgeon, the doctor devoted his spare hours to the study of poisons, particularly snake poisons. Not long after the Civil War, by the way, one of the largest rattlesnakes ever sent to him died of cold. Dr. Mitchell had the skin pre-served and tanned, and he sent it to Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes with the suggestion that it might make a worthy binding for "Elsie Venner." " I thank you for it," Dr. Holmes wrote back, " especially be-cause it makes an attractive binding, and I know that its bark is better than its bite." It would be interesting to pursue Dr. Mitchell's scientific achievements, but such a pursuit would be too long to agree with the purpose of this sketch.
However, his career as a war surgeon is worth looking at, for it had something to do with his subsequent advent as a writer of fiction. Dr. Mitchell and his associates made a deep study not only of the effects of certain wounds but also of the effects of environment. Much of the curious information thus derived was given to the world through the medical papers. It was undoubtedly the study followed during this period which formed the base of Dr. Mitchell's now universally recognized success as a neurologist. The universality of his fame as a specialist in nervous diseases has two substantial witnesses. One is the oration delivered at Edinburgh University in 1895, when he received the title of Doctor of Laws. In that oration he was spoken of as " the chief ornament to medical science in the new world." The other witness is the story of his visit some years ago to Dr. Charcot, one of the great French authorities on nervous diseases. Dr. Mitchell did not give his name ; he merely said that he was from Philadelphia, and that there was something the matter with his nerves.
" Why," said Dr. Charcot, "you should never have come beyond Philadelphia for advice for such an ailment. You have a physician in your own city better qualified to manage your case than I am."
"Indeed," the visitor is said to have remarked ; "and who may he be ? "
"Dr. S. Weir Mitchell," replied Dr. Charcot ; "and as I know him by correspondence I will venture to give you a letter to him. You should consult him upon your return home."
"No, thanks," said the American smiling, "I am Dr. S. Weir Mitchell."
Certainly a handsome compliment for Dr. Mitchell ! And certainly a remarkable piece of professional modesty on the part of Dr. Charcot !
Perhaps it is well to say at this point that, in 1896, Harvard University also honored Dr. Mitchell with the title of Doctor of Laws ; that he is a member of the American National Academy of Sciences, an honorary member of the Clinical Society of London, the London Medical Society, the Royal Academy of Medicine of Rome, and a corresponding member of many other foreign medical societies ; and that he was once President of the Congress of American Physicians and Surgeons. In 1888 the University of Bologna conferred on him the title of Doctor of Medicine.
Dr. Mitchell's entrance into romantic literature was made anonymously and, it might be said, accidentally. Soon after the close of the Civil War, the story goes, he and some professional associates one day discussed all sides of the question whether the loss of the limbs involves the loss of the victim's individuality. As a result of that discussion Dr. Mitchell wrote the story of the fictitious case of one George Dedlow, who had suffered the loss of his arms and his legs. The story, which, as they who have read it know, is an intensely interesting complication of romance and science, came to the hands of the Rev. Dr. Furness, one of Dr. Mitchell's friends, who took the liberty of sending it to Edward Everett Hale, in Boston. Dr. Hale, who, at that time, was at the height of his literary power, saw that the story was rare material, and he submitted it forthwith to the editor of The Atlantic Monthly. It was promptly accepted, and the first Dr. Mitchell knew of what had happened was when he received a proof of the story, together with a good-sized check and a note complimenting him on the freshness and attractiveness of his article. " The Case of George Dedlow," indeed, was described so realistically that, according to tradition, subscriptions were raised for the poor victim's support and comfort. The newspapers, too, started a discussion of the prodigy, and it was a long time be-fore the public became persuaded that the tale was utter fiction, put together with extraordinary skill.
Dr. Mitchell's first book was " Children's Hours," a collection of fairy tales, illustrated by Dr. John Packard. The book was in no sense a great literary effort ; it was intended to serve, and did serve, a charitable purpose. His first novel was "In War Times," published serially in The Atlantic Monthly in 1885. Between that time and the publication of "Hugh Wynne " in 1897, the Philadelphian wrote a number of works, the most notable among which were a few dramatic poems. The poems delighted the critical; they were caviare to the general. Dr. Mitchell is not a poet of the "golden clime" of which Tennyson speaks ; he has simply found in poetry the fittest vehicle for the expression of some attractive and stirring ideas. His verse reveals his fine sympathy with the true poets rather than his intimate association with them.
Unqualified success came to the veteran author with the publication in 1897 of " Hugh Wynne, Free Quaker," which will be remembered in years to come as one of the choicest of American novels. The writing of " Hugh Wynne," which was done at Bar Harbor in the summer of 1896, in less than two months, took years of preparation. It is said that he wrote to a woman "for the name and a full description of every article of apparel worn by a lady in America in the years before and about the time " of the Revolution. Moreover : " One will find on the shelves of his library at home," says a casual biographer, " great rows of books consulted in the preparation of the novel, and among them, as samples, will be noticed Keith's 'Provincial Councillors of Pennsylvania,' Watson's ,Annals,' Trumble's The Knightly S oldier,' Fiske's 'Critical Period of American History,' ' The True George Washington,' by Ford ; Professor McMaster's ' History of the United States,' ' The Cannoneer,' by Buell, and scores of others, some of them very rare." We find it also said that every chapter of importance in the story was written at least twice, and that some chapters were written even three times, before the manuscript was sent to the publisher. Nothing which Dr. Mitchell has written since shows a power equal to the power of " Hugh Wynne." That novel, therefore, must be regarded as his supreme literary effort. " The Adventures of François " proved entertaining and nothing more ; its early popularity was an echo of the immense popularity of the Revolutionary story. " Dr. North and His Friends " is not, as many suppose, an auto-biography ; but it may fairly be said that by means of Dr. North the author relates some of his most remarkable personal impressions and personal experiences.
Dr. Holmes was once a little disturbed, and much amused, at the same time, by a reference to his " medicated writings." The careful reader will note a strong pathological element in most of Dr. Mitchell's works ; not enough, however, to warrant describing them as " medicated." The fact is, Dr. Mitchell has made good use of his rare scientific knowledge in the development of many of his characters. One of his intimate friends is reported to have said once that the doctor is constantly studying human characteristics, especially the characteristics of singular persons. " He picks out their brains in a very fuie and delicate way," said the friend. " Thus he studies human nature, much in that same synthetical manner in which he dissects a physical malady."
Personally the author of "Hugh Wynne" is described as gentle, cordial, and, in convivial company, very entertaining. It has frequently been said of him that he appears to be what he is,— a scholar and a scientist.
Some years ago, when Dr. Mitchell was a guest in one of the semi-literary clubs in London, he and the circle around him fell into a discussion of problem novels, which finally resolved itself into a discussion of " Tess of the D'Urbervilles," then in the heyday of its popularity. Dr. Mitchell took his ground on two points : he expressed admiration of Mr. Hardy as an artist, but utter dislike of the scheme of " Tess." A man who had meantime joined the circle entered quietly and unobtrusively into the conversation, admitting the force of some of Dr. Mitchell's general objections to problem novels, but maintaining the ethical and artistic merits of the plan of Judge Hardy's new book. The newcomer showed such an intimate knowledge of the construction of " Tess " that the American paid more than ordinary attention to him. At length, when the company was dispersing, Dr. Mitchell's host, with an innocent smile, proceeded to make the two debaters formally acquainted with each other.
"This is a friend of mine, Doctor," he said to his guest, about whose work you know a great deal. Allow me to intro-duce to you Thomas Hardy, with whom you can hardly find any fault for defending poor Tess."
The acquaintance thus curiously begun has since ripened into a rich friendship.
Dr. Mitchell does most of his literary work at Bar Harbor, in the summer. There is no sign of the end of this pure labor of love ; but the work which exists already is sufficient, in itself, to show that a man burdened with the gravest interests of medical science may give profitable and brilliant employment to his imagination.