Cover image for S. Weir Mitchell, 1829–1914: Philadelphia's Literary Physician By Nancy Cervetti

S. Weir Mitchell, 1829–1914

Philadelphia's Literary Physician

Nancy Cervetti


$88.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-05403-2

$39.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-05404-9

Available as an e-book

312 pages
6" × 9"
18 b&w illustrations

S. Weir Mitchell, 1829–1914

Philadelphia's Literary Physician

Nancy Cervetti

“Cervetti has produced an elegantly written, incredibly detailed, and impressively comprehensive narrative of Mitchell’s journey from the insecure son of an overbearing father to the highly esteemed and influential researcher and clinician in physiology and neurology to a kind of medical public intellectual and literat[us].”


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This modern biography provides a comprehensive and balanced view of a legendary figure in American medicine. Controversial because of his fierce fight against women’s rights, S. Weir Mitchell achieved stunning success through his experimentation with venomous snakes, treatment of Civil War soldiers with phantom limbs and burning pain, and creation of the rest cure to treat hysteria and neurasthenia. Mitchell’s life was extraordinary—interesting in its own right and as a case study in the larger inquiry into nineteenth-century medicine and culture.
“Cervetti has produced an elegantly written, incredibly detailed, and impressively comprehensive narrative of Mitchell’s journey from the insecure son of an overbearing father to the highly esteemed and influential researcher and clinician in physiology and neurology to a kind of medical public intellectual and literat[us].”
“[S. Weir Mitchell, 1829–1914] is the first comprehensive, postfeminist biography of Mitchell. . . . Cervetti’s book is sure to become the biography of record.”
“This book is the first modern, reliable biography of S. Weir Mitchell based on thorough research and careful, scholarly use of a wide range of primary sources. The research and interpretation here are highly original. Nancy Cervetti's biography uses new information about Mitchell to provide a complex and fascinating interpretation of his life, his work, and his significance to American literature and culture.”
“Nancy Cervetti shows us the ‘whole’ S. Weir Mitchell as he revealed himself through his unpublished autobiography and copious correspondence. She has mined a veritable mountain of primary sources, including Mitchell’s scientific papers, and elegantly integrated them all into this beautifully written biography. Cervetti’s original approach to Mitchell’s work provides readers with a treasure trove of information about his family life, research career, literary aspirations, and travels. The precious primary source materials shine like gems in the setting of Cervetti’s helpful historical context.”
“The name of Silas Weir Mitchell shades discussions of medicine, feminist literature, and the social, scientific, and literary conversations at the dawn of the twentieth century. Over a half century has elapsed since the last substantive biography of a man who ‘built a powerhouse of a life,’ as Nancy Cervetti describes Mitchell. She has written a stunning, holistic survey of Mitchell’s work from Civil War neurology to his insights in psychiatry and hysteria, his popular literature, and his antagonism toward women’s rights. Cervetti’s fascinating biography communicates Mitchell’s ‘keen sense of life as a performance’ and will inspire new scholarship and appeal to a readership as broad as Mitchell’s own reading publics.”
“You will find many Mitchells in Nancy Cervetti’s book: rambunctious boy, unfocused youth, budding physician, committed experimentalist, pioneering neurologist, bibliophile, poet, novelist, socialite, fisherman, medical graybeard, feted celebrity, and cultural Polonius. The threads Cervetti uses to weave the fabric of his life are his need to write and his attitude toward women. They stitch together a fascinating nineteenth-century life, with its successes, failures, and contradictions.”
“[Nancy Cervetti’s] product, a well-organized, polished, scholarly work, is a great contribution to American medical history. . . . Like one of Mitchell’s best novels, this biography deserves a wide readership.”
“Cervetti has given readers a freshly researched, beautifully written portrait of a vital figure who, for better and worse, towered over his age.”
“Cervetti’s professional, personal, political, and psychological analysis of S. Weir Mitchell provides insight into the social and political climate of the nineteenth century and serves as a useful case study within the larger context of American medicine and culture.”

Nancy Cervetti is Professor of English at Avila University.


List of Illustrations


A Note on the Text


1 Family Matters

2 Letters Home

3 The Young Physiologist

4 War’s Awful Harvest

5 Wind and Tide

6 Pandora’s Box

7 The Apple or the Rose

8 The Literary Physician

9 Combat Zones

10 Great Doctor, Poet, and Salmon Killer

11 Winter’s Sorrow

12 The New Century






Urbane, handsome, and smartly dressed, Silas Weir Mitchell attracted attention whenever he walked into a room. Tall and slender with a Van Dyke beard and blue eyes, he was impossible to ignore. With perfect assurance, it was his way to size up and immediately take command of a situation. He was a risk taker and experimenter, and apart from his father, he looked up to no living person. One of the striking aspects of Mitchell’s story is the way he put aside the ennui of his childhood and the insecurity and recklessness of his youth to become a distinguished citizen of Philadelphia. He wrote that during his boyhood, all his family history was well-known to his father, “but he cared little for these matters and I, then, not at all. We were simply, as I take it, Scotch middle class, able folk and certainly of decent descent.” However, Weir Mitchell, as he preferred to be called, came to care a great deal about descent.

Due to his groundbreaking animal experimentation in the 1850s, Mitchell is recognized as one of the first physiologists in the United States. His research into the effects of rattlesnake venom set the stage for subsequent work in toxicology and immunology. His creation of the rest cure to treat hysteria and neurasthenia originated in his treatment of Civil War soldiers who suffered from burning pain and phantom limbs, the latter a term he coined. The war work won him an international reputation and the title of “Father of American Neurology.” He wrote engaging and lucid prose and published myriad books and articles. In his fifties, after major achievements in physiology and neurology, he turned his attention to literature, writing short stories, novels, and poems. He also devoted substantial time to public service, especially as a member of the Board of Trustees at the University of Pennsylvania, a member of the Executive Committee of the Carnegie Institution, and a fellow of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia for fifty-eight years and its president for two nonconsecutive terms.

William Osler wrote that versatility was the striking feature of Mitchell’s mind, and William W. Keen said that he was the most original, yeasty, and stimulating medical man he had ever met. There can be no doubt regarding Mitchell’s contributions, which make him a major figure in the history of medicine. His Renaissance range of interests provides a fascinating trip through the nineteenth century; his was a life in touch with the birth of physiology, the vivisection debates, Civil War medicine, the bizarre phenomena of hysteria, the birth of psychiatry, popular literature, and the privilege and indulgence of the Gilded Age. His correspondence provides an interior view of a generation that influenced social behavior and politics in the areas of medicine, education, literature, and philanthropy, and included friends like Oliver Wendell Holmes, William W. Hammond, William Osler, John Shaw Billings, William W. Keen, William Dean Howells, John Cadwalader, and Andrew Carnegie.

I first encountered Weir Mitchell while studying Virginia Woolf and Charlotte Perkins Gilman and their personal experiences with the rest cure. The first time I went to the College of Physicians of Philadelphia and examined the Mitchell Papers, I could see that while Mitchell admired writers like George Eliot and Edith Wharton and possessed a handful of female friends, overall he did not think highly of women. Instead, he used his charm, medical authority, and social prominence to confine them to caretaking. He was vehemently opposed to their education and careers, and unlike many of his contemporaries who felt the same way, he spoke openly about the “woman question.” Even after he came to know women like Mary Putnam Jacobi and M. Carey Thomas and saw that women could succeed brilliantly as doctors, educators, and administrators, he remained adamant in his views. Mitchell intended to excel at whatever he did, and his war against women was no exception. His obstinacy hurt lives and interfered with his effectiveness as a physician, and it has cast a shadow over his contributions in experimental medicine and neurology.

A close look at Mitchell’s education and the trajectory of his multifaceted career reveals the accomplishments and the prejudice against women as a jarring counterpoint that is rarely acknowledged. Depending on the discipline, scholars tend to ignore one or the other. In the humanities, scholars often focus on his relationship with Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Scholars in the history of medicine often disregard his problematic views regarding women. The tendency has been to lean to one side or the other, but the value of studying Mitchell emerges in the mix. Mitchell’s world is a microcosm illustrating how gender politics deformed the benevolent authority of medicine and sustained myth, idealization, and fantasy. While medicine made remarkable advances as a science and profession, it also became the most powerful weapon in the fierce nineteenth-century fight against women’s rights outside the home. Mitchell’s assumptions represent the attitudes of an age that attempted to bridle a force that was ultimately impossible to restrain.

There are many disturbing and fascinating elements of Mitchell’s character. There is the uncanny way his extensive vivisection and war work with nerve injuries shaped his later treatment of women. There are his personal breakdowns and the use of outdoor exercise and camp life to restore his well-being and energy. There is his provocative personality and prejudice against women juxtaposed with deep and lasting homosocial bonds with exceptional men. And finally, there is his self-conscious attempt to construct a personal history while he lived it. He began as a scrappy kid in a middle-class family, a shy and insecure second son who disliked church and did poorly in school. Despite such a modest beginning and setbacks along the way, brick by brick he built a powerhouse of a life. He achieved wealth, status, and an international reputation, becoming a legendary figure for hagiographers and debunkers alike. Sometimes called a neurologist, literary physician, misogynist, poet, novelist, or aristocrat, it is difficult to pin him down. There is one activity, however, that permeates and unites these diverse identities, and that is Mitchell’s writing.

The writing began early, when he was just a boy. In his home, bookshelves lined the dining room walls, and family bonds were formed and sustained in a space surrounded by hundreds of books. Reading aloud and debating at meals were daily experiences. Mitchell’s father wrote and published verse and scientific literature, and Mitchell hoped that by reading and writing he might win his father’s approval. Then he began to use the composing process to capture and clarify his ideas. He came to love the structural challenge of writing a good poem, and as he grew older, increasingly he realized the rhetorical power of language.

Mitchell often felt anxious and restless. He required a great deal of movement and activity, and so he would sail for Europe, go salmon fishing in Quebec, or go walking and riding across Mount Desert Island in Maine. Writing was the one activity that kept him anchored for a time. He enjoyed the sensual pleasure of pen, ink, and paper and was fussy about writing paraphernalia, often complaining about skimpy sheets and pale, anemic ink. He complained to his sister Elizabeth, “Bad letter writer I may be—doubtless am—, but I never did disgrace myself by employing such Lilliputian scraps of note paper as you use—Its a low way of saving money, I assure you.” He told Amelia Gere Mason, “I hate the skimpy sheets you women seem to like. Why not write on the back of a post-stamp?” Bad paper and ink could even upset his ability to think: “If the ink be not black and—the paper smooth I am at once troubled as to what I am trying to record.” In the quiet of a Sunday afternoon, he smoked a cigar and wrote gracious and leisurely letters. At other times, with his “unanswered” basket overflowing, he grumbled about how much he hated letter writing. Always, he sensed its public nature and possible importance. At the age of twenty-one he told his mother, “Number and keep my letters.” In his forties he developed a tremor and his handwriting began to slowly deteriorate. In 1900, at the age of seventy-one, he wrote, “Oh! I want to write. . . . I am at my best, the brain gaining while the body is slowly adding vetoes to one’s lessening joys. Blank the Body!” In 1909 he said, “The act of writing is becoming more and more difficult for me as the years go on and I more and more willingly resort to the hand of another.” And in 1912, forced to dictate all his letters, he said, “For me to write now is not possible.”

More than anything else, Mitchell’s writing acted as both canvass and mirror, and secured and sustained his success. He had a keen sense of life as a performance, and he continually pruned and edited his image. He burned letters and revised stories. And while other physicians stuck to medicine, Mitchell wrote about everything. He produced important scientific texts on snake venom, injuries to nerves, and mental illness. He told stories in the form of children’s literature, case studies, and long narrative poems. He populated historical romances with brave young men, villains, and women with small hands and feet—lovely women who, for him, had not lost their feminine charm. He was in constant demand as a public speaker and subsequently published many of his addresses. On a number of occasions he noted experimenting with various drugs. After reading an article about the use of mescal buttons by New Mexico Indians, for example, he requested an extract. After taking the hallucinogen, he wrote a paper about his experience that was presented to the American Neurological Society, published in the British Medical Journal, and cited as the first on the topic in scientific literature. In terms of his life story, he wrote that he didn’t “much like biographies except of men of action—I shall be apt to haunt anyone who ‘biogs’—me.” Even so, he often asked for the return of letters and selectively left materials for the person who “would be foolish enough in the future to write about me and wise enough to write of my friends.”

There are five previous biographies of Mitchell, by Anna Robeson Burr (1929), Ernest Earnest (1950), David Rein (1952), Richard D. Walter (1970), and Joseph P. Lovering (1971). The first biography is a hagiographic account marred by omissions, substantial and unacknowledged editing, and no documentation. Internally, Burr confuses sources, selects passages from various letters to present as a single letter, and edits excessively without notation. Yet, in a kind of cascading effect, subsequent biographers and writers have relied heavily on Burr. Earnest depends on Burr, others depend on Burr or Earnest, and so it has gone on to the present. Even Richard Walter’s fine medical biography relies on Burr to tell Mitchell’s personal story.

I have tried to circumvent this chain reaction by gathering and depending on primary sources—an entire lifetime of writing that includes an abundance of correspondence, autobiographical writing, medical texts, addresses, novels, short stories, and poems. This abundance of personal, medical, and literary writing far exceeds anyone’s attempt to control the story. And, rather than the great and arrogant nerve specialist, what emerges is an intimate impression of a shifting and problematic life that was aggressively engaged in numerous aspects of nineteenth-century culture and was wildly successful.