By Danielle Aloia, Special Projects Librarian and Arlene Shaner, Reference Librarian for Historical Collections
To mark Benjamin Franklin’s 309th birthday on January 17, we thought it appropriate to share some information about the Benjamin Franklin letter in our manuscript collection.
When we think of Benjamin Franklin, we usually remember him as a Founding Father, inventor, diplomat, printer, and publisher, but we are less likely to think of him as a medical man. In fact, he had a keen interest in public health and hygiene. He was one of the founders of the Pennsylvania Hospital, wrote a short treatise on inoculation, and even an essay about the health benefits of swimming. He also corresponded with physicians across the globe and with colleagues, family members, and others on medical topics.1
The Academy acquired a Franklin letter, dated December 8, 1752, in 1906, as a gift from Dr. William K. Otis (1860-1906), who inherited it from his father, Dr. Fessenden Nott Otis (1828-1900). Both were Fellows of The New York Academy of Medicine, the father elected in 1861 and the son 30 years later, and both specialized in treating urological disorders. Dr. F.N. Otis was a professor of venereal and genito-urinary diseases at Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. He modernized the treatment for urethral stricture by inventing both the Otis Urethrometer and the Otis Dilating Urethrotome, so it should not be a surprise that this particular letter by Franklin interested him.2,3 The letter was published in various editions of Franklins works and writings, in The Medical Side of Benjamin Franklin (1911), and as a facsimile in A Letter on Catheters (1934), with commentary by Dr. Edward Loughborough Keyes.
In the letter, Franklin encloses a catheter (not in our collection) and describes its fabrication to his brother John, who was suffering from painful bladder or kidney stones: “Reflecting yesterday on your Desire to have a flexible catheter, a Thought struck into my Mind how one might possibly be made…” Worried that he might not be able to adequately convey his idea through description, Franklin goes on to tell his brother, “I went immediately to the Silversmith’s, & gave Directions for making one, (sitting by till it was finished), that it might be ready for this Post.” He then provides very complete instructions for having the size of the device adjusted by a silversmith should the diameter prove too large, and for using it. Though Franklin’s text suggests that he invented the catheter, Keyes, in the commentary published with the facsimile, quotes a letter from F.N. Otis in which Otis notes that he believes the wording in the first sentence of the letter simply demonstrates Franklin’s familiarity with a similar catheter already being used in Europe.
At the end of the letter, Franklin shares his thoughts about Robert Whytt’s “An Essay on the Virtues of Lime-water in the Cure of the Stone” with John. Clearly both of them had read this book in an attempt to find a treatment that would offer John some relief from his ailment. Franklin responds to what seems to be an earlier query from John about the likelihood that Whytt’s method of treatment would help him. “I have read Whytt on Lime Water,” Franklin writes. “You desire my thoughts on what he says. But what can I say? He relates Facts & Experiments; and they must be allow’d good, if not contradicted by other Facts and Experiments. May not one guess by holding Lime Water some time in one’s Mouth whether or not it is likely to injure the Bladder?” As almost any elementary school student today would be able to report, all the basic elements of the scientific method are conveyed in Franklin’s elegant sentences: the question, the hypothesis, the experiments and observations, and the final conclusion.
In addition to the letter on catheters, the Academy library collections contain many published editions of Franklin’s work, along with a number of secondary sources about him. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call 212-223-7313 to make an appointment to visit us if you are interested in exploring one of our most famous and engaging man of letters further.
1. Pepper W. The Medical Side of Benjamin Franklin. Philadelphia: W. J. Campbell; 1911.
2. Franklin, Benjamin, John Franklin, and Edward L. Keyes. A Letter on Catheters. Fulton, N.Y: Morrill, 1934.
3. Kelly H.A. Dictionary of American Medical Biography. New York: D. Appleton, 1928.