Item of the Month: John E. Stillwell’s Prize Notebook

By Becky Filner, Head of Cataloging

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, medical schools offered academic prizes, frequently accompanied by a monetary award, for the best essays, examinations, and student notebooks.[1] The New York Academy of Medicine’s Library holds several examples of prize-winning student medical notebooks, including John E. Stillwell’s Report of Prof. Thomas’ Gynecological Clinics, Session of ’73 and ’74. This notebook is an ornate presentation copy, not the rough notes Stillwell would have taken during the clinics. Written in a neat, legible hand, it also includes a calligraphic title page and twenty-nine watercolor illustrations. The notebook is bound in full leather with blind-stamped fleurs-de-lis and shamrocks on the cover and spine. The notes are from a series of clinics offered during the 1873-1874 school year by Theodore Gaillard Thomas, a professor of gynecology at New York’s College of Physicians and Surgeons and author of A Practical Treatise on the Diseases of Women.

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Calligraphic title page of John E. Stillwell’s Report of Prof. Thomas’ Gynecological Clinics: autograph manuscript, 1873-1874.

Stillwell’s notes, like Thomas’s lectures, are organized into a series of case studies. In the case study shown below, a woman named Annie Coyle reports that “her friends noticed her abdomen increasing in size” and her “menses … are ‘larger’ and … come twice as often as they ought.” When she had an examination at the dispensary, the examiner “pronounced her pregnant”; she came to Dr. Thomas for an examination because she was “unwilling to rest under such unjust suspicions.”

Stillwell’s carefully transcribed lecture notes and a watercolor showing a woman with an ovarian tumor, from Stillwell’s autograph manuscript, Report of Prof. Thomas’ Gynecological Clinics, 1873-1874.

Dr. Thomas notes that he found an abdominal tumor and gives details on how he determined that it is a “fluid tumor” rather than one “that is filled with air or that is solid.” He rules out pregnancy because he cannot feel any movement when he places his hands on her abdomen and her mammary glands are not enlarged. His conclusion is that she has an ovarian cyst and requires an ovariotomy to remove it. Stillwell’s account of the clinic is accompanied by a watercolor of a female figure with an enlarged abdomen labeled, “Ovarian Tumor.” Other clinics in the notebook cover problems of the uterus and cervix, tumors, peritonitis, fibroids, complications during and after pregnancy, menopause, dementia, and sterility. There is even an account (with an illustration) of a woman who has two vaginas.

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Watercolor by John E. Stillwell of a retroflexed uterus, from his Report of Prof. Thomas’ Gynecological Clinics, 1873-1874.

Student medical notebooks were usually submitted anonymously to ensure that the judging would not be biased. In this case, we know that Stillwell submitted this prize-winning notebook (even though the notebook does not contain his name) because the Library acquired the notebook along with the prize itself, a wooden case of gynecological instruments with a plaque that reads, “A Prize Awarded for the best Gynecological Report of 1874 in the College of Physicians and Surgeons N.Y. by Prof. T. Gaillard Thomas to J.E. Stillwell.”[2]

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A plaque on the wooden case indicates that Stillwell received this prize from Prof. Thomas for the “best Gynecological Report of 1874 in the College of Physicians and Surgeons.”

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Stillwell’s prize consisted of a full set of gynecological instruments stored in a sturdy wooden box lined with purple velvet. The instruments were made by G. Tiemann & Co., Manufacturers of Surgical Instruments, 67 Chatham St., N.Y.

The tools include all the necessary implements for a gynecology practice in the 1870s. Thomas describes many of the tools in his A Practical Treatise on the Diseases of Women (which was a required textbooks for medical students at the College of Physicians and Surgeons around this time). Shown below are drawings of several of the tools, including “Buttles’ spear-pointed scarificator,” a “hard rubber cylinder for dry-cupping the cervix uteri,” cauterizing irons, and tools for sutures, and descriptions of how they were used.[3]

Taken from T. Gaillard Thomas’s A Practical Treatise on the Diseases of Women, 2nd ed., these drawings show obstetrical tools and give brief descriptions of how they were used.

Taken together, John E. Stillwell’s prize notebook and the handsome case of obstetrical tools that he won for his efforts provide an interesting window into both 19th-century medical school competitions and 19th-century obstetrics and gynecology.

References

[1] Contemporary handbooks from medical schools list the types of prizes awarded and the prize money attached to them. See, for example, the section on “Prizes” under “School of Medicine” in Columbia College’s Handbook of Information as to the Several Schools and Courses of Instruction 1886-1887, p. 222-225.

[2] An account of the commencement exercises of the College of Physicians and Surgeons in The Medical Record confirms Stillwell’s receipt of the Thomas prize. “The Thomas prize was awarded to J.E. Stillwell, for a report on ‘Cliniques for Diseases of Women’” (The Medical Record, ed. George F. Shrady, New York: W.M. Wood & Co., v. 9, issue of March 16, 1874, p. 158).

[3] Thomas, Theodore Gaillard.  A Practical Treatise on the Diseases of Women, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: Henry C. Lea, 1869).

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