Highlighting NYAM Women in Medical History: Sarah McNutt, MD

By Miranda Schwartz, Cataloger

Academy Fellows lead by serving, now during the COVID-19 crisis as in the past. This is the fourth entry in our series on early women NYAM Fellows and their contributions to society; for earlier posts, see Sara Josephine Baker, Martha Wollstein, and Daisy Maude Orleman Robinson. Please also see our biographical sketch of Mary Putnam Jacobi, the first female Fellow of the New York Academy of Medicine.

The interconnected medical interests of New York Academy of Medicine Fellow Dr. Sarah McNutt show deep curiosity, energy, and a dedication to service: “She trained as a pediatrician, gynecologist, and pathologist and developed a special interest in the study of pediatric neurologic disorders.”[1] During her professional life in New York City, she worked closely with prominent women doctors Emily and Elizabeth Blackwell and Mary Putnam Jacobi. With Jacobi and others she was key in founding the New York Post-Graduate Medical School and Hospital; with her twin sister Julia, also a doctor, she founded the Postgraduate Training School for Nurses and Babies’ Hospital.[2]

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Sarah Jane McNutt (July 22, 1839–September 10, 1930) was the second female Fellow of NYAM (admitted 1888). She was the first woman to be inducted into the American Neurological Association, and cofounded Babies’ Hospital in NYC. Portrait of Sarah J. McNutt, M.D., undated, From the National Library of Medicine.

McNutt was born in Warrensburg, New York, in 1839, to James and Adaline McNutt. She attended Albany Normal School and then continued her education at the Emma Willard Seminary in Troy, New York. She worked as a teacher before attending medical school at Woman’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary (founded by the Blackwell sisters). After her graduation in 1877, she did a two-year internship at the Infirmary’s hospital.[3]

In the mid-1880s McNutt saw the city’s clear need for more beds for pediatric patients; at the time New York had only a handful of beds for sick children under the age of 2.[4] With her sister and three other women, McNutt founded Babies’ Hospital at its first location at Lexington Avenue and 45th Street.[5] Babies’ Hospital also ran a “Summer Branch” in Oceanic, NJ, where the children went between June and October to recover away from the city heat and noise.[6] Babies’ Hospital existed as its own entity until 1943, when it became fully part of Presbyterian Hospital; today, its successor institution, Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital of NewYork-Presbyterian, is one of the country’s most highly rated pediatric hospitals.

Babies Hospital NYHS cropped

Babies’ Hospital moved a few times. This Lexington Avenue building designed by York & Sawyer was its home from 1902 to 1929. (From the George P. Hall and Son Photograph Collection, New-York Historical Society, undated.)

McNutt also collaborated with Dr. Mary Putnam Jacobi and others to establish the New York Post-Graduate Medical School and Hospital on East 23rd Street, “an institution dedicated to the continuing education of male and female physicians, especially through the sponsorship of weekly lectures on medical topics.”[7] At this institution, “lectures by capable women were as acceptable as those by men”[8]; here, McNutt gave regular weekly lectures on pediatric diseases, one of her own special areas of study.

But it was not only in the lecture hall that McNutt imparted her knowledge: her use of morgue research in pediatric neurology was a key contributor to a fuller understanding of hemiplegia and its causes, as well as other conditions. “The idea of utilizing the material at the morgue for instruction in the pathological conditions of children was original with her, and thus her classes at the New York Post-Graduate Medical School had practical experience on all the operations performed on children, while she found here an excellent opportunity to perfect herself in gynecological surgery and abdominal work.”[9]

In 1884 Dr. R.W. Amidon, who knew McNutt from the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, nominated her for admission to the American Neurological Association. She had an excellent reputation as a gynecologist, pathologist, surgeon, and lecturer. The ANA required an original unpublished work for a candidate to be considered for admission and limited the number of active members to just 50.[10] McNutt’s thesis paper for admission, “Double Infantile Spastic Hemiplegia,” was “an important contribution to medical literature in the United States”[11] and she was admitted to the select group. Her 1884 achievement stands out even more in light of the fact that the ANA did not elect another woman member until 1935, with Dr. Lauretta Bender. In 1888, McNutt became NYAM’s second female Fellow.

Sarah McNutt helped establish leading local medical institutions, lectured on pediatric diseases, performed gynecologic surgery, contributed to prestigious professional organizations, and led the way in morgue research. Her desire to serve, her entrepreneurial initiative, and her hands-on approach to research, coupled with her close connections to other prominent female physicians, made her an integral part of the New York medical community.

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Notes

[1] Stacy S. Horn, DO, and Christopher G. Goetz, MD. The election of Sarah McNutt as the first woman member of the American Neurological Association, Historical Neurology. 2002; 59: 113–117.

[2] Ibid, 114.

[3] Ibid, 113.

[4] Ibid, 114.

[5] Tom Miller. The 1902 Babies’ Hospital — 135 East 55th Street. http://daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com/2016/03/the-1902-babies-hospital-135-east-55th.html. Accessed August 25, 2020.

[6] Robert J. Touloukian. Origins of Pediatric Surgery: Patient, Doctor and Hospital. John Jones Surgical Society. Summer 2007; volume 10 (number 1): 5–6.

[7] Horn and Goetz, 114.

[8] Kate Campbell Hurd-Mead, MD. Medical Women of America: A short history of the pioneer medical women of America and a few of their colleagues in England.  Froben Press; 1933: 38.

[9] The National Cyclopedia of American Biography, Volume XV. New York: James T. White & Company; 1916: 264.

[10] Horn and Goetz, 116.

[11] Ibid, 116.

References

Kate Campbell Hurd-Mead, MD. Medical Women of America: A short history of the pioneer medical women of America and a few of their colleagues in England.  Froben Press; 1933.

Stacy S. Horn, DO, and Christopher G. Goetz, MD. The election of Sarah McNutt as the first woman member of the American Neurological Association, Historical Neurology. 2002; 59: 113–117.

The National Cyclopedia of American Biography, Volume XV. New York: James T. White & Company; 1916.

Robert J. Touloukian. Origins of Pediatric Surgery: Patient, Doctor and Hospital. John Jones Surgical Society. Summer 2007; volume 10 (number 1): 5–6.

Beyond “The Yellow Wallpaper”: Silas Weir Mitchell, Doctor and Poet

By Johanna Goldberg, Information Services Librarian

To celebrate National Poetry Month, we are sharing poems from our collection throughout April.

Today, Silas Weir Mitchell (1829–1914) is best known as the purveyor of the Rest Cure, made infamous by Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper.” But while he was alive, he was renowned as a pioneering doctor of nervous diseases and a successful author.

Mitchell began his medical career researching rattlesnake venom. With the outbreak of the Civil War, he shifted focus, beginning work as a contract surgeon at Philadelphia’s Turner’s Lane Hospital, specializing in nervous diseases.

"Ward at the Civil War Hospital." In Burr, Weir Mitchell: His Life and Letters, 1929.

“Ward at the Civil War Hospital.” In Burr, Weir Mitchell: His Life and Letters, 1929.

Here, he treated and studied patients with nervous system injuries and syndromes, including one he named causalgia (a form of neuropathic pain). These studies informed his numerous pamphlets and books and helped establish his reputation as a father of American neurology.1–3 After the war, Mitchell continued his research at the Philadelphia Orthopaedic Hospital and Infirmary for Nervous Diseases. He determined that eyestrain could cause headache, and also discovered the rare vascular pain disorder erythromelalgia, or Weir Mitchell’s disease.1

Dr. Mitchell examining a Civil War veteran at the Clinic of the Orhopaedic Hospital, Philadelphia. In Burr, Weir Mitchell: His Life and Letters, 1929.

“Dr. Mitchell examining a Civil War veteran at the Clinic of the Orthopaedic Hospital, Philadelphia.” In Burr, Weir Mitchell: His Life and Letters, 1929.

More controversially, Mitchell also developed the Rest Cure, a treatment for the now passé diagnoses of neurasthenia (physical and mental exhaustion) and hysteria. Women most often received the Rest Cure, which typically involved six to eight weeks of isolation, bed rest, a high calorie diet, massage, and electrotherapy.4 Though the Rest Cure seems problematic to modern eyes, it was an accepted and popular practice for decades, seen as a valuable alternative to drug treatment.3

And what about men experiencing neurasthenia? For them, Mitchell developed the West Cure. Men—including Walt Whitman and Theodore Roosevelt—were sent West to “engage in vigorous physical activity … and to write about the experience.”5 The different treatments used for the same diagnosis—neurasthenia—speak volumes to how differently men and women can be viewed and medicalized.5

The Sargent portrait of Dr. Mitchell. In Burr, Weir Mitchell: His Life and Letters, 1929.

“The Sargent portrait of Dr. Mitchell.” In Burr, Weir Mitchell: His Life and Letters, 1929.

In addition to his medical research and private practice, Mitchell also enjoyed a career as an author. He published numerous short stories, 19 novels, a biography of George Washington, and 7 books of poetry.3 We have one of these poetry books, A Psalm of Deaths and Other Poems (available in full online), in our collection. We feature two poems from the volume here.

When Mitchell wrote “Of Those Remembered” in 1899, he was no stranger to loss: he had experienced the death of his father (1858), his first wife (1862), his mother (1872), and his sister (1874) in quick succession, along with the deaths of so many Civil War soldiers.2

Of Those Remembered

There is no moment when our dead lose power;
Unsignaled, unannounced they visit us.
Who calleth them I know not. Sorrowful,
They haunt reproachfully some venal hour
In days of joy, and when the world is near,
And for a moment scourge with memories
The money changers of the temple-soul.
In the dim space between two gulfs of sleep,
Or in the stillness of the lonely shore,
They rise for balm or torment, sweet or sad,
And most are mine where, in the kindly woods,
Beside the child like joy of summer streams,
The stately sweetness of the pine hath power
To call their kindred comforting anew.
Use well thy dead. They come to ask of thee
What thou hast done with all this buried love,
The seed of purer life? Or has it fallen unused
In stony ways and brought thy life no gain?
Wilt thou with gladness in another world
Say it has grown to forms of duty done
And ruled thee with a conscience not thine own?
Another world! How shall we find our dead?
What forceful law shall bring us face to face?
Another world! What yearnings there shall guide?
Will love souls twinned of love bring near again?
And that one common bond of duty held
This living and that dead, when life was theirs?
Or shall some stronger soul, in life revered,
Bring both to touch, with nature’s certainty,
As the pure crystal atoms of its kind
Draws into fellowship of loveliness?

The volume closes with a poem perfect for National Poetry Month: “Of a Poet” (1886).

Of a Poet
Written for a child

He sang of brooks, and trees, and flowers,
Of mountain tarns, of wood-wild bowers
The wisdom of the starry skies,
The mystery of childhood’s eyes,
The violet’s scent, the daisy’s dress
The timid breeze’s shy caress
Whilst England waged her fiery wars
He praised the silence of the stars,
And clear and sweet as upland rills
The gracious wisdom of her hills.
Save once when Clifford’s fate he sang,
And bugle-like his lyric rang,
He prized the ways of lowly men,
And trod, with them, the moor and fen.
Fair Nature to this lover dear
Bent low to whisper or to hear
The secrets of her sky and earth,
In gentle Words of golden Worth.

References

1. Silas Weir Mitchell, Papers, 1788; 1850-1928; 1949. Available at: http://www.collegeofphysicians.org/FIND_AID/hist/histswm1.htm. Accessed April 7, 2016.

2. Bailey P. Silas Weir Mitchell, 1829-1914. National Academy of Sciences; 1958. Available at: http://www.nasonline.org/publications/biographical-memoirs/memoir-pdfs/mitchell-silas.pdf. Accessed April 7, 2016.

3. Todman DH. History of Neuroscience: Silas Weir Mitchell (1829-1914). IBRO Hist Neurosci. 2008. Available at: http://ibro.info/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/Mitchell-Silas-Weir.pdf. Accessed April 7, 2016.

4. Science Museum, London. Rest cure. Brought to Life. Available at: http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/broughttolife/techniques/restcure. Accessed April 7, 2016.

5. Stiles A. Go rest, young man. Monit Psychol. 2012;43(1):32. Available at: http://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/01/go-rest.aspx. Accessed April 7, 2016.