Dr. William Edmund Aughinbaugh, Medical Adventurer (Item of the Month)

By Arlene Shaner, Historical Collections Reference Librarian

Dr. Aughinbaugh, circa 1915. In:

Dr. Aughinbaugh, circa 1915. In: “A Globe-Trotting Physician,” American Magazine, Nov. 1915, 34.

In the November 1915 issue of The American Magazine, the “Interesting People” section profiled an unusual physician. The article described Dr. William Edmund Aughinbaugh (18711940) as being “round like the earth; and he has rolled around it often. He has sawed bones and prescribed pills in every degree of latitude on both hemispheres.”1

As the article, and his autobiography, I Swear by Apollo, make clear, Aughinbaugh lived a life of adventure, traveling the globe for decades. Cuba, Venezuela, India, Peru, and Mexico were all early destinations where he treated lepers, studied the plague, and set up hospitals. He was a founder or early member of the Explorers, Adventurers, and Circumnavigators Clubs; taught courses about foreign trade at New York University and Columbia; and spent many years writing about and helping negotiate foreign trade agreements in Latin American countries and for South American natural resources.

The Academy’s manuscript collections contain a small album of photographs donated by the New York Public Library in 1952 (NYPL began sending items of medical interest that were given to them to the Academy in 1900). NYPL has a small collection of Aughinbaugh’s papers, mostly related to his work as the foreign editor of the New York Commercial. Aughinbaugh probably assembled the album between 1897 and 1906. Most of the photographs are unlabeled and trying to contextualize them has presented interesting challenges, demonstrating both the ways in which the written record helps us uncover more information and how much will probably remain forever unknowable.

It’s pretty clear that the first couple of photographs date to around 1895–97, when Aughinbaugh was a medical student at Columbian University (now George Washington) in Washington, D.C., and then an intern at Emergency Hospital there.

As both Aughinbaugh’s autobiography and his New York Times obituary attest, he helped finance his medical education by founding, with several other students, the Hippocratic Exhumation Corporation, essentially a grave-robbing operation. Aughinbaugh justified the less than savory labors of the corporation by assuring his readers that “care was always taken to undress the corpse and return the clothing to the grave…” as, according to court decree “a naked body belonged to no one—no crime would be committed by taking it.”2

Aughinbaugh insisted that he and his friends were not alone in this enterprise. Most medical students were desperate for bodies to dissect, and few legitimate ways to procure them existed. John Harley Warner and James Edmonson, in their recent book, Dissection: Photographs of a Rite of Passage in American Medicine: 1880-1930, corroborate this assertion, noting that in Washington, D.C., as well as in many states, there were no legal ways of obtaining bodies at that time, even though students were required to complete dissections to graduate. These two photographs, of Aughinbaugh (on the left) and two other students dissecting a body, and of Aughinbaugh and a fellow physician with a skeleton companion, fit right into the tradition of medical students posing with their cadavers in dissecting rooms.3

The album also contains posed portraits of patients suffering from diseases or showing the results of surgical operations. In some cases, Aughinbaugh pasted multiple photographs of the same patient into the scrapbook. The album dates from a time that witnessed the expanded use of photographs to document treatments and disease. While there is no way to be certain, these photographs may have been taken by Aughinbaugh himself.

Another group of pictures shows groups of people that include Aughinbaugh himself (here in a white coat and hat). These images must date to Aughinbaugh’s years in Cuba. Having been denied the opportunity to enlist during the Spanish-American War in 1898 because of a heart condition, Aughinbaugh signed on as the ship’s surgeon for a vessel ferrying sick and wounded soldiers between Cuba and the United States. After the signing of the Treaty of Paris, he jumped ship while the boat was docked in Havana and stayed on as a civilian surgeon, working at the largest hospital in Cuba devoted to the care of leprosy patients, which, although he does not name it, must have been the hospital at San Lazaro, on the outskirts of Havana.4

Aughinbaugh’s autobiography provides real documentation for only a single photograph in his album. Aughinbaugh spent about four years (ca. 1902–1906) in India during a bubonic plague epidemic, working for the Indian Plague Commission. The picture shows an Indian ascetic suspended upside down over a fire. “I photographed one man who hung suspended by his feet from a banyan tree, while his youthful assistant built a fire of dried cow dung within a foot of his head,” Aughinbaugh writes, “When he was lowered, I… could not detect one sign of a burn”.5 He later submitted the photograph to a contest run by the New York Herald, won a prize, and added the clipping to the album.

This album raises many questions, both about the use of photography by physicians to record information about medical practice and about the ways in which individuals choose to save images that document their own life experiences. Aughinbaugh’s choice to conflate the personal with the professional is part of what continues to make the album an intriguing part of our collections.


1. Barton, Bruce, “Globe Trotting Physician,” The American Magazine v.80 (Nov 1915), p. 34. Accessed online on July 29, 2015: http://hdl.handle.net/2027/coo.31924065598967?urlappend=%3Bseq=446

2. Aughinbaugh, W.E., I Swear by Apollo (New York: Farrar & Rineharrt, 1938), pp. 44-49. NYTimes obituary: http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive/pdf?res=9C06E5D91F3CE73ABC4152DFB467838B659EDE Accessed online on July 29, 2015.

3. Warner, John Harley and James Edmonson, Dissection: photographs of a right of passage in American medicine, 1880-1930 (New York: Blast Books, 2009), pp. 17-19.

4. Aughinbaugh, pp. 103-113.

5. Aughinbaugh, p. 165.