"Show me the books he loves and I shall know
The man far better than through mortal friends."
S. Weir Mitchell
Neurologist and novelist Silas Weir Mitchell (1829-1914) was one of the most prominent American physicians of the late 19th century and early 20th centuries, publishing 25 accounts and papers based on his extensive experimentations on animals in the 1850s alone.
During the Civil War he worked as a surgeon in the Union Army, treating nervous cases at Turner's Lane Military Hospital in Philadelphia (even though he had no experience in neurology up to that point). He published a number of publications following this period, one of these was 'Gunshot Wounds', which featured the first descriptions of phantom limb, ascending neuritis and erythromelalgia (the 'burning pain', also known as Mitchell's disease).
He is arguably best known for establishing a rest cure as a method of treating patients, especially women, suffering from hysteria - the cure became the standard treatment for many decades, particularly in England.
Weir Mitchell was something of a character. In appearance his gaunt features and bearded face caused some to liken him to 'Uncle Sam'. He was a superb conversationalist and his humor and personality gave him a wide range of friends. He was famous for his sometimes eccentric approach to patients. For example one story (possibly exaggerated with time) tells how he was confronted with a lady who believed she was dying. Having tried all the tricks he knew to induce her to leave her bed, he threatened her with rape and commenced to undress. He got to his undergarments when the woman fled the room screaming!
From the 1880s onwards he devoted his attention to writing novels and poetry. His most popular novels were Hugh Wynne (1897) and The Adventures of Francois (1898). In his later years his fame as a man of letters equaled his reputation as a physician, and he traveled extensively in the USA and overseas giving speeches - but always returning to Philadelphia where he was born and died.
Image from The History of Medicine (NLM), 1881
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