Main content

Silas Weir Mitchell correspondence


Held at: Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia [Contact Us]19 S. 22nd Street, Philadelphia, PA 19103

This is a finding aid. It is a description of archival material held at the Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Unless otherwise noted, the materials described below are physically available in their reading room, and not digitally available through the web.

Overview and metadata sections

S. Weir Mitchell, physician, novelist, and poet, was born in Philadelphia on 15 February 1829. Mitchell was the son of John Kearsley Mitchell (1798-1858), a physician and lecturer at Jefferson Medical College, and Matilda Henry Mitchell (1800-1872). S. Weir Mitchell entered the University of Pennsylvania at the age of fifteen but withdrew during his senior year when he became ill. In 1848, he enrolled in Jefferson Medical College, and by March 1850, at the age of twenty- one, Mitchell had completed his medical degree.

In the fall of 1850, S. Weir Mitchell departed for Europe with his sister, Elizabeth. Elizabeth stayed with her younger sister in England, and Mitchell settled in Paris to study medicine. During this influential year, Mitchell dined with Sir James Paget and Edward Jenner, studied with Claude Bernard, and purchased his own microscope. After a year in Paris, he travelled with his sister in Italy and Switzerland. At the request of their ailing father, Mitchell and Elizabeth returned home in the fall of 1851.

Upon returning to Philadelphia, Mitchell set up a demanding schedule for himself; he assisted his father during the day and worked in the laboratory in the evenings. It was during this time that Mitchell conducted experiments with snake venom and first became interested in neurology. By 1855, John Kearsley Mitchell had retired, and Mitchell became responsible for the support of his parents and siblings. A few years later, Mitchell started a family of his own. He married Mary Middleton Elwyn in 1858, and the couple had two children, John K. Mitchell (1859-1917) and Langdon Elwyn Mitchell (1862-1935). In 1862, Mitchell's wife died of diphtheria.

During the Civil War years, Mitchell worked as a contract surgeon in Turner's Lane Hospital in Philadelphia, an army hospital for nervous diseases. Turner's Lane was an ideal location for Mitchell to pursue his interest in nerve diseases and wounds of the nerves. Mitchell was joined by William W. Keen and George R. Morehouse in conducting extensive neurological research at the hospital. The three physicians took careful notes, wrote detailed case studies, and published the results of their findings in numerous articles and books, including Reflex Paralysis (1864) and Gunshot Wounds and Other Injuries of Nerves (1864). Their pioneering work was praised for its accuracy, thoroughness, and wealth of statistics. In 1864, having received some degree of notoriety from his work at Turner's Lane, Mitchell resigned as a contract surgeon. Known as an authority on nervous diseases, he soon limited his practice to this specialty. In the early 1870s, Mitchell was appointed to the Philadelphia Orthopaedic Hospital and Infirmary for Nervous Diseases where he continued his neurological research and developed innovative treatments for patients with nervous ailments. During this period, Mitchell discovered a disease called erythromelalgia, or Weir Mitchell's disease. Mitchell also discovered the connection between eyestrain and headaches, and he introduced the "rest cure", a revolutionary method of treatment for patients, especially women, who suffered from hysteria and neurasthenia. Mitchell continued to publish medical works during the 1870s, including Injuries of Nerves and their Consequences (1872), which was still used by the French as late as World War I; Wear and Tear (1873), a book on overwork and mental fatigue written for a general audience; and Fat and Blood (1877), which describes Mitchell's rest cure treatment. In terms of his personal life, Mitchell married Mary Cadwalader in 1875, and his daughter, Maria Gouverneur, was born in 1876.

By 1880, at the age of fifty, Mitchell embarked on a serious literary career. He wrote poetry and several novels, including In War Time (1882), Roland Blake (1886), Hugh Wynne (1896), Dr. North and his Friends (1900), Circumstance (1901), Constance Trescott (1905), and Westways (1913). Having secured his reputation as a "literary physician", Mitchell became a popular figure both at home and abroad; he corresponded regularly with such notable figures as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Andrew Carnegie, William Dean Howells, Sir William Osler, and George Meredith. Mitchell frequently gave speeches before social clubs and professional organizations, and when his busy schedule allowed, he travelled extensively in the United States, Europe, Japan, and Egypt.

S. Weir Mitchell was actively involved in numerous local and national medical societies. He was founder and first president of the American Neurological Society and first president of the Philadelphia Neurological Society. Mitchell also served presidential terms for the Association of American Physicians, the American Association of Physicians and Pathologists, the Congress of American Physicians and Surgeons, and the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Mitchell's honors and achievements include honorary memberships in the British Medical Association, the American Academy of Medicine, and the Royal Academy of Medicine in Rome. He was awarded honorary degrees from Harvard University, the University of Bologna, the University of Edinburgh, Princeton University, the University of Toronto, Jefferson Medical College, and Johns Hopkins University. In 1906, S. Weir Mitchell received the Franklin Medal.

The Silas Weir Mitchell correspondence is a small collection which spans the years 1865 to 1938, although many years within that range are not represented. The collection is divided into three series: Letters to Mitchell, Letters from Mitchell, and Other notes. The majority of the letters in this collection are between Mitchell and other physicians, with topics ranging from visits, the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, professional medical opinions, and general pleasantries. The items contained here make a nice addition to the other collections at the College that were created by Mitchell.

Please see the PDF linked under "External documents" for a full listing of the letters held in this collection.

Previously catalogued as 10a 513.

Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia
Finding Aid Author
Chrissie Perella
Finding Aid Date
February 2020

Collection Inventory

A-B, 1876; 1884; 1911.
Box 1 Folder 1
Billings, John Shaw, 1874; 1884-1886.
Box 1 Folder 2
C-D, 1872-1911.
Box 1 Folder 3
E-F, 1865-1895.
Box 1 Folder 4
G-H, 1872-1910.
Box 1 Folder 5
J-K, 1865-1910.
Box 1 Folder 6
L-N, 1884; 1887; 1904.
Box 1 Folder 7
O-P, 1883-1911.
Box 1 Folder 8
R-W, 1883-1912.
Box 1 Folder 9

A-S, 1876-1910.
Box 1 Folder 10
Taylor, John Madison, 1883; 1886; undated.
Box 1 Folder 11
Series III. Other notes, cards, and drafts, 1938; undated.
Box 1 Folder 12

Print, Suggest