American Civil War Medicine & Surgical Antiques

Surgical Set collection from 1860 to 1865 - Civilian and Military

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 Calvin Ellis, M.D.

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Dr. Calvin Ellis, who died at his residence in Boston last Friday, December 14th, was born in Boston, at the corner of McLean and Chambers Streets, in 1826, being, therefore, at the time of his death fifty- seven years old. He was the son of Luther Ellis, a prominent iron merchant. Dr. Ellis received his early education in the Chauucy Hall school, entered Harvard College in 1842, and graduated in 1846. After leaving college he entered the medical school, from which he took his diploma in 1849, serving then a year in the Massachusetts General Hospital as house physician, and spending two years abroad in study before beginning the practice of medicine in this city.

He was appointed Professor of Clinical Medicine in the Harvard Medical School and visiting physician at the General Hospital in 1864, succeeding Dr. H. I. Bowditch in both offices. He was a member of the Massachusetts Medical Society since 1850, of a number of medical societies, and was a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He contributed several valuable papers to the pages of this journal, and at the time of his death was engaged upon a book upon Symptomatology, which he leaves unfinished.

The origin of the malady, duodenal ulcer, which brought Dr. Ellis's active and useful career to a premature close, probably dates back at least ten years. In 1874, when returning from one of several visits to Vienna, he experienced a good deal of abdominal distress, attributed at the time to the disturbance of the sea voyage. For the last three or four years the diagnosis was ulcer of the duodenum. They have been years of much suffering, well borne, in which the discharge of professional duties as a teacher and practitioner has been greatly interfered with, and latterly rendered impossible.

The end came in the usual way, by perforation of the intestine and general peritonitis.



A. B. 1846; M. D. 1849.

Adjunct Professor Theory and Practice 1863-1865.

Professor Clinical Medicine 1867-1883.

Dean Medical School 1869-1883.

School. Accordingly on April 25, 1863, the Corporation appointed Ellis Adjunct Professor of the Theory and Practice of Physic. After serving George C. Shattuck for two years in this place, he was transferred to the Department of Clinical Medicine, and on October 20, 1865, was made Adjunct Professor to Henry I. Bowditch, whom he succeeded on September 28, 1867, as Professor of Clinical Medicine. Two years later he was chosen Dean of the Medical School, and held this office till June 25, 1883.*

Whether we consider Calvin Ellis as the cheerful, courteous, successful physician; the able, forceful, writer; the lucid, systematic, scientific teacher; the progressive reformer of medical thought and methods of teaching; or as one of Harvard's generous benefactors, we find that he did all things well. Ellis was unquestionably one of the most valuable teachers the Harvard Medical School has had. He showed that we must place the diagnosis of disease upon a scientific basis, he scouted mere authority. Nothing was to be regarded settled until proven. "Snap" diagnoses were beneath his notice, and so-called intuition in diagnosis was to him little less than charlatanism. He taught that every step in the diagnosis should be proven. In this he drilled his pupils in a fashion which to many other teachers seemed slow and overdone. Diagnosis by elimination was his method. How well he succeeded is shown by the fact that if there is one distinguishing mark about Harvard Medical graduates to-day it is their adherence to this method. The foundation for practice was well laid by Ellis and his followers. Nor was this reform his only work of reconstruction.

* The Corporation of Harvard College passed the following resolution October 8, 1883: " In view of the retirement of Dr. Calvin Ellis as Dean, the President and Fellows desire to record their high opinion of his services in that office during the past fourteen years. They believe that the safe conduct of the School through the grave changes of constitution and policy which this eventful period has witnessed is in large measure due to the disinterestedness, good judgement and firmness of Dr. Ellis, and that his professional and personal standing with the Medical Profession and the public has been of great assistance to the Faculty in their important undertakings."

He was Dean of the Medical School in the reformation period, and the newly elected President found in him a leader ready and able to carry out reforms in that department of the University where custom, tradition, and personal interests seemed strong enough to defeat any attack. It will not seem invidious to claim a great share of the victory for this gentle, fearless, honest teacher. He lived to see success assured. Not so with his life work on Symptomatology. It must be one of our keenest regrets, as it is a loss to medicine, that this able man did not leave this last work of his in form for publication. But many of his writings survive. A full list includes some forty-two articles published between 1855 and the year of his death. His Boylston Prize Essay in 1860 on "Tubercle" was perhaps the best paper on that subject prior to Koch's discovery of the bacillus. Then his introductory lecture to the Medical Class in 1866 remains luminous for him who looks for good things in medicine.

Ellis became a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences on November 9, 1859, and was a distinguished member of that learned body at the time of his death. During the Civil War he went twice to the front upon errands of mercy, and twice returned a victim to the infection from which he tried to rescue others.

His generous bequests to the School so faithfully executed by his sister have been as helpful in a material manner as was his teaching to the intellectual side of student life. His old friends and pupils quote him with pride and affection. Said his former teacher, Holmes :

Another of his teachers, Henry I. Bowditch, said:

He was my pupil in his days of medical study, my assistant at the Massachusetts General Hospital, and afterwards my successor there and also in the Professorship of Clinical Medicine in Harvard University; and finally he was always a most beloved friend. For many years past I have often sought his advice, and no one that I met gave wiser counsel than he did; for his words were uttered only after a most rigid examination of the matter in hand.

Ellis acquired his interest in morbid anatomy from J. B. S. Jackson, with whom he was a favorite assistant. This knowledge and training were important factors in his life as a teacher. He was the friend of students, and entered into their life and studies with the enthusiasm of a junior; he was appreciative of their endeavors, but the critic of their mistakes. The trustees of the Massachusetts General Hospital wanted him for Visiting Physician and were glad to get him. So too felt the Corporation of the University when they elected him Professor of Clinical Medicine. Finally, when his failing health made these duties impossible, the Corporation waited three years in the hope that his strength might return and his labor be renewed. He died on December 14, 1883.

Calvin Ellis' method of instruction has been mentioned. Here is a tribute; "Dr. Ellis while unravelling any case was less brilliant than some other more fluent professors, and he was called a little 'slow' and tedious, as some thought. But, upon our arrival at Vienna, by comparing our method of grappling with cases in the German Hospitals with the desultory and imperfect examinations made by students of some noted schools in other large cities of our country, we soon found that we had been more thoroughly drilled than they. The result was that we understood more quickly and fully than they did all of the intricacies of a case." In his connection with the Medical School, Ellis stood for higher education. In the changes of 1870-71 he was known as a "conservative reformer." He was slow and deliberate in coming to a decision, but once he had decided that a certain course of action was the best, no opposition could turn him. It is to this spirit of determination that the younger members of the Medical Faculty owe the victory won under his leadership.

When the new Medical Library needed funds for a card catalogue, Ellis gave one thousand dollars, and at his death he left one hundred and fifty thousand dollars to the Medical School.

President Eliot in his report for 1883-84 pays the following tribute to Ellis:

Cautious, exact, conscientious, earnest and cheerful, he was one of the best teachers of medicine the University has ever had. His daily example, as a wise and high minded practitioner, and a kindly, honorable and disinterested man, was of great worth to the students, for they saw that these qualities were the foundation of his success as a physician, and of his wholesome influence in the Hospital, the School and the Medical profession. He was Dean of the Medical School from 1869 to 1883, and in this important office contributed with all his weight to the reform in medical education which the Faculty effected within that period. Of his strong faith in the beneficence of medical science he gave proof by leaving large bequests for the promotion of that science at the University.

At a meeting of the Medical Faculty of Harvard University, held February 2, 1884, the following was adopted :

For nearly a quarter of a century Dr. Calvin Ellis has been connected with the Medical School of Harvard University. He had been recognized as a student, as a young man of good promise, endowed not only with superior abilities but with the sterling elements of character which enable those who know the student to predict his future success with no misgivings.



He began early his professional life, giving his especial attention to the subject, of morbid anatomy, following in the steps which had marked the long and patient career of our lamented friend, the late Dr. J. B. S. Jackson. This branch of science involves great labor and self sacrifice, and repays them with an exact knowledge of the nature and course of disease not to be obtained by any easier method of study. His devotion to this arduous pursuit laid the foundation in science of the skill which he carried into the art of healing, and of his success as a teacher of pathology and clinical medicine.

Dr. Ellis took an active and never flagging interest in all that related to the administration of the Medical School of the University. He had a special care for the microscopic department, which was largely developed under his influence, and for the use of which he made a gift in 1872. of five hundred dollars. From 1869 to 1883 he was dean of the Medical Faculty, and discharged all the duties of that office with the fidelity which he carried into whatever he undertook. It is now several years since he began to suffer from the disease which caused his death. Even after this disease had greatly impaired his active powers he would still attend the meetings of the Faculty and when at length he was missed from his usual place those who knew him felt that he was doomed, for no less than some imperative hindrance could keep him from being with them.

Writings Of Calvin Ellis.

1855. " Evidences of Arrest of Tuberculosis Disease in the Lungs." Am. Journal of the Medical Sciences, Philadelphia.

1855. " Induration of the Brain m a Child." Am. Jour. Med. Sc., Philadelphia.

1855. " Glandular Proliferous Cyst. Disease of the Liver. Autopsy." Am. Jour. Med. Sc., Philadelphia.

1856. "Inflammation and Abscesses of the Lung, caused by Closure of the Primary Bronchus." Boston Med. and Surg. Jour.

1856. " Case of Suicide by Antimony." Boston Med. and Surg. Jour.

1857. " Remarkable Case of Extra-uterine Foctation, coexisting with Uterine Pregnancy." Boston Med. and Surg. Jour.

1858. " Case of Purpura simulating Rheumatism and Erysipelas." Boston M. & S. Jour.

1860. " Leucocythaemia." Boston Med. and Surg. Jour.

1860. "Two Cases of Malformation." Boston Med. and Surg. Jour.

1860. " On Tubercle." (Boylston Prize Essay.) Am. Jour. Med. Sc., Philadelphia.

And the following, printed in the Boston Medical'and Surgical Journal:

1861. "Autopsy of a Case of Cerebral Disease without Cerebral Lesion." 1861. " Softening of the Heart as a Cause of Sudden Death."

1861. " Obstinate Vomiting terminating in Death. Disease of Kidneys." 1861. " Two Cases of Leucocythaemia, in which Crystals formed in the Blood after its Removal from the Body."

1863. " Case of Addison's Disease."

1864. " A Malformed Heart."

1864. Reports of Cases. Cerebro-spinal Meningitis, Typhoid Pneumonia, Disease of Heart, and Aorta; Intestinal Hemorrhage. 1865. The Action of Causes of Depression in the Production of Structural Change; the Pathological Anatomy of Pneumonia.

1865. " Congenital Tumors, containing Foetal Structures." 1865. " Spontaneous Laceration of the Aorta. Two Cases."

1865. " The Relations of Health and Disease." An Introductory Address at the Harvard Medical School.

1866. " Spontaneous Evolution in Labor. (Curious Powers of Nature.)"

1867. " Letter Explanatory of a Criticism on his ' Relations of Health and Disease.' "

1869. " Letter from Berlin. Account of the Medical School there."

1870. " The Tendency of so-called Local Diseases to Generalization."

1871. " Vomiting as the Sole Prominent Symptom of Disease of the Kidneys."

1871. "Autopsy of a Double Monster (Ischiopagus Tripus)." 1874. " On a Case of Echinococcus Cyst." (Interesting as foreshadowing his "Symptomatology.")

1874. " Ovarian Cyst."

1875. " Capillary Bronchitis of Adults." (In Am. Gin. Lect. Series.)

1876. "General Softening of the Brain, seldom seen as a Pathological Condition; never as a Clinical Disease."

1876. " The Curved Line of Pleuritic Effusion."

1877. " Constant Irrigation in a case of Chronic Cystitis."

1877. " The Point of Origin of the so-called ' Bronchial Respiration.'"

1877. " Ulcerative Endocarditis: Embolism of the Arteries of the Left Leg."

1878. " Ostcomalacia in a Man."

1879. " Chest Expansion in Pleurisy."

1879. " Dilated Bronchi."

1879. " Probable Acute Nephritis."

1879. " Effusion of Blood into the Left Hemisphere and Lateral Ventricle."

1880. " The Significance of Albuminuria as a Symptom."
1884. " Symptomatology." (An unfinished manuscript.)

(The personal edited research notes of Michael Echols, the source of which may or may not be completely documented)

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Civil War Medical Collections 


Direct links to all medical & Civil War collections on this site                         

American Surgical Sets:

Pre-Civil War:  1 | 2  -   Post-Civil War:  3  -  Civil War 1861-1865:  4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8   INDEX

Medical Text-Books:

1 | 1a | 2 | 2a | 3 | 3a | 4 | 4a | 5 | 5a | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 9a | 10 | 11 | 12    INDEX

Surgeon General's Office Library printed catalogues: 1840 | 1864 | 1865
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Navy Surgeon Exams:

1863 Navy Surgeon Applicant Exams with Biographies   INDEX ONE | INDEX TWO

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American Civil War Medicine & Surgical Antiques

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