American Civil War Medicine & Surgical Antiques

Surgical Set collection from 1860 to 1865 - Civilian and Military

Civil War:  Medicine, Surgeon Education & Medical Textbooks

 Dr. Michael Echols  &  Dr. Doug Arbittier


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American Civil War Medicine & Surgical Antiques

Surgical Set collection from 1860 to 1865 - Civilian and Military

Civil War:  Medicine, Surgeon Education & Medical Textbooks

 Dr. Michael Echols & Dr. Doug Arbittier

2011 - "The sesqui-centennial of the Civil War" -  2015

The 150th Year Celebration


 Home page  |   Feedback & Contact Dr. Echols  |  SEARCH this site   |  Article Indexes   |   Medical Faculty & Authors

 Civil War Medical Books  |  Medicine Containers   |   1800's & Civil War Surgery Set Displays

Medical College Index - Lecture Cards  |  Civil War Medical Book Author-Title Index

Wanted to Purchase: Items like those on this website, including Civil War surgeon uniforms, medical books, CDV's, surgeon images, diaries, and related medical items ... Contact

Dr. Echols' partial list of Google books for Civil War Surgeon Research


William Commons, M.D.

U.S. Navy Assistant Surgeon Application


By Norman L. Herman, M.D., PhD.

The following is a dictated translation of the hand-written application to the U. S. Navy Examination Board during the Civil War by a civilian physician/surgeon for a position as a medical officer in the Federal Navy or for promotion to Assistant Surgeon by an Acting Assistant Surgeon.  The actual applications are in the possession of the author and presented to enlighten the general public and other researchers as to the education process before and during the Civil War, the personal history of the applicants, as well as to show their personal level of medical knowledge in answering the questions asked by the Navy Board of Examiners.  (Some applicants failed to pass and did not serve or served in the Union Army.)

This written presentation was first of a part of a two-part exam consisting of a written exam and an oral exam.   Many of these applications are rich with highly detailed medical content offering an interesting perspective on the medical knowledge and practices of the period.  A broad sampling of these exams is presented to give you a 'picture' of the type of applicant being examined and admitted to or rejected by the Federal Navy in 1863.   Much more detail on the individuals and their personal and naval history will be presented in a forth-coming book by Dr. Herman.

(The actual written exam photos are available, but not presented on these pages due to the size of the files.  An example of a hand-written exam is on the 'List of all Applicants' page)

If you have additional information or images for any of these doctors, please contact us.

A list with links to all applicants in this survey of U.S. Navy Applicants for 1863

Example of a handwritten exam given by the Navy Examination Board


Applicant: William Commons, M.D.


To the Board of Naval Surgeons –


I respectfully state that I was born in Franklin Township, Wayne County Indiana; that I was twenty four years old on the 26 day of September 1862.


Besides the educational advantages of the Common Schools of the country, and those afforded by “Franklin Township Industrial Academy”. – I studied at Oberlin College, Ohio, two terms.  My classical attainments are limited, being confined to Andrew’s and Stoddard’s Latin grammar, Andrew’s Latin Reader, and Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic War.  My Scientific course besides the elementary branches, included English grammar, Geography, Algebra, Davies Legendre, (including Church’s Trigonometry) Coffin's Conic Sections, Loomis’s Calculus and Olmstead’s Mathematical Astronomy, Whotely’s Logic and Rhetoric, Lectures on Geology, Comparative Physiology and Concology [sic].  I last studied at Oberlin, Ohio.  I have not studied modern languages.


I have been engaged exclusively in the study of Medicine for the last three years.  My preceptor was Dr. R. G. Brandon, of Whitewater P.O. Wayne County Indiana.  I began my course at the Medical Department of University of Michigan, where I attended lectures six months, taking at the same time a course of sixteen weeks in practical Anatomy.  I was one year in the Army, Acting Medical Cadet, under direction of Elios Fisher M.D. Surgeon of the 16th Regt. Ind. Vol.  I graduated at “Medical College of Ohio” at Cincinnati Ohio, July 6 1863.  My “opportunities for acquiring a knowledge of pharmacy, the physical properties of drugs, and for witnessing the practice of Medicine and Surgery”- have been confined to filling prescriptions in the office of my preceptor and for the Regiment.  I witnessed the practice of Medicine and Surgery one year in the Regiment.  I attended Prof. Geo. C. Blackman’s clinical lectures at St. John’s Hospital Cincinnati and was two months Resident Physician of Commercial Hospital Cincinnati, which place I left to attend this examination.


I presented “testimonials of moral character etc” to Secretary of the Navy, when I made application to be admitted to examination, and am not now provided with any.



William Commons


U.S. Naval Asylum

Philadelphia Sept 24 1863

No 1520 Race Street


Post office

White Water P.O.

Wayne County,  Indiana


Questions of the Board:


Questions to be answered in writing, by   Dr. Wm. Commons

1.  Give some accounts of colchicum, its source, properties preparations uses.

2.  Enumerate the constituents of the urine in health + disease.

3.  What is heat?  describe its affects + laws.

4.  What is the diagnosis of compression of the brain?

5.  How is the bladder tapped in retention of urine?

6.  What is the treatment of fracture of the Patella?

7.  Describe the anatomy of the Kidney.

8.  Give the symptoms, diagnoses, + treatment of small pox.

9.  What are the constituents of human milk?  How does it differ from the milk of the cow?


Answers by Commons


No 1  The Meadow Suffron. Root and seed used in medicine.  Dimetic, Cathartic, Emetic and by some, it is said to be narcotic.  Can be given in substance, in tincture, or wine of Colchicum, and in fluid or solid (acetic) extract.  Used in Rheumatism, Gout, Chronic Epididymitis, and in various chronic inflammations.  Its continued use is said to be attended with lowers of spirit, irritability of temper, and confusion of intellect.


2.   Water, Urea, Creatine, Creatonine [sic, correction marks in pencil] phosphates of soda and lime, Chloride of sodium, salts of Magnesia, an undetermined substances, called extractive matters.

     In disease, the normal constituents of urine may be increased or diminished, there is abnormal constituents the present.  Sugar, bile, lactic acid, albumin, lithates of ammonia and soda, phosphates of ammonia and magnesia and accidental substances.


3.   An imponderable agent; not choloric [sic, correction marks in pencil], but the results of it.  That is choloric [sic, correction marks in pencil] is an element of matter, which originates heat.  It is omnipresent with manner.

     One of its effects on matter, is to increase its bulk by expansion.  It determines the condition of matter, whether solid, fluid or gasseous [sic, correction marks in pencil].  It determines the distribution of plants and animals.  Its effects are of great importance in physiology and medicine.

      One of its laws is to equalise itself by transmission, as when a heated body is placed in the midst of colder bodies.  It will give out its heat by transmission, or radiation, until all are of equal temperature.  It is reflected, the angle of incidence always equaling the angle of reflection.  Its intensity diminishes as the square of the distance increases.


No 4     Contracted pupil, as a general rule, slow and labored pulse, countenance flushed and livid, stertorous [sic] breathing, hot surface and paralysis.


No 5      Per Rectum, by means of a curved trochar and canula.  Above the symphisis [sic] pubis, by means of a straight trochar and canula.


No 6      “What is the treatment of fracture of the patella?”

       Extend the leg, and keep it extended by means of a long split.  Approximate the fragments of the bone, by means of adhesive strips.  Or, take a piece of common roller of sufficient length and width, and with adhesive strips, confined to the thigh and leg, above and below the patella, letting it be slack in the middle.  Place a compress, under the bandage against the upper edge of the upper fragments, and a corresponding one against the lower edge of the inferior fragment.  Approximate by means of the Spanish Windlas [sic].


No 7    “Describe the anatomy of the kidney.”

      Located its side of the spinal column, corresponding with the last dorsal, and first and second lumbar vertebrae.  The right one is situated lower down than the left one.  They are three or four inches long, two to two a half inches wide, and about an inch and a half thick.  Concave internally, convex externally; flat or concave behind, in slightly convex in front and covered with peritoneum.  Each kidney is composed of an external cortical, and internal medullary substance.  The medullary substance is arranged in pyramids, called Malphygian [sic, correction marks in pencil] pyramids, four to six or more in number.  These are surrounded by the Cortical substance, which makes up the greater bulk of the kidney.  The renal artery enters at, and the renal vein makes its exit from the hilus, on internal edge of the organ.  The right artery and left vein are longer their fellows.  Upon entering the kidney the artery breaks up into divisions, ramifies through the organ, its branches become more and more minute; its blood is taken up by the capillaries and branches of the renal vein, which unite at the hilus into one.  The tubuli urinifere runs on the apices of the pyramids to their bases, passed into the Cortical substance of the kidney, become convoluted and pass on to their origin in the Malphygian [sic] bodies, which appears small bulbs at their extremities.  Each Malphygian [sic, correction marks in pencil] corpuscle is surrounded with a net work [sic, correction marks in pencil] of blood vessels.  The calyces [correction marks in pencil, unknown reason] lead into the infudibula, and they to the pelvis of the kidney, which is expansion of the ureter.  The kidneys are supplied with blood by the renal arteries, which are branches of the abdominal aorta.  The renal veins join the ascending vena cava.  They are supplied with nerves [?  blurred] from the dorsal nerves, and renal plexus of sympathetic.


No 8    “Give the Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment of Small Pox.”

      It has a period of incubation, varying from nine to fourteen days.  Usually, begins with a chill, followed by fever, pain in the head and back, and in some cases the peculiar distressing pain about the serobicularis [sic, correction marks in pencil] cordis.  There are increased frequency of pulse, furred tounge [sic], and diminished secretions as in common fevers.  The urine scanty and high colored, and bowels constipated.  After a period ranging from forty eight to seventy two hours, eruption appears, first on the face, then the breasts, and finally all over the body.  This eruption at first is only a crop of small red pimples, but soon become developed into pustules, pitted in the centre, mature ten or twelve days, settled down into scabs and fall off about the seventeenth or eighteenth day.  If the pustules are so thick as to touch each other, it is called confluent small pox (variola confluens).  It is usually attended with ulceration of the mucous membrane of the intestines.  If there are failing of the pulse, dark casts on the tounge [sic], coldness of the extremities, and the surface of the body, as sometimes seen between the pustules, looks dusty, it denotes the typhoid condition, and the prognosis is grave.


The diseases with which smallpox is likely to be confounded, are scarlet fever and measles.  In small pox, however, the eruption does not appear so early in the disease, as in scarlitina [sic, correction marks in pencil], while it occurs earlier than in rubeola.  Besides, the eruption of scarlet fever seldom or never amounts to more than efflorescence, and that of measles does not form pustules.  Then, after the eruption makes its appearance, twenty four hours, will, in most cases, render mistake improbable.


In most cases of distinct small pox, the patient will recover without much treatment.  Even in the confluent form of the disease, the treatment must be much the same as for common continued fever.  We must remember that the disease will be protracted, and the powers of the system must therefore be husbanded.  Laxatives, cathartics, diuretics, diaphoretics and anodynes, must be used according to indications.  For reasons above stated, bloodletting is prohibited.  If the pulse sinks, if the extremities grow cold, and there are indications of failing of the powers of life, we must resort to stimulants.  An early use of the tincture of chloride of iron, will prevent formation of abscesses, and assist convalescence.  It is claimed of late, that the infusion of Pitcher plant saracena purpura [sic, correction marks in pencil, should be Sarracenia purpurea], given in doses of from one to two ounces, every three or four hours, will abort the disease.  Having seen it fairly tried, I am disposed to say that I have no faith in its efficiency.


No 9     “What are the constituents of human milk?  How does it differ from the milk of the cow?”

Water, casein, sugar, phosphates of lime, soda and magnesia, albumin, and extractive matter.

It differs from the milk of the cow, in having more water and sugar.  I cannot say much as to the other constituents.



William Commons


U.S. Naval Asylum

Philadelphia  Sept 25 1863


Certificate of Physical Capacity


I declare on honor that, my health at this time is good, and robust; and to the best of my knowledge and belief, I am free from any accidental or constitutional defects, and without any predisposition to Epilepsy, Phtisis, Gout, Apoplexy, or chronic disease of any kind.


I am not at present affected with varicocele, disease of the urinary organs, hernia, hemorrhoids; nor am I aware that there is anything hereditary in my constitution, which would hereafter be likely, to incapacitate me, for the arduous duties of A Medical Officer of the Navy.



William Commons

Candidate for the office of Assistant Surgeon in the Navy of the United States


U.S. Naval Asylum

Philadelphia  Sept 24 1863.


A list with links to all applicants in this survey of U.S. Navy Applicants for 1863

Example of a handwritten exam given by the Navy Examination Board

Medical Antiques Index

American Civil War Medicine & Surgical Antiques Index

Contact Dr. Arbittier or Dr. Echols



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
Medical Lecture Cards: 1 | 2 | 34 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21    INDEX

Medical Faculty and Authors:


Navy Surgeon Exams:

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

Surgeon CDVs, Images:

Army: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8    INDEX

Navy: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8   

Hosp Dep't Bottles, Tins, 

U.S. Army Pannier:

1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6

American Civil War Medicine & Surgical Antiques

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 Arbittier Museum of Medical History Tour:   1 | 2 | 3


Last update: Monday, December 12, 2016