Library Treasures: 1846 Letter from David W. Lewis, MD

Guest post by Annie Brogran, Librarian, Historical Medical Library

Page one of letter from David W. Lewis, MD, 1846I feel very fortunate that I have the privilege of getting to dig around the treasure trove that is the Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia for a living. The volumes and manuscript material in the library certainly provide an extensive lesson on the history of medicine, from Galen to Gross and beyond. Every so often, though, I come across an item, be it a letter or a note, which highlights an aspect of medicine that is not always apparent in the telling of the great moments of medical breakthroughs or reading through the minutes of a committee meeting. I refer, of course, to the human aspect, where disease and medicine may not be the main focus of a document, but we see how they affect people’s lives.

We are fortunate enough to hold in our collection letters that were meant never to be seen by anyone, save for the intended recipient, letters which provide us with a new perspective on medicine. David W. Lewis, student at Jefferson Medical College from 1844-1846, wrote to his fiancée Maria in the closing months of his time at Jefferson. In his letter dated January 7, 1846, he informs her of a smallpox epidemic, which had recently ended. In December of 1845, 92 people died of smallpox in Philadelphia. David purposely omitted any mention of smallpox in his letters so as not to upset Maria, only filling her in once the threat had passed. He continues,

No other deaths have occurred, though there have been many cases of disease surrounding us on every hand. But thanks to a merciful God, I have hitherto been preserved, and the virulence of the pestilence is now abated, and I hear of no new cases. I speak of the smallpox, the deaths from which have averaged about 22 per week notwithstanding the preventive has been within the reach of all, but some their [sic] are too wise to profit by the advance of science, and others believe it wrong voluntarily to contract the disease of a beast. But some there were who, having used the preventive vaccination, were still attacked, though in milder form. There is, however, no danger to be apprehended now.

David is most likely being sarcastic when referring to those “too wise to profit” from vaccination, which, while having long been known as a preventative was not so widely disseminated in spite of various public awareness campaigns and the fact that “the preventive has been within reach to all.” While he makes no mention of having been vaccinated himself, either at the time of this epidemic or previously, judging from his tone, he most likely had been at some point. What is so striking about this letter, though, is how unimportant the epidemic is to David. The disease certainly concerns him, even though he does not contract it “thanks to a merciful God” and most likely “the advance of science,” but the subject of smallpox is one of many in what is a very long letter. Smallpox at the time was a part of life, and epidemics such as this were to be expected, as Philadelphia alone had seen worse epidemics in 1841 and 1824. Also, part of life by this time, though, was vaccination, which probably helped mitigate the devastation.

Image copyright The College of Physicians of Philadelphia.

Lewis, David W. Autograph letters, signed. MSS 2/0045-01. 1844-1846.