American Medical Biographies/Bolles, William Palmer

Bolles, William Palmer (1845–1916)

William Palmer Bolles, surgeon, of Roxbury, Massachusetts, was born June 14, 1845, at New London, Connecticut, not far from the old family home at Waterford, where he used to like to visit. His father was William and his mother Cornelia C. Palmer. He came of an ancestry that had been prominent in the battle against slavery, and he retained from his early associations a sympathy with the "under dog." He made good use of the New London schools, did not go to college, but studied under the guidance of his father, whose interest in literature and science seem to have, in his son's case, served quite as well as the curriculum. He then, in accordance with general usage for medical students, studied and rode for a year with Dr. Manwaring of New London.

His father died and William came to Boston to pursue his studies. Bolles's class took their degrees before the reform in the Harvard Medical School (1871); all students paid for all the lectures for two years, and could attend them in any order, surgery before anatomy, therapeutics before physiology, if they chose. Microscopy was just introduced, a sort of elective; asepsis was unthought of in the hospitals and antiseptics was being gropingly introduced.

Bolles's advance was most interesting. Not physically strong, without relatives or acquaintances in Boston society, not then striking in appearance, and always plainly clothed, he won general respect among the body of students; he had little chance for an appointment as house officer at the Massachusetts General Hospital, which usually were given then to youths who "came of kenned folk," but he passed his examination at the City Hospital and won his appointment on the surgical side. On leaving the hospital he took a summer vacation, to recuperate his health, as surgeon on a sailing vessel, studied for one winter in Vienna, and soon after his return was placed on the surgical out-patient staff at the City Hospital. He received the appointment of professor of materia medica and botany at the new Massachusetts College of Pharmacy (1874–1884) and he was instructor in materia medica at the Harvard Medical School from 1880 to 1884.

Very early in his youth he was attracted by his natural taste to the study of flowers and he always spent much time in his garden, maintaining a keen rivalry with some of his fellow enthusiasts on the perfection of his blooms. He was an admirable cabinet-maker and wrought some beautiful specimens of furniture, such as the mahogany frame of an eight-day clock. In his later life he acquired some fine lenses, microscopic and telescopic, and plunged with great eagerness into the wonders both of the small and the great. He invented instruments and published accounts of them in the City Hospital Reports.

He settled to practice in a pleasant and then semi-rural part of Roxbury, and before long his professional intelligence and skill brought to him, still young, the appointment on the active surgical staff of the City Hospital. This position he held for twenty-five years; he retired at the age-limit, but continued a consultant. He remained an admirable general practitioner until within a few years of his death and was an important man in his community.

Dr. Bolles early made a home for his widowed mother and younger brother. After the death of their son, an only child, was a grievous blow to them. Although he never spoke of this affliction, yet its chastening effect upon his spirit was ever afterward evident to his friends.

Hospitality was a deeply seated instinct with him; he enjoyed the spirit of good fellowship in the medical clubs to which he belonged; he contributed generously, not only to scientific communications, but to the flow of humor and conversation about the board.

Bolles was a natural craftsman, and long before breakfast he was happily at work in his well-equipped work-shop. He carved splints of many kinds, of original and excellent device, such as could not be bought; finger and thumb-splints, too, of brass. He melted silver and fashioned it into artistic shapes. He was a master in photography and his photographs of flowers could hardly be surpassed.

At different times he spent three summer vacations in Europe, surely finding more than mere medical interest in art, but he was not of a romantic temperament, and his microscopic eyes wanted more than color-generalizations. Similarly, in his eagerness for nature and science, he found no time for poetry or novels. He was of short stature and in later years had a bushy head of gray hair. In operating he gave a great deal of attention to minute details and kept a roomful of assistants occupied.

The busy years of faithful and successful practice sped by leaving him "even younger in his later days." His kindness was overflowing and "he believed the best of everybody."

He spent the last winter of his life in California, with his wife, under the mountains of Santa Barbara. The place was a revelation to them of beauty and comfort. They found old friends there and made new. On the 18th of March, 1916, at the end of a happy day out of doors, Dr. Bolles had a sudden heart-attack, and in a few minutes received his release.

Boston Med. & Surg. Jour., 1917, vol. clxxvi, 360–363. Chas. F. Withington, M.D., and Edward W. Emerson, M.D.
Prof. & Indust. Hist. of Suffolk Co., Mass., 1892, manuscript.