American Medical Biographies/Bontecou, Reed Brockway

Bontecou, Reed Brockway (1824–1907)

Reed Brockway Bontecou was known as one of the largest contributors of pathological specimens to the Army and Navy Museum, which was, of course, indirectly a conribution to the "Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion" (J. S. Billings). He was born in Troy, New York, on April 22, 1824, the son of Peter and Samantha Brockway Bontecou, of French Huguenot and Scotch ancestry.

His early career may be briefly summed up by stating that he graduated B. S. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, 1842; was instructor in botany and zoology, 1843; studied medicine with Drs. John Wright and Thomas C. Brinsmade of Troy; attended lectures, medical department, University of the City of New York, 1844–45; made a trip up the Amazon river, 1846, to collect flora and fauna for the Troy Lyceum of Natural History; graduated M. D., Castleton, Vermont, Medical College, 1847, and began to practise in Troy with Dr. Thomas C. Brinsmade.

In 1848 he made a study of Asiatic cholera, epidemic at the time; treated diphtheria (newly recognized as a specific form of disease) by open-air method and tracheotomy when necessary; and treated general peritonitis with large doses of pulverized opium, reporting the following remarkable case August 2, 1854: Mrs. W. A., of South Troy, aged thirty-four, in good health and six months pregnant, while in a squatting position, feeding her chickens, ruptured an old umbilical hernia, spilling almost all her abdominal viscera on the ground. Patient when seen was in collapse, intestines covered with pebbles and dirt and swollen to size of a peck measure. The opening was enlarged, viscera cleansed and replaced, wall repaired by rolling up and fixation with skewers, and a large dose of opium administered "to let her die easy." Despite severe peritonitis, however, recovery ensued under repeated large doses of opium (15 to 20 grains).

Another case which attracted great attention as the first of its kind in this country was one of fracture of the cervical vertebræ with complete general paralysis, treated successfully, April 3, 1856, by extension; patient recovering to resume his occupation as house painter, and to afford the doctor twenty years later the satisfaction of confirming by autopsy his original diagnosis. He made the first resection of the shoulder-joint (1861) and of the knee-joint (1863) for gunshot wounds, and practised extensively excision of the fractured ends of long bones and a modified Pirogoff's operation on the foot.

April 13, 1861, he enlisted in the Civil War as surgeon, Second Regiment, New York State Volunteers, with rank of major and operated on the field at Big Bethel, the first battle of the war. From October, 1863, to June, 1866, he was surgeon in charge of United States Army General Hospital, "Harewood," at Washington, District of Columbia, one of the largest hospitals of the war, with a capacity of 3,000 beds.

On November 21, 1857, while in charge of the Troy Hospital he ligated the right subclavian artery for diffuse traumatic aneurysm of the axillary artery, the first successful case in America and one of the first three on record.

Brevetted lieutenant colonel and colonel of United States Volunteers, March 13, 1865, he resumed private practice in Troy in 1866. For many years he was attending surgeon at Watervliet Arsenal, West Troy, and attending physician and operating surgeon for twenty years at Marshall's Infirmary, Troy, where he made the first operation in this country and the second in the world for typhoidal perforation.

He was a member of the Rensselaer County Medical Society; Medical Society of the State of New York; New York State Medical Association; charter member and fellow, American Surgical Association, 1887.

He married, in 1847, Miss Susan Northrup of New Haven, Connecticut, and had five children.

Personally a vigorous and handsome man of genial temperament and great originality, he was an indefatigable worker and constant student of his profession, keeping himself abreast of its advances, and covering in his sixty years of practice an immense field of activity and achievement. A healer by instinct and a brilliant surgeon, he was a naturalist by taste and early training. He travelled extensively, and his mind, rich with wisdom and broadened by varied tastes and vast experience, was a store-house for all who knew him, and Lincoln Steffens, the publicist, said of him, "He will go down to history, I suppose, as a great doctor, and yet, what is really so much more to the point is that he was so great a man."

He died in Troy, New York, March 27, 1907.