Open main menu

American Medical Biographies/Warren, John Collins

Warren, John Collins (1778–1856)

Among the men of past generations few led more steadily laborious and useful lives than John Collins Warren. He was born in Boston in 1778, on the first of August, the eldest son of that interesting John Warren (q.v.) who served in the Revolution and founded the Harvard Medical School.

Warren was intended by his father for a mercantile life, but passed a couple of years at French and the pretended study of medicine, as he himself says. Then he went to Europe and settled down to serious work in 1799. London claimed him first, where he became a pupil of William Cooper, and later of William Cooper's nephew, Astley Cooper. Warren secured a dresser's position at Guy's Hospital—it was merely a matter of money down—and served at such work and dissecting for something more than a year, then went to Edinburgh for a year, where he received his medical degree, and for a final year to Paris. In the two latter places he studied hard, going in for chemistry, general medicine and midwifery, as well as anatomy and surgery. He lived in Paris with Dubois, Napoleon's distinguished surgeon, and studied anatomy with Ribes, Sabatier, Chaussier, Cuvier and Dupuytren; medicine with Corvisart, and botany with Desfontaines. That was a brilliant gathering for the edifying of a young gentleman from Boston.

In 1802 Warren came home, and found his father in very poor health. In order to relieve him he immediately assumed a great part of his practice.

The years between 1802 and 1810 were important years to Warren. To begin with, he married, in 1803, a daughter of Jonathan Mason, and began the rearing of his many children. With Jackson, Dixwell, Coffin, Bullard and Howard, he formed a Society for Medical Improvement. In 1806 he was made adjunct to his father in the chair of anatomy and surgery at Harvard, and succeeded to the full professorship, upon his father's death, in 1815.

Warren's name will always he associated with two important facts: the founding of the Massachusetts General Hospital and the introduction of ether anesthesia. These two events were separated by an interval of twenty-five years, but around them both are grouped nearly all that is conspicuous in Boston medicine during the first fifty years of the last century.

In 1809, while still comparatively fresh from European teachers, he published a valuable paper on organic diseases of the heart, a subject which until then was little understood in this country; and in 1811, together with Jackson, Gorham, Jacob Bigelow and Channing, he assisted in founding the New England Journal of Medicine and Surgery. This publication was ably edited and in 1828 was united with another, under the title, The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal.

As a writer, Warren was lucid and strong. He had a great many things to say and he said them well.

He was a very able surgeon of the painstaking type. In those days all operations, even the most inconsiderable from our point of view, were serious matters.

With all care and method, Warren was not a timid operator. His amputations were bold and brilliant; he removed cataracts with great success; taught and practised the operation for strangulated hernia—the first surgeon in this country to do so, and against strong professional opinion here; introduced the operation for aneurysm according to Hunter's method. His excisions of bones for tumor, especially of the jaw, became famous and are classics—for are they not recorded in volumes of the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal? In 1837, when fifty-nine years old, he published his magnum opus, "Surgical Observations on Tumors," a thick octavo with plates—a great collection of cases and remarks, interesting and instructive today. But all this gives only a very faint idea of his ceaseless literary activity. He was always writing; reports, memoirs, essays, lectures poured from his pen. It was a fluent pen, and had behind it a brain stored with keen thoughts and abundant information.

Always greatly interested in comparative anatomy and paleontology, he was able to secure, among other trophies, the most perfect skeleton of the mastodon which exists—the monster still preserved in the old building on Chestnut Street which has been known for sixty years as the Warren Museum. All through his life he devoted himself, like Hunter and Cooper before him, to the collection of anatomical specimens. This collection, together with the treasures of the Medical Improvement Society, passed years ago to the Harvard Medical School and formed the nucleus of the fine "Warren Museum" of that institution.

He was prominent also in the establishment of the American Medical Association, and there was that other great event with which his name is most conspicuously connected; the first public use in surgery of ether anesthesia. This was in October, 1846, when he was approaching his seventieth year. It is needless here to enter upon that most interesting and confused chapter of American surgery. Suffice it to admit, as Jacob Bigelow admitted years afterwards, that to Warren belongs the credit, in his old age, of allowing his name and position to stand sponsor for this courageous and revolutionary experiment. (See biography of W. T. G. Morton.)

The old man lived on until 1856. Fifteen years before his death his wife died, leaving him with six grown children, and two years later he married a daughter of Gov. Thomas Lindall Winthrop, who also died before him.

He kept busy almost to the end of his life, especially with his writing. His last surgical paper was published in May, 1855, just a year before his death, which closed a brief and painful illness.

Among his writings are: "Cases of Organic Diseases of the Heart," Boston, 1809; "A Comparative View of the Sensorial and Nervous Systems in Men and Animals," Boston, 1822; "Surgical Observations on Tumors," Boston, 1837; "Inhalation of Ethereal Vapor for the Prevention of Pain in Surgical Operations," Boston, 1846; "The Mastodon Giganteus of North America."

Johns Hopkins Hosp. Bull., J. G. Mumford, July, 1903.
Mem. of John C. Warren, Cambridge, H. P. Arnold, 1882.
Lives of Emin. Amer. Phys., S. D. Gross.
N. E. Hist. & Gen. Reg., 1865.
Life of John C. Warren. Boston, E Warren. 1860, in which there is a portrait and also in the Surg.-Gen.'s collection, Wash., D. C.
Rem. of an Old New Eng. Surg., J. C. Warren, Jr. Md. Med. Jour., 1901. vol. xliv.