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American Medical Biographies/Wolcott, Erastus Bradley

Wolcott, Erastus Bradley (1804–1880)

Erastus Bradley Wolcott was born in Benton, Yates County, New York, October 18, 1804. His father, Elisha Wolcott, having removed to that section from Salisbury, Connecticut, in 1795. The first of the family in this country was Henry, second son of John Wolcott, of Galdon Manor, Tolland, Somersetshire, England, who came to Massachusetts in 1630 and to Connecticut in 1638, where his descendants made the name historic, it having been borne by officers of the colonial army, by deputies, senators, by several governors of the State, by the secretary of the treasury under Washington, and by a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

High ideals, industry, wholesome living and adaptability to the conditions of life in a new country were manifest in the colonists from Connecticut who settled in western New York. A God-fearing folk, their first care was to provide schools for their children, who were well trained in gentle, courteous manners and not only in the ordinary branches, but in physical exercises, in music and in study of the English classics, with which Dr. Wolcott had an unusual acquaintance. He and his brothers and cousins became so proficient upon various musical instruments that they were asked to play at a reception to LaFayette in Rochester in 1826. Erastus Wolcott began his medical training under Dr. Joshua Lee, practitioner of the time.

After three years of study and practical experience with Dr. Lee, in Ontario, the Medical Society of Yates County licensed him as a practising physician in 1825.

To obtain means for further study he accepted a position as surgeon with a mining company in North Carolina, practising there and in Charleston, South Carolina, until 1830. Returning to New York, he entered the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Fairfield and, completing the course with distinction, especially in anatomy, received his M. D. and was urged by professors to settle in New York City; however, wishing to see the Western country, he entered the United States Army as surgeon in 1836, and after accompanying the command removing the Cherokees west of the Mississippi, he was ordered to Fort Mackinac, where he met and married Elizabeth J. Dousman. Resigning in 1839, he settled in Milwaukee where his practice became so exacting as to leave him no time for writing nor even for reporting his own cases. The illiberal rules of the medical societies of that day excluded Dr. Wolcott from membership because he would extend his surgical and consultation aid to homeopathic physicians. In 1850 he was appointed regent of the State University.

From 1860 until his death he was surgeon-general of Wisconsin, organizing medical service for the state, selecting and nominating all the surgeons. With a staff of assistants he was sent to the field whenever any number of Wisconsin regiments became engaged.

His boyhood in country life made him an athlete of unusual proficiency, and developed unfailing physical stamina. He was an expert shot with rifle and gun, and could use a sling with the accuracy of aim of a David. His hands were models of nervous energy and accuracy of touch, the left hand being almost equal in dexterity to the right. Clark Mills, the sculptor, took a cast of the head of Dr. Wolcott in Washington and stated that it was the only one in his collection of five hundred that measured mathematically the same on both sides.

He was tall and straight as an arrow and an accomplished horseman. His physical perfection, his gentleness, generosity and unfailing courtesy, with his professional attainments, made him a prominent figure in the community and his death was felt as a great public loss.

Married in 1836, his wife died in 1860, having lost three children in infancy and leaving two. In 1869 Dr. Wolcott married a second wife, Laura J. Ross, M. D., one of the earliest women graduates.

Dr. Wolcott died January 5, 1880, of pneumonia after an illness of five days, the result of prolonged exposure to very severe cold.

Although he never reported his work, to him is due the credit of having performed the first nephrectomy, which was recorded by C. L. Stoddard in the Philadelphia Medical Reporter (1861–62, vol. vii, p. 126).

His surgical activities were fostered by his accurate knowledge of anatomy, his nerve, clear judgment and great deftness. Working as he did in pre-antiseptic days he was aided by his own scrupulous cleanliness of hands and instruments and by the comparative freedom from bacteria of a newly settled community. He had few trained and frequently no assistants, often administering his own anesthetic, therefore his success in plastic surgery, in that of the head and abdomen, including oophorectomy, lithotomy and in Cesarean section must be considered remarkable.

History of Wis., C. R. Tuttle, p. 760.
Wolcott Memorial, Congressional Library, Wash., D. C.
U. S. Biographical Dictny.
History of Milwaukee. Remarks by Drs. Kempster and Marks. Portrait.
The first Nephrectomy, M. B. Tinker, Johns Hopkins Hosp. Bull., 1901. vol. xii.
Portraits in possession of E. B. Wolcott Post.