Popular Science Monthly/Volume 56/November 1899/Sketch of George M. Sternberg

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NO man among Americans has studied the micro-organisms with more profit or has contributed more to our knowledge of the nature of infection, particularly of that of yellow fever, than Dr. George M. Sternberg, of the United States Army. His merits are freely recognized abroad, and he ranks there, as well as at home, among the leading bacteriologists of the age. He was born at Hartwick Seminary, an institution of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (General Synod), Otsego, N. Y., June 8, 1838. His father, the Rev. Levi Sternberg, D. D., a graduate of Union College, a Lutheran minister, and for many years principal of the seminary and a director of it, was descended from German ancestors who came to this country in 1703 and settled in Schoharie County, New York. The younger Sternberg received his academical training at the seminary, after which, intending to study medicine, he undertook a school at New Germantown, N. J., as a means of earning a part of the money required to defray the cost of his instruction in that science. The record of his school was one of quiet sessions, thoroughness, and popularity of the teacher, and his departure was an occasion of regret among his patrons.

When nineteen years old, young Sternberg began his medical studies with Dr. Horace Lathrop, in Cooperstown, N. Y. Afterward he attended the courses of the College of Physicians and Surgeons, New York, and was graduated thence in the class of 1860. Before he had fairly settled in practice the civil war began, and the attention of all young Americans was directed toward the military service. Among these was young Dr. Sternberg, who, having passed the examination, was appointed assistant surgeon May 28, 1861, and was attached to the command of General Sykes, Army of the Potomac. He was engaged in the battle of Bull Run, where, voluntarily remaining on the field with the wounded, he was taken prisoner, but was paroled to continue his humane work. On the expiration of his parole he made his way through the lines and reported at Washington for duty July 30, 1861—"weary, footsore, and worn." Of his conduct in later campaigns of the Army of the Potomac, General Sykes, in his official reports of the battles of Gaines Mill, Turkey Ridge, and Malvern Hill, said that "Dr. Sternberg added largely to the reputation already acquired on the disastrous field of Bull Run," He remained with General Sykes's command till August, 1862; was then assigned to hospital duty at Portsmouth Grove, R. I., till November, 1862; was afterward attached to General Banks's expedition as assistant to the medical director in the Department of the Gulf till January, 1864; was in the office of the medical director, Columbus, Ohio, and in charge of the United States General Hospital at Cleveland, Ohio, till July, 1865. Since the civil war he has been assigned successively to Jefferson Barracks, Mo.; Fort Harker and Fort Riley, Kansas; in the field in the Indian campaign, 1868 to 1870; Forts Columbus and Hamilton, New York Harbor; Fort Warren, Boston Harbor; Department of the Gulf and New Orleans; Fort Barrancas, Fla.; Department of the Columbia; Department Headquarters; Fort Walla Walla, Washington Territory; California; and Eastern stations. He was promoted to be captain and assistant surgeon in 1866, major and surgeon in 1875, lieutenant colonel and deputy surgeon general in 1891, and brigadier general and surgeon general in 1893. He has also received the brevets of captain and major in the United States Army "for faithful and meritorious services during the war, and of lieutenant colonel "for gallant service in performance of his professional duty under fire in action against Indians at Clearwater, Idaho, July 12, 1877." In the discharge of his duties at his various posts Dr. Sternberg had to deal with a cholera epidemic in Kansas in 1867, with a "yellow-fever epidemic" in New York Harbor in 1871, and with epidemics of yellow fever at Fort Barrancas, Fla., in 1873 and 1875. He served under special detail as member and secretary of the Havana Yellow-Fever Commission of the National Board of Health, 1879 to 1881; as a delegate from the United States under special instructions of the Secretary of State to the International Sanitary Conference at Rome in 1885; as a commissioner, under the act of Congress of March 3, 1887, to make investigations in Brazil, Mexico, and Cuba relating to the etiology and prevention of yellow fever; by special request of the health officer of the port of New York and the advisory committee of the New York Chamber of Commerce as consulting bacteriologist to the health officer of the port of New York in 1892; and he was a delegate to the International Medical Congress in Moscow in 1897.

Dr. Sternberg has contributed largely to the literature of scientific medicine from the results of his observations and experiments which he has made in these various spheres of duty.

His most fruitful researches have been made in the field of bacteriology and infectious diseases. He has enjoyed the rare advantage in pursuing these studies of having the material for his experiments close at hand in the course of his regular work, and of watching, we might say habitually, the progress of such diseases as yellow fever as it normally went on in the course of Nature. Of the quality of his bacteriological work, the writer of a biography in Red Cross Notes, reprinted in the North American Medical Review, goes so far as to say that "when the overzeal of enthusiasts shall have passed away, and the story of bacteriology in the nineteenth century is written up, it will probably be found that the chief who brought light out of darkness was George M. Sternberg. He was noted not so much for his brilliant discoveries, but rather for his exact methods of investigation, for his clear statements of the results of experimental data, for his enormous labors toward the perfection and simplification of technique, and finally for his services in the practical application of the truths taught by the science. His early labors in bacteriology were made with apparatus and under conditions that were crude enough." His work in this department is certainly among the most important that has been done. Its value has been freely acknowledged everywhere, it has given him a world-wide fame, and it has added to the credit of American science. The reviewer in Nature (June 22, 1893) of his Manual of Bacteriology, which was published in 1892, while a little disposed to criticise the fullness and large size of the book, describes it as "the latest, the largest, and, let us add, the most complete manual of bacteriology which has yet appeared in the English language. The volume combines in itself not only an account of such facts as are already established in the science from a morphological, chemical, and pathological point of view, discussions on such abstruse subjects as susceptibility and immunity, and also full details of the means by which these results have been obtained, and practical directions for the carrying on of laboratory work." This was not the first of Dr. Sternberg's works in bacteriological research. It was preceded by a work on Bacteria, of 498 pages, inclnding 152 pages translated from the work of Dr. Antoine Magnin (1884); Malaria and Malarial Diseases, and Photomicrographs and How to make Them. The manual is at once a book for reference, a text-book for students, and a handbook for the laboratory. Its four parts include brief notices of the history of the subject, classification, morphology, and an account of methods and practical laboratory work—"all clear and concise"; the biology and chemistry of bacteria, disinfection, and antiseptics; a detailed account of pathogenic bacteria, their modes of action, the way they may gain access to the system, susceptibility and immunity, to which Dr. Sternberg's own contributions have been not the least important; and saprophytic bacteria in water, in the soil, in or on the human body, and in food, the whole number of saprophytes described being three hundred and thirty-one. "The merit of a work of this kind," Nature says, "depends not less on the number of species described than on the clearness and accuracy of the descriptions, and Dr. Sternberg has spared no pains to make these as complete as possible." The bibliography in this work fills more than a hundred pages, and contains 2,582 references. A later book on a kindred subject is Immunity, Protective Inoculations, and Serum Therapy (1895). Dr. Sternberg has also published a Text-Book of Bacteriology.

Bearing upon yellow fever are the Report upon the Prevention of Yellow Fever by Inoculation, submitted in March, 1888; Report upon the Prevention of Yellow Fever, illustrated by photomicrographs and cuts, 1890; and Examination of the Blood in Yellow Fever (experiments upon animals, etc.), in the Preliminary Report of the Havana Yellow-Fever Commission, 1879. Other publications in the list of one hundred and thirty-one titles of Dr. Sternberg's works, and mostly consisting of shorter articles, relate to Disinfectants and their Value, the Etiology of Malarial Fevers, Septicaemia, the Germicide Value of Therapeutic Agents, the Etiology of Croupous Pneumonia, the Bacillus of Typhoid Fever, the Thermal Death Point of Pathogenic Organisms, the Practical Results of Bacteriological Researches, the Cholera Spirillum, Disinfection at Quarantine Stations, the Infectious Agent of Smallpox, official reports as Surgeon General of the United States Army, addresses and reports at the meetings of the American Public Health Association, and an address to the members of the Pan-American Congress. One paper is recorded quite outside of the domain of microbes and fevers, to show what the author might have done if he had allowed his attention to be diverted from his special absorbing field of work. It is upon the Indian Burial Mounds and Shell Heaps near Pensacola, Fla.

The medical and scientific societies of which Dr. Sternberg is a member include the American Public Health Association, of which he is also an ex-president (1886); the American Association of Physicians; the American Physiological Society; the American Microscopical Society, of which he is a vice-president; the American Association for the Advancement of Science, of which he is a Fellow; the New York Academy of Medicine (a Fellow); and the Association of Military Surgeons of the United States (president in 1896). He is a Fellow of the Royal Microscopical Society of London; an honorary member of the Epidemiological Society of London, of the Royal Academy of Medicine of Rome, of the Academy of Medicine of Rio de Janeiro, of the American Academy of Medicine, of the French Society of Hygiene, etc.; was President of the Section on Military Medicine and Surgery of the Pan-American Congress; was a Fellow by courtesy in Johns Hopkins University, 1885 to 1890; was President of the Biological Society of Washington in 1896, and of the American Medical Association in 1897; and has been designated Honorary President of the Thirteenth International Medical Congress, which is to meet in Paris in 1900. He received the degree of LL. D. from the University of Michigan in 1894, and from Brown University in 1897.

Dr. Sternberg's view of the right professional standard of the physician is well expressed in the sentiment, "To maintain our standing in the estimation of the educated classes we must not rely upon our diplomas or upon our membership in medical societies. Work and worth are what count." He does not appear to be attached to any particular school, but, as his Red Cross Notes biographer says, "has placed himself in the crowd 'who have been moving forward upon the substantial basis of scientific research, and who, if characterized by any distinctive name, should be called the New School of Scientific Medicine.' He holds that if our practice was in accordance with our knowledge many diseases would disappear; he sees no room for creeds or patents in medicine. He is willing to acknowledge the right to prescribe either a bread pill or a leaden bullet. But if a patient dies from diphtheria because of a failure to administer a proper remedy, or if infection follows from dirty fingers or instruments, if a practitioner carelessly or ignorantly transfers infection, he believes he is not fit to practice medicine.… He rejects every theory or dictum that has not been clearly demonstrated to him as an absolute truth."

While he is described as without assumption, Dr. Sternberg is represented as being evidently in his headquarters as surgeon general in every sense the head of the service, the chief whose will governs all. Modest and unassuming, he is described as being most exacting, a man of command, of thorough execution, a general whose eyes comprehend every detail, and who has studied the personality of every member of his corps. He is always busy, but seemingly never in a hurry; systematic, accepting no man's dictum, and taking nothing as an established fact till he has personal experimental evidence of its truth. He looks into every detail, and takes equal care of the health of the general in chief and of the private. His addresses are carefully prepared, based on facts he has himself determined, made in language so plain that they will not be misunderstood, free from sentiment, and delivered in an easy conversational style, and his writings are "pen pictures of his results in the laboratory and clinic room."

The thirty-first year of the Peabody Museum of American Archæology and Ethnology was signalized by the transfer of its property to the corporation of Harvard College, whereby simplicity and greater permanence have been given to its management. The four courses of instruction in the museum were attended by sixteen students, and these, with others, make twenty-one persons, besides the curator, who are engaged in study or special research in subjects included under the term anthropology. Special attention is given by explorers in the service of the museum to the investigation of the antiquities of Yucatan and Central America, of which its publications on Copan, the caves of Loltun, and Labná, have been noticed in the Monthly. These explorations have been continued when and where circumstances made it feasible. Among the gifts acknowledged in the report of the museum are two hundred facsimile copies of the Aztec Codex Vaticanus, from the Duke of Loubat, an original Mexican manuscript of 1531, on agave paper, from the Mary Hemenway estate; the extensive private archaeological collection of Mr. George W. Hammond; articles from Georgia mounds, from Clarence B. Moore, and other gifts of perhaps less magnitude but equal interest. Mr. Andrew Gibb, of Edinburgh, has given five pieces of rudely made pottery from the Hebrides, which were made several years ago by a woman who is thought to have been the last one to make pottery according to the ancient method of shaping the clay with the hands, and without the use of any form of potter's wheel. Miss Maria Whitney, sister of the late Prof. J. D. Whitney, has presented the "Calaveras skull" and the articles found with it, and all the original documents relating to its discovery and history. Miss Phebe Ferris, of Madisonville, Ohio, has bequeathed to the museum about twenty-five acres of land, on which is situated the ancient mound where Dr. Metz and Curator Putnam have investigated for several years, and whence a considerable collection has been obtained. Miss Ferris expressed the desire that the museum continue the explorations, and after completing convert the tract into a public park. Mr. W. B. Nicker has explored some virgin mounds near Galena, Ill., and a rock shelter and stone grave near Portage, Ill. The library of the museum now contains 1,838 volumes and 2,479 pamphlets on anthropology.