S. Weir Mitchell

2nd APS President (1889-1890)

S. Weir Mitchell
(b. 1829- d.1914)

Though the record is scanty, it appears that Mitchell, who served as the second president of the American Physiological Society, was the chief instigator in its formation. Mitchell was born and raised in Philadelphia, the son of a respected physician and Professor of Medicine at Jefferson Medical School. Upon graduation from Jefferson in 1849, Mitchell attended medical lectures in Paris for a year. The teachers who most influenced him were Charles Robin in microscopy and Claude Bernard in physiology.

On his return from France to take over his ill father’s practice he also instituted a program of scientific investigation. By 1862, he had published 33 scientific papers dealing with various aspects of circulation, respiration, muscle, reflex activity, and the actions of various chemical and physical agents. He collaborated with William Hammond, an army surgeon, on the effects of venoms and toxins. Their work received favorable attention from the scientific community both in the United States and Europe, and they were recognized as the most distinguished physiologists in the United States by the onset of the Civil War in 1861. The great historical event that was to shape Mitchell’s life was the Civil War. A special hospital for “stumps and nervous diseases” was set up by Hammond, then the Surgeon General, to which Mitchell, John Morehouse, and William Keen were assigned. Their wartime studies were published in 1864 in a landmark book, Gunshot Wounds and Other Injuries of Nerves Mitchell also wrote a more influential book, Injuries of Nerves and Their Consequences, published in 1872.

A partial wound, such as that made by a penetrating missile, might have serious long-lasting consequences, giving rise to a form of neuralgia Mitchell described as “causalgia.” Many of the symptoms led Mitchell to implicate the sympathetic nervous system. Mitchell’s account of causalgia is still of value and its pathophysiology is an important subject of research today. Another long-enduring, often painful state is associated with Phantom Limb, the illusion after an amputation that the missing member still remains present. It was only after Mitchell’s detailed description of the phenomenon in a large number of cases, and his physiological study of it, that this became recognized as something other than a neurosis or mental aberration. He and his colleagues also performed experiments on the knee jerk reflex, on cold block of nerves, and on the effect of stretching nerves. They also studied the cerebellum, which was interpreted by them as “a great reinforcing organ . . . being more or less used in volitional muscular function,” a generalization anticipating Luciani.

In his later years he specialized in neurology, including neurotic and hysterical patients in his practice. He was an important forerunner in the use of a form of psychotherapy for them, his contributions to this field being greatly overshadowed by Freud. In all, his bibliography of scientificand medical publications totaled 225. In addition to his full schedule of clinical work and experimental studies, Mitchell wrote imaginative literature. This was originally a diversion, and then, after he became a popular author, it became another parallel career. He wrote some 15 novels plus 22 other literary works, most dealing with historical and psychiatric themes. Two of Mitchell’s shorter works dealing with the history of physiology are worthy of mention. One is a small tract dealing with some letters of Harvey that had then recently come to light, a creditable piece of historical writing filling out some aspects of Harvey’s background and life. The other is on the history of instrumentation, mainly of the simple instruments a clinician might then use. These included a thermometer for detecting fever and a pocket watch to count the pulse and perhaps the rate of respiration. Mitchell considered that “the quantitative measurement of a particular body function becomes an extension of and amplification of the physician’s sense organs.” He was disappointed in failing to win a chair in physiology, which would have given him the time and financial support he needed. However, he was a central force in giving impetus to the contributions of many others to medical science. This he did through the promotion of societies such as the American Physiological Society and the American Neurological Society. In addition, he influenced young men to enter research and aided them through his high-placed social contacts and even in some cases with his own funds. His enthusiasm for research can be seen in the presidential address he gave in 1909 to the American Neurological Society at the age of 80, where he dealt with the terra incognita of the neural sciences remaining to be explored.

In that same year Mitchell was honored when the new building of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia was dedicated and the great hall in it named for him. At the dedication ceremonies, Andrew Carnegie, one of the substantial benefactors, spoke of his friendship and affection for
Mitchell, concluding: “Here he sits today-all that can accompany old age he has-honor, love, obedience, troops of friends, and the record you leave behind you.. . .* Mitchell died in 1914, just short of his 85th birthday, with a life in medical science fulfilled and in whose spirit of the love of science we and future generations can share.

By Sidney Ochs
The Physiologist Vol. 30, No. 4 1987
pp. 80-81