Silas Weir Mitchell Biography


Born February 15, 1829, life-long Philadelphian Silas Weir Mitchell earned an immortal niche in the history of American medicine before achieving a more modest place in American letters. Son of physician and poet John Kearsley Mitchell, he began a classical education at the University of Pennsylvania but left during his senior year because of illness. He graduated from Philadelphia’s Jefferson Medical College (where his father taught) in 1850 and studied in Paris for a year with physiologist Claude Bernard and microscopist Charles Phillippe Robin. Upon returning to Philadelphia in 1851, he practiced medicine and assisted his father.

An active researcher, he was elected into Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences in 1853. During the Civil War, he took charge of Turner’s Lane Hospital in Philadelphia, the first facility to specialize in nervous illnesses caused by wounds. Mitchell pioneered research in a variety of fields (such as the discovery of the double-poison in snake venom) and published a total of 171 scientific papers, mostly in the field of neurology. Combining medical practice and research, he became a professor at the Philadelphia Poly clinic and then devoted more than forty years to the Philadelphia Orthopedic Hospital and Infirmary for Nervous Disorders. Beginning in 1875, he enjoyed considerable prestige as trustee of the University of Pennsylvania and received honorary degrees from leading American and European universities. Mitchell is most remembered for his infamous “rest cure” therapy, which attracted such famous women as Jane Addams,...

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Burr, Anna Robeson Brown. 2d ed. Weir Mitchell, His Life and Letters. New York: Duffield, 1930. An early biography.

Burr, Charles W. S. Weir Mitchell, Physician, Man of Science, Man of Letters. Philadelphia: The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, 1920. Biographical lecture delivered in Mitchell’s honor.

Earnest, Ernest Penney. S. Weir Mitchell, Novelist and Physician. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1950. Biography.

Lovering, Joseph P. S. Weir Mitchell. New York: Twayne, 1971. Biography.

Poirier, Suzanne. “The Weir Mitchell Rest Cure: Doctors and Patients.” Women’s Studies 10, no. 1 (1983): 15-40. Places Mitchell’s rest cure in its medical historical context and looks at its representation in literature.

Rein, David M. S. Weir Mitchell as a Psychiatric Novelist. New York: International Universities Press, 1952. Mitchell’s literary career has received little attention, but discussions of his poetry and fiction are found here.