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, Winifred (Mrs. William Dean) Howells, Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman (whose story “The Yellow Wallpaper” condemns the cure).
In 1858, Mitchell married Mary Middleton Elwyn, who died in 1862 leaving two sons—John, who became a doctor, and Langdon, who became a poet and playwright. In 1875, Mitchell married Mary Cadwalader; their only child, a daughter, died from diphtheria.
Despite his professional experimentation, Mitchell was conservative and highly moralistic, as he once demonstrated by flinging a Philadelphia Public Library copy of a book by Sigmund Freud into a fire. Mitchell’s medical experience influenced the careful psychological analyses which pervade his creative writing. Powerfully drawn to literature, he had written a collection of poetry by 1856, but physician-author Oliver Wendell Holmes advised him to delay commitment to a literary career until after becoming well established as a neurologist. After 1880, Mitchell averaged one published book of poetry or fiction per year until his death.
His poems, except for “Ode on a Lycian Tomb,” an elegy to his daughter, have not outlived him, but his novels are still read as curiosa and (by students of literature) as forerunners of the modern psychological novel. His first novel, In War Time, has for its setting a Philadelphia army hospital and portrays the moral weakness of a Dr. Ezra Wendell. Roland Blake has as its central character Octopia Darnell, a neurotic woman whose bold characterization caused a minor revolution in American fiction in 1886; she was the first of a series of possessive female neurotics he depicted in his fiction. Hugh Wynne, Free Quaker , written in six weeks and considered his best work, is a historical novel, based on his own eighteenth century ancestors. It has been called the most popular novel of...
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