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Vital Signs

Taking a close look at a historical claim

Events that later prove significant sometimes don't seem earth-shaking at the time they occur. That's why determining historical firsts after the fact is a perilous endeavor. But amateur and professional historians alike enjoy trying to pin down the terminus a quo of this or that event.

So when Dr. James Cavanagh, DMS '52, visited an exhibit on Oliver Wendell Holmes at Harvard's Countway Library of Medicine a few months ago, he was struck by an apparent disconnect. The legend next to an 1835 microscope said that Holmes, "after completing his studies in Paris, returned to Harvard with his microscope and began America's first course in microscopy." But Cavanagh recalled that Holmes had taught at DMS in 1839 and 1840, well before he joined the Harvard faculty in 1847. (In fact, even earlier, Holmes had taught at Boston's Tremont Medical School.) So Cavanagh looked up an article written for the Fall 1980 issue of this magazine by DMS neuroanatomist Wilbert Chambers, Ph.D. Holmes, wrote Chambers, "was distinguished for introducing the use of


This 1830 French microscope owned by DMS is likely similar to Holmes's.

the microscope. From the beginning of his career, his lectures in gross anatomy were supplemented with the addition of histological instruction and demonstration. Thus, Dartmouth Medical School was one of the first institutions in America to include histology in its curriculum." This rings true. Holmes surely would have used his Parisian microscope for demonstrations at Dartmouth. He liked gadgets and even adapted one microscope to enhance its use in the classroom.

The surviving evidence doesn't prove that Holmes actually taught a course in histology or microscopy at Dartmouth—or at Harvard, either. Not until the 1870s did course titles at most schools reflect with precision a breakdown of their subject matter. Yet to the extent that Holmes used—and taught his charges how to use—a microscope at Dartmouth, his students there would have benefited from this aspect of his Paris training even earlier than those at Harvard.

Constance E. Putnam

Putnam is the author of the definitive biography of DMS's founder, Dr. Nathan Smith, and of a newly published 200-year history of DMS. Sadly, there is another footnote to this foray into the past: Wilbert Chambers, author of the article cited above and a muchloved teacher of neuroanatomy, died on October 21, 2004.

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