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A Diligent Effort

One of the giants of 20th-century medicine—neurosurgeon Harvey Cushing—was bound and determined to pay homage to a seminal American physician who lived a century before him—Dartmouth Medical School founder Nathan Smith. It's a saga filled with historical coincidence.

By Lee A. Witters, M.D.

On April 26, 1638—18 years after the Mayflower's departure for the New World—the 350-ton Diligent of Ipswich set sail from Gravesend, England. captained by John Martin, the ship carried 133 passengers. The Diligent made landfall on August 10 in Boston, then proceeded immediately to Hingham, Mass., a South Shore town founded just five years earlier. Among the passengers who disembarked and settled there were Matthew Cushing and Henry Smith.

What kind of relationship they had with each other, if any, is not part of recorded history. But the lives of a direct descendant of each—Dr. Harvey Williams Cushing, the father of neurosurgery and a pioneer in endocrinology, and Dr. Nathan Smith, the founder of Dartmouth Medical School—were destined to connect 300 years later. Both Nathan Smith and Harvey Cushing were giants of American medicine in their own time, Smith in the early 19th century and Cushing in the early 20th century. Proof of the confluence of their careers lies in documents in the Dartmouth archives and in a bronze plaque that now adorns a hallway in the Remsen Building at Dartmouth Medical School.

At the unveiling of that plaque on June 17, 1929, Harvey Cushing explained that by the 1700s, the Smith and Cushing families had both moved from Hingham to Rehoboth, Mass. Then they parted ways for a while. The Cushings, in the person of David Cushing, the first physician in that family, moved to Cheshire, in western Massachusetts, and the Smiths headed for Chester, Vt., in 1772, when Nathan was 10 years old.

Just 37 years later, the paths of Smith and Cushing descendants crossed once again. In 1809, a young medical student named Ezekiel Dodge Cushing appeared in Nathan Smith's anatomy classroom at Dartmouth Medical School, then all of 12 years old. Ezekiel, though not in Harvey Cushing's direct lineage, sprang from the same Hingham Cushings. Through copious correspondence with his family, Ezekiel was an avid chronicler of DMS's early years. One of his letters, for example, includes one of the most vivid surviving descriptions of an 1809 "anatomy riot"—an event sparked by public opposition to the practice of human dissection. (That and subsequent similar events may have been a factor in Nathan Smith's 1813 departure from Dartmouth for Yale, where he was instrumental in founding its medical school.)

Nathan Smith dedicated this DMS building in 1811 by giving the first lecture within its walls. Harvey Cushing gave a talk in the same building in 1929, at the dedication of a plaque celebrating Smith, whom Cushing admired greatly. The photograph dates from about 1960, and the building was razed in 1963.

The covers of the definitive biographies of Cushing and Smith—published in 2005 and 1998, respectively—are eerily similar.

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Witters is the Eugene W. Leonard 1921 Professor of Medicine and of Biochemistry at Dartmouth Medical School, as well as a professor of biological sciences at Dartmouth College. For more about his academic interests, see the Summer 2006 "Faculty Focus". Witters is indebted to Barbara Krieger of the Rauner Special Collections Library at Dartmouth for assistance with historical research for this article and to Constance Putnam and Drs. David Roberts and Robert Nye for helpful discussions. Some spelling and punctuation in the quotations here have been modernized and corrected for ease of comprehension.

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