Text: David E. E. Sloane, “Chapter 01: Poe’s Sources of Medical Information,” Early Nineteenth-Century Medicine in Poe’s Short Stories, Master of Arts Thesis, Duke University, 1966, pp. 2-15 (This material is protected by copyright)


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Poe’s earliest references to medical works appear in two book reviews which he wrote for the Southern Literary Messenger in 1835 and 1836. His short stories show clearly the influence of phrenology in 1838 and 1839, and he undoubtedly learned a great deal about that science in connection with the lectures of the British phrenologist Dr. George Combe in America. Mesmerism appears first in Poe’s short stories written in 1844. Poe wrote three tales dealing with mesmerism in 1844 and 1845, probably intended to take advantage of the contemporary interest in the science during those years. In the last period of his life, 1844 to 1849, spent largely in New York City, Poe was influenced to some extent by Dr. John W. Francis, mentioned in “The Literati.” Dr. Francis was a follower of Dr. Benjamin Rush, the most influential figure in the realm of medicine during the romantic era, and one whose influence can be seen throughout Poe’s short stories.

In 1835 and 1836, Poe wrote two reviews of medical works for the Southern Literary Messenger which offer some clues to the extent of his knowledge of medical sources at that time. [page 3:] His reference to Dr. Robley Dunglison in November, 1836, is useful as an index of Poe’s knowledge of orthodox medical writings. The reference appears in a “Critical Notice” of The British and Foreign Medical Review, which had reviewed one of Dr. Dunglison’s works:

Among the American physicians whose names are brought with praise before the British public in the Review before us are Drs. Dunglison, Geddings, Smith, of Baltimore, and Jackson (senior and junior), of Boston. Though Dr. Dunglison is an Englishman born, we claim his professional merits chiefly for America, who has fostered, developed and matured, by appreciating and rewarding them. . . .

In No. 2 [of the Medical Review], is a very favorable review of Dr. Dunglison’s late work on the elements of hygiene. Like his prior work on human physiology (of which, as well as of his Medical Dictionary, America is the birth place), this valuable treatise is rather technical than popular; being designed more for the medical than for the general readers.(1)

Poe knew of Dr. Dunglison’s work before he wrote his review for the Southern Literary Messenger, a fact which may account for the extended reference he accorded to Dr. Dunglison. When Poe was at the University of Virginia in 1826, Dr. Dunglison was lecturing there on anatomy and medicine. Although Poe was not formally enrolled in medicine, he must have known of Dr. Dunglison and followed his career, for the medical works which Poe mentions in his review appeared at various times after Poe’s year at the University. Dunglison’s Medical Dictionary appeared in 1833, ultimately reaching twenty-three editions as the standard medical lexicon of Poe’s era. [page 4:]

Of the works of Dr. Dunglison mentioned by Poe, Dunglison’s Medical Dictionary was the most widely known, and provides definitions and descriptions of medical terms found in many of Poe’s short stories. Dr. Dunglison includes in his lexicon a long description of phrenology, detailed analysis of consumption, references to miasma and nervous fever, and other medical information used by Poe in his short stories.

In his November, 1836, “Critical Notices,” Poe also gives some attention to the work of another prominent writing doctor of the era, the British phrenologist Dr. George Combe:

In the same article [a review of Dr. Dunglison’s Elements of Hygiene], is a detailed description of the before mentioned essay of Dr. Combe, on Hygiene. . . . The whole range of physical authorship, we have long believed, does not present an equal to this modest little book of Dr. Combe’s, for curious, interesting, and valuable truth: not to physicians alone, . . . but to every class of mankind.(2)

Dr. Combe’s work on hygiene was carried on in conjunction with his work on phrenology; and his inquiries into the interactions of the human mind and body were famous in his own time. As with many other phrenologists, Dr. Combe’s medical reputation rested on distinguished contributions to orthodox medical practice not far removed from the area of phrenology. Dr. Combe is an outstanding example of the combination of rational and empirical medicine. At the same time that he was an ardent student of phrenology, he presented a case study, “History of a Case of Anemia,” to the Royal Society which foreshadowed the recognition [page 5:] and study of the disease now known as pernicious anemia.(3)

Poe’s outline summary of Combe on Mental Health appears to be little more than a reference to the introduction of the work, a reviewing practice which he followed in treating other scientific works, such as Roget’s Animal and Vegetable Physiology.(4) The principle central to all of Dr. Combe’s investigations, however, is established:

The topics it particularly treats of, are the structure and functions of the skin — of the muscular system — the lungs — the bones — and the nervous system, with the mental faculties, supposed to be connected with it.(5)

Like Combe on Mental Health, the much more widely known work, The Constitution of Man, deals with the interactions of body and mind. Phrenology is employed to show that the propensities of the mind can run counter to the requirements of the body, requirements controlled by physical laws rather than intellectual desires or moral precepts.(6) The Constitution of Man appeared in the United States in 1828 and was in its third edition by 1835. It appeared in many editions, and was still being published after Poe’s death. [page 6:]

In a “Critical Notice” preceding the “Medical Review” by several months, Poe mentions another work by Dr. Combe, The Elements of Phrenology.(7) Poe’s reference to “George Combe who wrote the ‘Phrenology’”(8) appears in a review of Miles’ Phrenology in the March, 1835, Southern Literary Messenger. It is worth noting that Poe’s citations from Miles’ Phrenology follow the format of Dr. Combe’s book even to the use of specific examples. Both books on phrenology are self-explanatory and comprehensible without serious study. Most works on phrenology, in fact, follow the outlines of the science given by Dr. J. G. Spurzheim, the popularizer of phrenology in Great Britain. Dr. Combe supplemented and improved Dr. Spurzheim’s work and followed him to the United States, where Dr. Spurzheim had died in1832., in Boston, before delivering the series of lectures which he had planned.(9) Combe was to take up the idea of a lecture series, as we shall see, with important consequences for Poe’s short stories.

At the same time that Poe expressed his interest in the [page 7:] works of Dr. Combe on phrenology, medical articles treating all aspects of medicine were appearing in magazines and pamphlets very probably encountered by an inveterate reader of periodicals such as Poe seems to have been. Dr. Robert W. Haxall’s “A Disseration on the Importance of Physical Signs in the Various Diseases of the Abdomen and Thorax,” which Poe reviewed in the October, 1836, Southern Literary Messenger, no doubt came to him in this way. If an interest in the pathology of fever led Poe to Dr. Haxall’s dissertation, an interest in either literature, vituperation, or science would have led him to a number of polemical works on phrenology, best exemplified in Dr. Charles Caldwell’s “Phrenology Vindicated and Anti-Phrenology Unmasked.” Dr. Caldwell, a student of Dr. Benjamin Rush, became the leading American proponent of phrenology when he brought the science back with him from Edinburgh in 1822.(10) His students at Transylvania University prevailed upon him to publish his Elements of Phrenology in 1824, after which he began lecturing and distributing free pamphlets on the science. Subjected to violent attacks, Dr. Caldwell retaliated with tomahawk criticisms and charges of plagiarism against his opponents. His articles appeared in the New England Magazine in 1832 and in the North [page 8:] American Review in 1833.(11) The latter magazine printed “Phrenology Vindicated,” which showed the manner of distortion employed by the enemies of the science, using examples culled from their own works as well as numerous literary citations. This work was later issued as a book.(12) Other articles on phrenology dealt with its use in literature, much as H. T. Tuckerman’s “Allusions to Phrenology in the ‘Last Days of Pompeii,’” which was published in the Annals of Phrenology, a Boston magazine, in 1835.(13)

In 1838 and 1839, the doctrines of phrenology were widely discussed because of Dr. George Combe’s visit to the United States and his lectures on phrenology. The influence of these lectures on Poe’s short stories is strong, and may be verified by the text of Dr. Combe’s regular series of sixteen lectures, which was published by Fowler & Wells of New York City in 1839, and reached a third edition in 1854. Dr. Combe’s lectures lasted for two hours, during the course of which he discussed phrenological tenets such as the four temperaments, “nervous,” “choleric,” “billious,” and “sanguine,” and the usual phrenological propensities of “ideality,” “love of life,” and so [page 9:] on.(14) When Dr. Combe lectured in New York City from November 19, 1838, to December 24, 1838, Dr. John W. Francis, later Poe’s friend and physician, was named to the committee of appreciation.

Dr. Combe lectured twice in Philadelphia, where Poe was living in 1839. His first series of lectures was given from January 4, 1839, to February 8, 1839; he returned to Philadelphia to lecture from March 2, 1839, to April 6, 1839. Nicholas Biddle and Dr. John Bell, author of Bell’s Anatomy, the standard textbook on the subject at this time, were among the more than 600 prominent Philadelphians who heard the first series of lectures.(15) After lecturing in Philadelphia, Dr. Combe lectured in New England. His lectures there influenced Longfellow, as we shall see that they had influenced Poe in Philadelphia, a coincidence which indicates the hold which phrenology had on the minds of American authors. Poe published “The Haunted Palace” in April, 1839, and included it in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” in Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine in September, 1839. In November, 1839, Longfellow published his poem “The Beleagured City,” making use of the same castle-cranium-consciousness imagery which Poe had used. The juxtaposition of themes and dates, if [page 10:] not confirming Poe’s later charge of plagiarism,(16) implies that Dr. Combe’s lectures suggested the use of phrenology as a literary metaphor to both authors in the same way, and at almost the same time.

In the 1840’s a number of phrenologists turned to mesmerism and, ultimately, to spiritualism or clairvoyance. Dr. Charles Caldwell, the phrenological polemicist, turned his attention to mesmerism. Dr. John Elliotson, president of the Royal Medical and Chirurgical Society and one of the founders of the University College Hospital in London in 1834, also turned from phrenology to mesmerism.(17) In 1843, he used a motto from J. F. Gall, the original founder of phrenology, to preface his Numerous Cases of Surgical Operations without Pain in the Mesmeric State.(18) The two Fowler Brothers of Fowler & Wells, New York City “Phrenologists and Publishers,” added mesmerism to their phrenological interests, publishing Lectures on the Philosophy of Animal Magnetism, in 1843, by John Bovee Dods, one of the [page 11:] better known mesmerists in New York City in the 1840’s.

Mesmerism attracted as much literary attention as did phrenology, but more in England than America. In England Thackeray dedicated Pendennis to Dr. Elliotson. Harriet Martineau, Carlyle, and the Bronte sisters were also interested in the science in the 1830’s. In Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin’s report entitled Animal Magnetism was reprinted in 1838.(19) Poe apparently became interested in mesmerism at the time he moved to New York City in 1844. In that year, he interviewed Andrew Jackson Davis, “The Poughkeepsie Clairvoyant,” who was lecturing on “mesmerism, transcendental theories and psychic phenomenon.”(20)

Poe reviewed W. Newnham’s Human Magnetism a year after he met Andrew Jackson Davis. His review, in the Broadway Journal, April 5, 1845, treats Human Magnetism superficially, according to S. E. Lind, in “Poe and Mesmerism.”(21) Mr. Lind suggests, however, that Poe drew on C. H. Townshend’s Facts in Mesmerism for the three mesmeric stories which he published in 1844 and 1845.(22) Similarities in names and case histories exist at several points. Poe’s application of mesmeric philosophy to material decomposition follows the work of another mesmerist, John Bovee Dods. In Dr. Dod’s The Philosophy of Electrical Psychology, and “Electrical [page 12:] Theory of the universe, and the Connecting Link between mind and inert matter” is proposed which suggests Poe’s story “Mesmeric Revelations.”(23) Poe used animal magnetism fictionally from 1843 to 1845 and attempted to work analytically with Dod’s electrical theory in his long prose poem, Eureka.

In 1844, Poe moved from Philadelphia to New York, where he and his wife were treated by Dr. John W. Francis, through whom Poe no doubt heard expounded the theories of Dr. Benjamin Rush. Dr. Rush was the leading American doctor at the end of the eighteenth century, and one whose influence was felt throughout the American medicine in Poe’s era. The origin of Dr. Rush’s medical theories lay in eighteenth-century rationalism. His inquiries into medical phenomena appear to be based on observation, although the rational assumptions which preceded such studies usually predetermined the results. Dr. Rush and his colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania trained an entire generation of doctors in the United States to apply the active, “rational” modes of treatment which typify this school of medicine in Poe’s era.

Dr. Rush’s work is important to the Poe canon, for every educated man of the early 1800’s would have known or read Dr. Rush’s Medical Inquiries and Observations. His theories were reflected, as well, in a number of household medical books with titles such as The Family Physician, widely available throughout [page 13:] the 1830’s. Dr. Rush’s Medical Inquiries appeared in 1800 and reached a fifth edition by 1818.(24) The contents of the work are essays and reports of considerable variety. Dr. Rush examines the effects of alcohol on the systems extensively, a subject of interest to Poe. In another essay, he suggests that sensations might be translated from one area of the body to another and advocates the extraction of decayed teeth to alleviate seemingly unrelated ailments, an idea followed out in Poe’s “Berenice.” The doctor deals with consumption and related topics in a number of essays which have their counterparts in Poe’s short stories. The writings of Dr. Rush must also have reached Poe second hand. Home medical books and the voluble Dr. Francis are two likely sources for such a secondary influence. Dr. Rush’s doctrines were important to the phrenologists, as well. His inquiries into the interaction of physical and moral faculties were developed by the phrenologists into the fully articulated system found in the works of Dr. George Combe.(25) Dr. Rush’s accounts of the yellow fever epidemics in Philadelphia inspired Charles Brockden Brown’s descriptions of Philadelphia in Arthur Mervyn, and, thus, may have affected Poe’s short stories.

Dr. Francis, at the time of his death in 1865, was one [page 14:] of the last of the rational school, believing to the end of his life in the practice of blood-letting for the relief of fever, as had Dr. Rush.(26) Dr. Francis followed the interests of Dr. Rush in potable mater, alcoholism, and yellow fever, and a sketch of Dr. Francis in Poe’s “The Literati” contains a list of Dr. Francis’ achievements which parallel those of Dr. Rush:

Among the points he has made at various times, I may mention his Anatomy of Drunkenness, his views of the Asiatic cholera, his analysis of the Avon waters of the state, his establishment of the comparative immunity of the constitution from a second attack of yellow fever, and his pathological propositions on the changes wrought in the system by specific poisons. . . .(27)

Dr. Francis was active in many facets of New York City life, and his dealings with Poe were varied. A biography by H. T. Tuckerman mentions that Dr. Francis introduced Poe into company as “The Raven,”(28) and other sources indicate that the doctor excused Poe from several difficulties by reason of Poe’s alcoholic insanity.(29) Dr. Francis’ attempt to found an Egyptian museum may have given Poe the idea for “Some Words with a Mummy,” and the “Doctor F——” of “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” is certainly meant to be taken for Dr. Francis. [page 15:]

Poe’s medical knowledge is distinctly early nineteenth-century in nature, as is suggested by the medical works and men known to him. Early nineteenth-century medicine was rationalistic and, therefore, accessible to the layman through its dependence on logic rather than the complex analysis of empirical data. Dr. Benjamin Rush’s Medical Inquiries and Dr. George Combe’s Lectures on Phrenology are representative of the rational school of medicine in their reliance on the powers of the mind and on the power of active intervention against disease. This medicine has been called the medicine of a romantic era,(30) probably because of the readiness of nineteenth-century practitioners to view disease as a natural antagonist which might be understood and mastered through rational investigation. Poe’s short stories show the influences of this thought in his application of medical knowledge through details, as well as through the development of action.



[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 3:]

1.  Edgar Allan Poe, “Medical Review,” Southern Literary Messenger II (Nov., 1836), 785-786.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 4:]

2.  Poe, SLM II (Nov., 1836), pp. 785-786.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 5:]

3.  Bernard J. Ficarra, Essays on Historical Medicine (New York: Froben Press, 1948), p. 160.

4.  David K. Whisnant, “Edgar Allan Poe’s Study of Science” (unpublished Duke U. Master’s Thesis, 1962), pp. 32-35.

5.  Poe, SLM II (Nov., 1836), p. 786.

6.  George Combe, The Constitution of Man (Edinburgh: MacLachlan & Stewart, 1839).

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 6:]

7.  Edgar Allan Poe, “Miles’ Phrenology,” Southern Literary Messenger I (March, 1836), 286-287.

8.  Ibid., p. 286. Dr. Combe’s book on phrenology appeared in the United States in 1822.

9.  Nahum Capen, Reminiscences of Dr. Spurgheim and George Combe (New York: Fowler & Wells, 1881), pp. 8-10, 19, implies that Dr. Spurzheim’s visit was greeted with considerable interest by the faculties of several outstanding New England colleges. The printing firm of Marsh, Capen, & Lyon issued Dr. Spurzheim’s Phrenology, or the Doctrine of the Mental Phenomena in Boston, 1832.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 7:]

10.  In the same year, “Dr. John Bell republished at Philadelphia, with a short preliminary discourse, Dr. Combe’s Essays on Phrenology. This appears to have been the first publication in favor of the science, issued in the United States, . . .” according to Dr. Andrew Boardman’s introduction to Dr. Combe’s Lectures on Phrenology (New York: Fowler & Wells, 1854), p. 78.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 8:]

11.  Andrew Boardman, op. cit., pp. 78-79.

12.  Charles Caldwell, Phrenology Vindicated, and Anti-Phrenology Unmasked (New York: Samuel Colman, 1838).

13.  Annals of Phrenology (Boston: Marsh, Capen, & Lyon, 1834), I, 459-464.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 9:]

14.  George Combe, Lectures on Phrenology, third ed. (New York: Fowler & Wells, 1854). The first edition of the lectures appeared in December 1839. There are actually thirty-three separate phrenological faculties which will be discussed in the following chapter in the section dealing with phrenology.

15.  Andrew Boardman, op. cit., p. vii.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 10:]

16.  Poe wrote to R. W. Griswold from Philadelphia, March 29, 1841, “The identity of title is striking; for by ‘The Haunted Palace’ I mean to imply a mind haunted by phantoms — a disordered brain — and by the ‘Beleagured City,’ Prof. L. means just the same.” See James A. Harrison’s The Life and Letters of Edgar Allan Poe (New York: Thomas [[Y.]] Crowell & Co., 1903), pp. 215-219.

17.  Margaret Goldsmith, Franz Anton Mesmer: A History of Mesmerism (Garden City, N. J.: Doubleday & Co., 1934), pp. 215-219.

18.  Poe’s review of W. Newnham’s Human Magnetism in the Broadway Journal, June 21, 1845, states a belief in the use of mesmerism in surgical operations, which may indicate a knowledge of Dr. Elliotson’s tract. See The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, James A. Harrison, ed. (New York: Thomas [[Y.]] Crowell & Col, 1902), XII, 121-123.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 11:]

19.  Poe, op. cit., p. 296.

20.  Sidney E. Lind, “Poe and Mesmerism,” PMLA, LXII (Dec., 1947), 1087.

21.  Ibid., p. 1085.

22.  Ibid., p. 1085.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 12:]

23.  John Bovee Dods, The Philosophy of Electrical Psychology (New York: Fowler & Wells, 1851), p. 19.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 13:]

24.  Benjamin Rush, Medical Inquiries and Observations, 4 vols. (Philadelphia, N. Carey & Son, 1818).

25.  One recognition of the close link between Dr. Rush and the phrenologists appeared on a loving cup presented to Dr. George Combe after his first lecture in New York City. The cup bore the heads of Dr. Rush and Dr. Charles Caldwell. See Andrew Boardman, op. cit., pp. x-xi.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 14:]

26.  See Henry T. Tuckerman’s “Memoir of the Author,” in Old New York: of Reminiscences of the Past Sixty Years, by John W. Francis (New York: W. J. Widdleton, 1866), p. xxiv.

27.  Edgar Allan Poe, “The Literati,” Godey’s Ladies [[Lady’s]] Book (1846), in The Complete Works, XV, 25.

28.  Henry T. Tuckerman, op. cit., pp. lxxix-lxxx.

29.  Emile Lauvriere, The Strange Life and Strange Loves of Edgar Allan Poe (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1935).

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 15:]

30.  See R. H. Shryock, The Development of Modern Medicine (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1947), pp. 109-119.







[S:0 - ENCMPSS, 1966] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Bookshelf - Early Nineteenth-Century Medicine in Poe's Short Stories - Chapter 01: Poe’s Sources of Medical Information (D. E. E. Sloane, 1966)