and a Few Men
The Launching of the Ramsey County Medical Society
An account of the players and the years surrounding the beginning of the Ramsey County Medical Society.
By John B. Coleman, M.D.
On a February afternoon in St. Paul, in a different age, eleven physicians arrived at the office of Dr. D. Herman Smith in the Ingersoll Building on Bridge Square at the foot of Wabasha Street, where the one wooden bridge crossed the Mississippi. They descended from buggies or dismounted from horses and tethered them to a rail or weight. Some shed warm buffalo robes and stepped out of cutters. Those who couldn’t afford a horse came by shank’s mare.
St. Paul was a young capitol city and a bustling town of 20,000 souls. Dr. William Davis, looking back to 1883, describes it as “raw and crude. No street was paved. In long winters fire engines were put on runners. What sidewalks there were were boards, often loose. Manners and customs were striking to say the least. The numerous saloons were frequented by the leading men: judges, doctors, lawyers and business men. St. Paul offered a few sewers but little other city sanitation. Cholera was an annual visitor. Doctors were called to treat childbed fever, typhoid fever, diphtheria and pneumonia. Tuberculosis was a year-round problem. Chewing tobacco was widely indulged by all classes, as was shown not only by numerous brown stains on the sidewalks, but by the imposing array of cuspidors in all public places, particularly noticeable in courtrooms where receptacles were used by the bench, the bar, the jury, the witnesses, as well as by the spectators”.
The St. Paul Pioneer was a thriving newspaper with news from near and far. On Tuesday February 15, the press day after the doctors’ meeting, it protested the expense of government and compared costs of running the White House under Abraham Lincoln ($34,050 including salary) and President Grant ($132,800). Headlines announced a cure for wife abuse by a drunken husband, devised by an outraged mother-in-law: She beat the man with steel knuckles until he fell to his knees and vowed never to drink again. Other news informed that “The Past Grand Worthy Patriarch of the Virginia Sons of Temperance has just died of delirium tremens”. It featured Daniel Webster’s description of a Good Woman: “...no creature who, for the object of love is so indomitable, so persevering, so ready to suffer and die. Under the most depressing circumstances, woman’s weakness becomes a mighty power, her timidity becomes a fearful courage, all her shrinking and sinking passes away and her spirit acquires the firmness of marble.” The Pioneer commented that suffrage for women “is a disturbing element in the politics of the State.” It was adopted by constitutional amendment. Inside pages were filled with ads for remedies and nostrums, e.g., “Radway’s Ready Relief which stops pain in 1 to 20 minutes no matter how excruciating”, and is “better than French brandy as a stimulant.”
“Regular” physicians of the day were nearly outnumbered by eclectics, homeopaths and others who were strongly competitive. Irregular cultists were influential with the Legislature for lack of unity among the doctors. There were differences of opinion as to which doctors qualified for membership in medical associations. One applicant was asked to discontinue unprofessional practices and sign the constitution. He declined. Good medical practice was still to be defined. The science was in a pioneering stage. The state association could not even agree upon what constituted quackery practice and what did not. Koch had not yet discovered the bacillary cause of tuberculosis and neither had Laveran found the parasitic cause of malaria. Listerism, or antiseptic surgery, was not yet developed. One surgeon advertised ether available but at the option of the patient.
St. Joseph’s Hospital was a one-wing building and St. Lukes and the St. Paul City hospital occupied old houses. There was no medical school or library. Medical books and literature were on doctors’ home shelves.
Such was the environment when the eleven gathered in Dr. Smith’s office on Monday March 14, 1870. All were immigrants to the Northwest Territory, now a new State (1858). Their present purpose was to create the Ramsey County Medical Society by reorganizing the 1860 St. Paul Academy of Medicine and Surgery which had languished since “The Rebellion”. The new society’s stated purpose was “the cultivation of the science and art of medicine, the interchange of professional experience, the encouragement of professional zeal and the promotion of a friendly feeling among its members.”
They elected Drs. Daniel Hand, president; Alfred Wharton, vice president; William Banks, secretary; Charles Boardman, recording secretary; and Samuel Flagg, treasurer.
The next 20 years in the Society’s life were years of ups and downs. At times it ceased activity for lack of attendance or “falling into a near state of coma” with recovery, according to the secretary. The heedlessness of doctors to the life and purposes of their medical organization seems almost modern. There were continual problems with poor attendance and a bare treasury, trouble with uninteresting programs and finding proper meeting places. A concerned few tried various things to increase attendance until, in 1889, president Dr. Justus Ohage and others arranged to hold meetings at the Ryan Hotel where “substantial refreshments could be secured”. The attendance doubled. Still, hotel meetings were eventually found to be unsatisfactory: the Society needed its own home, and the Lowry company came to the rescue. Medical tenants and the managers of the Lowry Arcade arranged for two spacious rooms, one for a library and meeting place, the other for a laboratory. The concession was an auspicious assist to a new life for the Ramsey County Medical Society and the beginning of continuing bounty of Lowry building managements.
Some Who Shaped Our Future
Early days “regular” physicians in Minnesota were immigrants who were distinguished from cultists and others by foreign countries. They came from Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, from Rush Medical College in Chicago, Germany and Scandinavia. Some came to Minnesota to recover from tuberculosis but were disappointed. William W. Mayo rode west to St. Paul seeking a place which was free of malaria and settled in LeSeur. Dr. G.A. Hansen, discoverer of the leprosy bacillus, worked in Dr. Eduard Boeckmann’s office. Dr. Walter Reed, who conquered yellow fever, was once a member of the Society. These immigrants from the more civilized East, we may presume, were venturesome, ambitious and energetic and some of them were scholarly. They took their roles in medical care and social responsibility seriously and set elemental standards for their profession.
The names of some of the pioneers merit recognition one hundred twenty-five years later as moderns and progressive beneficiaries of institutions which we take for granted. Among them are Henry Longstreet Taylor who pushed to start a library; John L. Rothrock who advanced the library project and became professor of Ob-Gyn at the University; erudite Burnside Foster, the first editor, and E.T. F. Richards the second editor of the St. Paul Medical Journal which rescued a faltering Society; Parks Ritchie, professor of Ob-Gyn and dean of the medical school; Perry Millard, father of the first independent Board of Medical Examiners in the U.S.; Arthur Gillette who founded the first State Hospital for Cripples and Deformed Children in this country; Justus Ohage, who performed the first successful cholecystectomy in the U.S.; Arthur Ancker for whom Ancker Hospital was named; Arnold Schwyzer, who in 1896 removed the first tracheal foreign body and in 1899 the first bladder stone, through scopes bought in Germany aided by illumination from a head mirror, both procedures thought to be firsts in the United States; and C. Eugene Riggs, first specialist in nervous and mental diseases in the Northwest and first section head in the new U of M Medical School. These were, by and large, an educated and respected elite, as physicians tended to be in former days, all of them leaders professionally and socially.
Dr. Eduard Boeckmann: “One of the greatest achievements of modern surgery - the absorbable suturing and ligating material.”
The absorbability of sutures would not be a pressing matter in the minds of surgeons today, but if at operation their nurses offered a choice of horsehair, worm gut, silver wire, silk, kangaroo tendons or questionably sterile catgut, then they would be sympathetic to the concerns of Dr. Eduard Boeckmann in the 1890s.
Boeckmann the physician was a richly endowed intellect and a progressive who upon his arrival in St. Paul in 1887 was to profoundly affect the future of St. Paul medical practice and remain a presence on this 125th Anniversary of the founding of the Ramsey County Medical Society. While he is little more than a name in some minds now, his story and his unselfish devotion to his profession and the Society could be a model for all doctors of the RCMS
Eduard Boeckmann was born in Totn, Norway, in 1849 and graduated cum laude in medicine in 1874. Before arriving in St. Paul with his family, he had earned awards for basic research on the tonsil and a master’s degree for his thesis on “Keratitis Xerotica”. Within a few years in the town he established himself as an authority and consultant in ophthalmology and surgery, as an author and professional and social leader, and a doctor who dealt in practicalities.
One problem of his time had to do with surgical sepsis and antisepsis related to ligatures and sutures. Boeckmann looked at absorbable catgut to be “one of the greatest achievements of modern surgery...” Catgut material is actually taken from the small gut of sheep which was in inexhaustible supply. In 1899 the best was manufactured in Germany. Manufacture was laborious, time-consuming and expensive. But the gut at best was not always sterile when it reached the surgeon, or it encouraged secondary infection.
Boeckmann could not learn the secrets of manufacture from the Germans, and so he set out himself to improve the processing of gut with the objective of making it pliant, absorbable, aseptic and, as well, antiseptic to surrounding tissue. He conducted much research, some of it with Dr. Gustav Renz, the Director of the Ramsey County Medical Society Laboratory who was also a bacteriologist and a practicing physician. Boeckmann experimented with many types of gut and sterilizing processes, culturing, proving, and discarding until the day he received from Dr. Harvey Reed of Wyoming “samples of beautiful looking, blue catgut prepared by boiling in an alcoholic solution of pyoktanin”. Pyoktanin is an aniline dye and the name was subsequently used in the commercialization of the catgut.
Dr. Boeckmann adapted the pyoktanin process and prepared the catgut in the laboratory rooms of the Ramsey County Medical Society for marketing. He and Dr. Renz trained technicians in the process and the manufacture continued for decades. The catgut was sealed in envelopes which were dry sterilized according to his own process and sold over the country be medical supply houses as “Pyoktanin Surgical Gut”, as early as 1900. Boeckmann was proud of the product which by then, he felt, had reached its perfection and was almost ideal. Boeckmann published the results of his experiments and his success with absorbable gut in the St. Paul Medical Journal in 1899 and 1907. His business was successful and profitable.
In 1900, with characteristic generosity and concern, Dr. Boeckmann turned over the catgut process and manufacture to the Ramsey County Medical Society and Library for their benefit and prosperity. The manufacture was continued on the premises of the Society in the Lowry Building for 59 years and profits went to support the unusual library. An editorial in Minnesota Medicine in 1935, opined that “To the late Dr. Boeckmann more than to any one man, the Society owes its present prosperity.”
Even after his death sixty-nine years ago Dr. Boeckmann’s good shadow stretches long. He exemplifies a physician’s devotion to his art and science and to the public well-being, and through support of his professional society in his concern for his colleagues. He died at White Bear Lake in 1926 at the age of seventy-nine.
Friends said of him, “His sincerity none will question; he was honest to a fault. Simple in manner and frank in expression, he had a rightful repugnance for ostentation and false show. He repelled the rich and invited the poor. He appraised the character and not the wealth. Charity was his religion. What greater virtue hath any man!”
And others: “The soul of human kindness within a virile frame.” “...Dr. Eduard Boeckmann, the philosopher, the great physician, the great humanitarian.”
The living thread of Eduard Boeckmann’s life of unselfishness will doubtless run from the Nineteenth Century into the Twenty-First, viz.,
* In 1898, he guaranteed the St. Paul Medical Journal against financial catastrophe in its founding year.
* In 1900, he donated the prospering Pyoktanin Surgical Gut enterprise to the Ramsey County Medical Society for its support, especially of the Library.
* In 1904, the catgut funds were commingled with others into the Eduard Boeckmann Building and Library Fund intended to fulfill his ambition for the Society. However, in 1931 a rent-free home was found in the new Lowry Medical Arts Building and the need for the Boeckmann building ceased.
* In 1959, the catgut business was sold and the proceeds were placed in the Boeckmann Trust Fund which supported the operations of the Library.
* In 1989, the value of the Fund was approximately 1.5 million dollars. Only ten other county medical societies in the U.S. had an attached library.
* In 1994, the United Hospital took over operation of the Library for all members of the Ramsey County Medical Society and memorialized his name.
The Boeckmann Library
“That day will come when all members of this society will realize the significance and importance of a society reference library...”
(Dr. Eduard Boeckmann, 1900)
Great things may have small beginnings.
In young St. Paul, medical literature rested on shelves in doctors’ homes. The idea of a central library occupied a few minds as the Ramsey County Medical Society gathered strength and leadership. In 1895, Dr. Henry Longstreet Taylor, the secretary, made a retiring plea that the Society found a reference medical library. He outlined a plan for foundation and support. With the help of others, he set up reading rooms where physicians could lend their own books and journals. In 1897, Dr. John Rothrock formally presented the need for a library to a Society meeting and received enthusiastic support. A library association was formed and a committee of Drs. Taylor, Rothrock and w. B. Morley appointed. Funds, books and journals were solicited. Fired with the new enthusiasm, one member hired an express man and his wagon on Saturday afternoons and scoured bookshelves, dusty attics and storerooms, in doctors’ residences, carting off anything in the way of books and journals. The indomitables, Taylor and Boeckmann, drove one weekend to southern Minnesota to retrieve a large library of Scandinavian literature. At dusk they started back to St. Paul in a one-horse buggy when rain began and fog shrouded the landscape. Dr. Boeckmann laid a return course which turned out to be a great circle, sometimes going across fields. Dr. Taylor perceived that the horse preferred a shortcut in a different direction. Dawn found men and books to have circumnavigated the town. So much for pitting the intellect of men against the natures of horses.
Nevertheless, the book forays often yielded dividends of value including first editions, but always back issues of journals to make up complete volumes. Meanwhile, members contributed their own publications and the library continued to expand dues and contributions could not sustain it. New ideas were searched for. A remedy was proposed which resulted in a recommendation to consider a medical journal to be published by the Society. Serious opposition arose out of a fear of financial catastrophe to the Society which was already in financial straits. Nevertheless, months later, in 1898, the committee reported favorable and gave two recommendations: (1) A journal to be published beginning January, 1889; and (2) The publication committee should be given full power to act, with the understanding that the committee assume all liabilities whatsoever. The committee members took on the financial responsibility for one year. Doctor Boeckmann quietly guaranteed the committee against catastrophe in order to insure the success of the journal and library. The first editor was the erudite Burnside Foster, and the second was E.T.F. Richards, an early internist.
A second purpose for the St. Paul Medical Journal was to enlarge the library through the exchange of journals with others and to review new books from publishers. The venture became a financial success and was able to contribute to the operations of the Society. Still the Society’s fiscal problems persisted, no doubt helped in part by the $5.00 dues structure which included ten free meals.
In 1900, Dr. Eduard Boeckmann’s key gift to the Society expanded Society resources and enabled the library to become the outstanding asset to members and the community which is has been for many decades.
Sixty-five years ago the RCMS library engaged the first trained librarian. For a time, it was one of only eleven in the United States to be attached to a county medical society.
In 1912, when the new Lowry Medical Arts Building opened on the St. Peter Street side, Lowry management offered spacious rooms for meetings, library and a laboratory for the catgut operation.
In 1931, the Library moved to sumptuous quarters in the Fourth Street building where it occupied the 15th and 16th floors.
The catgut business was sold in 1959 and the $xx,xxx proceeds were placed in the Boeckmann Trust Fund and underwrote library operations.
Mary Sandra Tarman joined the staff in 1971. Ms. Mary Post retired as librarian in 1976 after 29 years. The name was changed to the Boeckmann Library.
In 1976, the Library was required to move into larger space in College Hall at Miller Hospital, and in 1981 to its present quarters.
In 1994, the Library was transferred to United Hospital and HealthSpan for the use of the Ramsey County Medical Society.
The Boeckmann funds were transferred to the RCMS Education Fund which, with the assist of $100,000 from the widow of Dr. Harry Zimmermann, underwrites modern era access to data bases through the Remote CD Access system for RCMS members.
The Seal of the Ramsey County Medical Society
Dr. Brewer Mattocks, on October 3, 1914: “About 1900, it occurred to me that we should have a Seal and I suggested the legend, `Dissect, observe and write’, in the imperative. I wrote Arch-Bishop John Ireland to latinize the motto for me. He was kind enough to send his secretary with the suggestion that the imperative be changed to the infinitive, and wrote the legend as it now stands. The Seal was presented to the Society and was graciously received, and no questions asked from the surviving charter members.”
The microscope, scalpel and pen were designed by Pharmacist R.O. Sweeney of Sweeney’s Drug Store at Kellogg Boulevard and Wabasha St. (Notes by Dr. Robert Rosenthal in 1983.)
The RCMS’s St. Paul Medical Journal lived for 19 years and retired in 1918 to assure success for the new Minnesota Medicine.
The St. Paul Medical College, beginning as a medical prep school, was organized in 1880-81 as the medical department of Hamline College and after an irregular existence ceased in 1888 when the medical school of the University of Minnesota was organized.
The great accomplishments of the final decades of the 1800s were but humble efforts when viewed from the luxurious perspectives of modern knowledge and technology.
Yet those rugged players understood the elements which underlie best medical care and took pains to implement them. They were: Educational and Practice Qualification, a Library focus on gathered knowledge, a membership organization to hold all things together.
They started a Medical School which yielded to the University of Minnesota in 1888. Dr. Perry Millard started the first state Board of Control and Examination. A few men started a Library of borrowed books and journals and personally assumed financial liability for its success. One cannot imagine a proper medical practice without the backup of the above and neither could the thinkers who were armed with a science and technology which was only creeping out of the previous century.
Those legacies exist which we thoughtlessly take as our rightful inheritance; and which, at our peril, we leave to a few AMA, MMA, and RCMS officers and committees to preserve for us, rather than taking up the privilege of offering our own ideas and labors.
Doctors of the Ramsey County Medical Society have the same obligations to better things as existed 125 years ago. They will be counted among the explorers in tomorrow’s history. Any medical society is a tool by which doctors of integrity regulate themselves, design the care system for patients and the social whole, extend and preserve knowledge, and retain a position of honor and esteem in the community.
For the Society, June 1995
My thanks go to Roger Johnson, CEO of the Ramsey County Medical Society, and to staffers Cathy Graci, Doreen Hines and Sheila Hatcher for digging up sources, and to Dr. F.M. Owens for advice on pyoktanin catgut.