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A Cynic Admires an Eccentric: Mark Twain and WU's Dr. Joseph McDowell

28th Historia Medica Lecture
Thursday, March 7, 2013 at 4:30pm
King Center, 7th floor Bernard Becker Medical Library

A free lecture supported by the Becker Library and the Center for History of Medicine
Reception to follow the lecture

Dr. Kenneth Winn, Ph.D.
Ken Winn

Kenneth Winn, Ph.D., will present the 28th Historia Medica Lecture on March 7th in the Kenton King Center of the Becker Medical Library.  Dr. Winn is currently the Director of Library and Public Services for the Missouri Supreme Court.  He has taught classes at the University of Missouri (Columbia) and at Washington University.  He also served as the State Archivist of Missouri for sixteen years.  Dr. Winn has authored numerous books and articles on American history and culture.  He is currently at writing a book on modern judicial selection.  He has also been working on an interpretive biography of Dr. Joseph Nash McDowell, who is the subject of this Historia Medica Lecture.

Joseph Nash McDowell (1805-1868) was a physician from Kentucky who served on the medical faculty of Transylvania University (Kentucky), Jefferson Medical College (Pennsylvania), and Cincinnati College (Ohio) before moving to Saint Louis in 1839.  He founded the Medical Department of Kemper College in 1840, the first medical school west of the Mississippi River.  Despite recurring periods of weak financial support for his medical school in the 1840s and 1850s, McDowell aptly guided his school through these difficult times.  In 1857, McDowell oversaw the transformation of his school into a fully independent and financially stable institution renamed the Missouri Medical College, but more commonly known as “McDowell’s Medical College”.  Thirty-one years after his death, his former medical school affiliated Washington University in 1899.

Joseph Nash McDowell
Joseph Nash McDowell

Besides his commendable administrative and leadership abilities, McDowell was well-known for his remarkable oratory skills.  Not only were his students entertained by his impassioned lectures in anatomy and surgery, but he could draw large crowds of citizens on the street corners with his eloquent tirades on various issues of the day.  McDowell had a very erratic temperament and was very outspoken about his beliefs.  He was especially vocal about his animosity toward immigrants and the Catholic Church.  Many of his public speeches focused on his hostility towards the Medical College of St. Louis University, both because it was a rival medical school, and because the school was run by Jesuits.

McDowell is also remembered for his eccentric personality and peculiar behavior.  When his own daughter died at the age of fourteen, he used her body to perform an experiment on human preservation.  He placed her body in an alcohol-filled copper tube that he kept in a cave near Hannibal, Missouri.  McDowell was often suspected of stealing corpses from graveyards to be used for dissection in his anatomy classes.  For this reason, he kept a stockpile of muskets in his office, and even purchased several iron cannons that he placed prominently around his school to discourage any possible attacks on his school.  McDowell and his students were forced to repel more than one angry mob who were demanding to search his property for missing corpses.  McDowell also kept a pet bear at the school which he released on a mob on at least one occasion.

Postcard showing Missouri Medical College (also known as McDowell College) being used as a prison for Confederate soldiers during the Civil War, 1861-1865.

While many of the citizens of St. Louis were loyal to the Union during the Civil War, McDowell was an ardent secessionist who believed in preserving the institution of slavery.  McDowell served the Confederacy as the medical director for the trans-Mississippi Department.  During the war, the Union army used McDowell’s school as a prison for Confederate soldiers.  When the war ended, McDowell returned to Saint Louis and began to renovate his medical school to get it started again.  He decided to leave one room just as it was during the prison days where he kept a crocodile and an effigy of President Lincoln hanging from a gallows.

McDowell died from pneumonia in 1868.  Despite his many eccentricities, McDowell was considered to be one of the best physicians of his time.






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