American Medical Biographies/Atlee, Washington Lemuel

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Atlee, Washington Lemuel (1808–1878)

The work of a pioneer is primarily that of demolition of existent ignorance, and the dust he raises so chokes and blinds those close behind that they see not his good work until able to step safely where he has led, but they revile him meanwhile for the disturbance of hoary ignorance. This was exactly the fate of Washington L. Atlee, the man who did more than anyone in the world to establish ovariotomy as a legitimate practice. Born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, February 22, 1808, he was the youngest son of William Pitt Atlee and grandson of the Hon. William Augustus Atlee, one of the early judges of the Supreme Court. The surgeon-to-be was at fourteen placed in a drygoods store, but being the boy he was naturally did not stay there but began to study medicine with his brother John at Lancaster. While a medical student he collected an herbarium of 400 specimens of Lancaster County plants which he subsequently presented to Pennsylvania College at Gettysburg. He took his diploma in 1829 from Jefferson Medical College, Philadelphia, and soon after married Miss Ann Eliza Hoff of Lancaster and settled in the village of Mount Joy, but in 1834 returned to Lancaster and practised there for ten years, always investigating and on the alert for fresh knowledge; the year 1845 saw him professor of medical chemistry in the University of Pennsylvania, but so many were the demands of private patients that he finaly devoted himself wholly to these. While still in Lancaster he was known as a skilful and courageous operator and some of his cases published in the American Journal of the Medical Sciences caught the attention of his medical confreres. Before leaving Lancaster he did two ovariotomies, the first on March 29, 1844, and his three hundred and eighty-seventh on May 31, 1878. In 1845, after great research, he collected statistics of 101 ovariotomies, and published them in the American Journal of the Medical Sciences for April, 1845. Being associated with his brother in an ovariotomy in 1843, he became interested in the subject and in 1844 he writes concerning his own first case:

"In traveling westward on the Pennsylvania Central Railroad, soon after passing Landisville Station, a small stream is crossed, on the opposite banks of which stands a one-story brick tenement. It was here after many days and nights of intense anxiety that I first essayed this operation. It is the text for many, many thoughts. No one can know the mental and moral conflicts of that hour and I can not describe them. ... Although this effort was unfortunate I had weighed the matter well and my convictions were on the side of humanity and duty." The next operation was successful and the third, in Philadelphia, took place in 1849. Atlee says: "I found I had raised a hornets' nest. Ovariotomy was everywhere decried. It was denounced by the general profession. ... I was pointed at as a dangerous man, even as a murderer. ... A celebrated professor in his published lectures invoked the law to arrest me in the performance of this operation." The call to operate from many in the state who had faith in him alone gave him courage to face an amount of misrepresentation and abuse that would have crushed an ordinary man. But appreciation was coming and so were patients. One came against the positive advice of her doctor and the doctor came, too, to be with her when she died on the operating-table! Yet she lived and the doctor's opposition was dead long before the patient.

Atlee in 1853 was stirring the medical world again by his methods of heroically attacking uterine fibroids with the knife. Dr. Marion Sims (q.v.) (New York Medical Journal, April, 1874) writes: "The name of Atlee stands without a rival in connection with uterine fibroids ... no man has yet dared to imitate him. A generation has passed since he gave to the world his valuable essay on the subject, but it is only within the past five or six years that the profession has come to appreciate the great truths he labored to establish."

The importance of tapping as a means of diagnosing was clearly demonstrated by him and the estimation of the character of the removed fluids. "It is remarkable that with so little leisure he managed to carry on an extensive correspondence; to contribute frequently to medical journals and to write an octavo volume on ovarian tumors and many essays on subjects connected with gynecology."

One of the founders of the American Gynecological Society, he also took an active part in the organization of the Philadelphia County Medical Society, the State Medical Society of Pennsylvania and the American Medical Association. Of the two former he was at one time president and of the latter vice-president, and in the last year of his life when very feeble he journeyed to meet the State Society at Pittsburg. When the final journey of all had to be undertaken he showed no fear but rather welcomed the end as a beginning of certain knowledge of things spiritual and physical. The date of his death was September 6, 1878.

His wife preceded him by eight years after a happy family life with their ten children.

Among his chief writings were numerous scientific articles to the American Journal of Science and Arts, the American Journal of the Medical Sciences, and the Medical and Surgical Reporter; including: "The Surgical Treatment of Certain Fibrous Tumors of the Uterus;" "A Retrospect of the Struggles and Triumphs of Ovariotomy in Philadelphia;" "The Treatment of Fibroid Tumors of the Uterus, 1876;" "Sarcoma of the Ovaries," 1877, and his large work, "General and Differential Diagnosis of Ovarian Tumors with Specific Refence to the Operation of Ovariotomy," Philadelphia, 1872.

Standard Hist. of Med. Profess. of Phila., F. P. Henry, Chicago, 1897.
Biog. of Ephraim McDowell, M. T. Valentine, New York, 1897.