American Medical Biographies/Bigelow, Henry Jacob

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Bigelow, Henry Jacob (1818–1890)

Henry Jacob Bigelow, the leading surgeon of New England during his life-time, the first in America to excise the hip joint and known largely for his demonstration of the Y ligament of the hip joint and for popularizing and making workable the operation of litholapaxy, was born in Boston March 11, 1818. He was the son of the eminent Dr. Jacob Bigelow (q.v.), first professor of materia medica in the Harvard Medical School, and of Mary Scollay Bigelow, receiving from his father great physical and mental vigor, and from his mother strength of character and capacity for work. At an early age he showed remarkable ingenuity in mechanics and a fertility in inventiveness which remained with him throughout life. He graduated from Harvard College in 1837 and soon made up his mind to study medicine and be a surgeon, the decision showing that self-willed determination which was characteristic, for when remonstrated with for not following in the footsteps of his father he is reported to have said: "I'll be damned if I won't be a surgeon." After studying with his father and attending the lectures of Oliver Wendell Holmes at Dartmouth he was appointed house pupil at the Massachusetts General Hospital. Because of pulmonary symptoms he was sent to Cuba and to Paris, where he pursued his medical studies, finally taking his M. D. from Harvard in 1841, and finishing his medical training in Paris and London. Returning to Boston he soon became a marked man in medical circles, with his dashing French cabriolet, his horses in gaily monogrammed harness, his fashionable personal appearance, and his establishment of a "Charitable Surgical Institution." Offering service to the poor by means of signboards and circulars among the country practitioners, he challenged attention besides exciting jealousy and criticism.

Bigelow was one of the pioneers in the study of surgical pathology, being one of the earliest microscopists in the country and his treatise on orthopedic surgery, published in 1844, won for him the Boylston prize for that year. He was appointed an instructor in surgery in the Tremont Street Medical School in 1845, and in 1846 was appointed visiting surgeon to the Massachusetts General Hospital, then recently enlarged. Here he witnessed the first use of ether in surgical anesthesia and was a strong advocate of the anesthetic from that time, studying the drug with Morton, personally administering it, and procuring opportunities for Morton to give it besides sending out the first account which the old world had of its discovery.

Hs was a brilliant operator, fearless, full of expedients, ingenious, dexterous, cool, alert, and with a dramatic style that dazzled the novice. Having purchased several thousand dollars worth of instruments while abroad he was constantly adding to his collection, and always inventing and adapting older models to new uses. Bigelow became professor of surgery in Harvard in 1849 and held the position until 1882 when he was made professor emeritus, resigning as visiting surgeon to the Massachusetts General Hospital in 1886. As a teacher he was terse, epigrammatic and clear, avoiding unessentials, and being an accomplished draughtsman and a rapid dissector he was able to impress his students most forcibly.

In 1852 he excised the hip joint for the first time in America (American Journal of the Medical Sciences, Philadelphia, 1852, vol. xxiv, 90). The previous year W. W. Reid (q.v.) of Rochester, New York, had published in the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal a method of reducing dorsal dislocation of the hip joint without the aid of pulleys and had made a partial explanation why flexion of the leg on the thigh and flexion of the thigh on the abdomen with adduction and rotation of the limb was the proper way to replace the head of the bone in its socket. Bigelow completed the explanation in 1861, when he demonstrated the accessory Y-ligament of the capsular ligament of the hip joint, in a paper read before the Boston Society for Medical Improvement, supplementing it by papers read before the Massachusetts Medical Society and the American Medical Association a few years later, finally publishing in 1869 a volume entitled: "Mechanism of Dislocations and Fractures of the Hip, with the Reduction of the Dislocation by the Flexion Method."

Investigating the operation of lithotomy as practised in England, Bigelow became convinced that the urethra could be dilated sufficiently to employ "an evacuator which should evacuate," as he expressed it. For three years he labored in experimenting, devising, improving and finally perfecting, an instrument which would do two things—lessen the danger of the operation and shorten the duration of treatment. His results were published in "Rapid Lithotrity with Evacuation," in the American Journal of the Medical Sciences for January, 1878, and in an essay, published in the same year, entitled: "Lithotrity by a Single Operation."

After Charles W. Eliot became president of Harvard University, in 1869, certain changes and proposed improvements were planned for the medical school. These Bigelow, who was chairman of the Medical Faculty, fought bitterly. "His character showed a union of extraordinary versatility and inventiveness with dogmatism, intolerance, and lack of both progressiveness and breadth of view." President Eliot, in his annual report for the University in 1882, commented thus on Bigelow, who had resigned as professor in that year: "a clear and forcible lecturer, a keen debater, and a natural leader of men, by force of activity, ingenuity and originality." We find Bigelow opposed to allowing the visiting staff of his hospital treating their private patients in the hospital and accepting fees, thus laying the foundations for the future abuse of medical charity in Boston; also opposed to coeducation in the medical school, and to vivisection.

In personal appearance he was tall and rather slight, his elastic step betraying a nervous organization. He had well-moulded features which were unobscured even by a full beard and his agreeable voice and manner always attracted attention. He was interested in music and art, and was one of the first trustees of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Having gradually retired from practice his last two years were spent at his country place, Oak Hill, Newton, where, while driving, he was thrown from his carriage, receiving a blow on the head that was followed by a long illness. There he died, October 30, 1890, from a non-malignant stenosis of the pyloric orifice of the stomach as verified by autopsy.

Dr. Bigelow was married in 1847 to Susan, daughter of the Hon. William Sturgis. She died on June 9, 1853. One son, Dr. William Sturgis Bigelow, of Boston, survived his parents.

History of the Harvard Medical School, T. F. Harrington, 1905.
Memoir of Henry Jacob Bigelow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Proceedings Amer. Acad. Arts and Sciences, vol. xxvi.
Henry Jacob Bigelow, A Memoir, Editorial, Bost. Med. & Surg. Jour., 1900, vol. cxliii, 485–486.
A Memoir of Henry Jacob Bigelow, A.M., M.D., LL.D., Boston, 1900.
A full length portrait by Lazarus is in Sprague Hall, Boston Medical Library.