American Medical Biographies/Skene, Alexander Johnson Chalmers

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Skene, Alexander Johnson Chalmers (1837–1900)

In the death of Dr. Skene, on July 4, 1900, at the age of sixty-two, American gynecology lost one of the last of its famous pioneers. He was born in Fyvie, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, June 17, 1837, of a family that had made its name known in Scotch history for nine centuries. His schooling was in Aberdeen and Kings College. He came to America at the age of nineteen, began the study of medicine three years later at Toronto, matriculated at the University of Michigan in 1861, and was graduated from the Long Island College Hospital in 1863. In that year and the following he served as acting assistant surgeon in the United States Volunteers at Port Royal, Charleston Harbor, and David's Island, prominent in plans for army ambulance work. He kept up his interest in military matters in the National Guard of the State as surgeon to the Twelfth Regiment and First Division, and as lieutenant-colonel on the staff of General Molineux (1884–1885).

In 1864 Dr. Skene entered practice in Brooklyn, and within a year had begun his college and hospital work in obstetrics. Professor of both branches of gynecology at thirty-one, he gave his best strength to the Long Island College Hospital, as teacher, as operator, and as dean and president (1886– 1893), until the last year of his life. It was he who was most active in securing practical and beautiful plans giving adequate expression to the great Polhemus gift of a college and clinic building. The college owes its most famous alumnus a debt it can never repay.

Dr. Skene was professor of gynecology in the New York Post-Graduate Medical School, 1883–86, and consultant to various hospitals and dispensaries. He was one of the founders of the American Gynecological Society and its tenth president (1886), and founder and honorary president of the International Congress of Gynecology and Obstetrics. He had been president of the Medical Society of Kings County, of the New York Obstetrical and of the Brooklyn Gynecological Society, and was a corresponding or honorary member of many foreign societies, such as those of Paris, Leipzig, Brussels, Edinburgh, London, etc. Aberdeen University conferred on him the degree of LL. D. in 1897.

He was the author of "Diseases of the Bladder and Urethra in Women," 1878 and 1887; "Treatise on Diseases of Women," 1888, 1892 and 1898; "Education and Culture as related to the Health and Diseases of Women," 1889; "Medical Gynecology," 1895, and "Electro-hemostasis in Operative Surgery," 1899, and he wrote from a large experience and with great diligence. He wrote in the hours before breakfast to avoid interruption, and in writing, as in teaching, his method was clinical, detailed, practical. His huge capacity for work was due to a magnificent physique—his chest girth was forty-four inches. His eyes always twinkled with the memory of "last in class, first in field sports." Thus he was able to carry the burdens of college teaching, hospital operating, medical society duties, the large private sanitarium, and an extensive practice. Two days before he died sixty patients came to the office.

Dr. Skene married Annette Wilhelmine Lillian Van der Wegen, of Brussels, Belgium, who survived him. They had no children.

His country home was at Highmount, in the Catskills, where his love of the mountains had full scope, and where he could indulge his affection for animals. There he had more leisure for modelling. His life-size portraits in marble are indeed noteworthy, in view of the scantiness of the time he could give to sculpture.

If one were to attempt an appreciation of Dr. Skene's work one might select certain items, such as the insistence on gynecologic and surgical methods in obstetric work (1877); the well-known observations on the urethral glands, a source of intractable trouble until recognized (1880); the many new instruments devised, the systematic hemostatic treatment of blood-vessels and pedicles by heat of moderate degree that dries and does not char (1897).

In him progressiveness and originality were balanced with caution and clear sense. Two instances will suffice. In the days when we planned to cure most pelvic pain by removing the ovaries, he was credited with timidity because of his careful restriction of this universal remedy. Again, he was said to be behind the times during the epidemic of vaginal hysterectomy. Yet the profession has come back to the conservatism from which he would not swerve.

Breadth of view was his. From the early days when he was Austin Flint's assistant he studied his patient as an individual, and overlooked nothing in the general condition nor any detail of constitutional treatment. Such detailed care prepared the patient for operation (or avoided the necessity). His technic was so quiet and seemingly simple that only a brother surgeon appreciated its speed and thoroughness.

Few men concealed more generous deeds. Strong in his likes and dislikes, tenacious of purpose, keen of insight, full of apt anecdote, tactful, discreet, hopeful, inspiriting, his impress was strong on those about him. Personal magnetism eludes biographies. The impress of vigor and simplicity, the attraction of kindliness and heartiness—these things may not be written.

A full list of his most important pamphlets can be seen in the "Surgeon-general's Catalogue," Washington, D. C.

Trans. Amer. Gynec. Soc., Phila., 1901, vol. xxvi.
Amer. Gynec. and Obstet. Jour., N. Y., 1900, vol. xvii.
Albany Med. Ann., 1901, vol. xxii.
Jour. Amer. Med. Assoc., Chicago, 1900.
Med. Record. New York, 1900.
Med. News, New York, 1900.
Post-graduate, New York, 1900.