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Charles Loomis Dana

Born 1852-03-25
Died 1935

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American neurologist, born March 25, 1852, Woodstock, Vermont; died 1935.

Biography of Charles Loomis Dana

Charles Loomis Dana was born in Woodstock, Vermont (not Woodstock of 1969 rock festival fame, which is in NY). Following graduation from Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, he became secretary to the U.S. senator for Vermont and so spent time in Washington, D.C. Here he became interested in biology and after three years in politics became secretary to professor Spencer Fullerton Baird (1823-1887) at the Smithsonian Institute and worked there and at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, where he undertook zoological studies for the U.S. Fish Commisioners. These studies commenced his interest in medicine and in 1873 he became apprentice to Dr. Boyinton and gained an M.D. degree from the Columbia University Medical College in Washington in 1876. The following year he took a similar degree at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, New York.

Dana interned at Bellevue, and Austin Flint (1812-1886) senior and Edward Gamalich Janeway (1841-1911) were his chiefs of service. It was here that he commenced his interest in neurology and was made a professor of physiology at the New York Women’s College, holding this position from 1880 to 1888. Together with William James Morton (1845-1920) – son of Morton of anaesthetic fame - he was involved in the trial and autopsy of C. J. Guiteau, which resulted in much publicity in the newspapers of the day, and was the beginning of an association with forensic medicine.

From 1886-1898 he was professor of diseases of the mind and nervous system at the Postgraduate Hospital and Medical School. Shortly after leaving that institution he became professor of nervous diseases at the Cornell Medical School, remaining until 1902 when he retired.

Dana made pioneering works in the physiology and pathology of the nervous system (glandula pinealis, paralysis agitans, athetose, multiple sclerosis). He was one of the first to suggest a seccession of the posterior roots in athetosis, spastic paralysis and painful conditions. He was also active in the fields psychiatry and psychology, public health, medical history and archeology.

In 1892 the first edition of his book Diseases of the Nervous System was published. This was a most successful textbook which ran to several editions. He had quite a literary flare and published several books with the family publishing house Elm Tree Press. These were mainly translations of Latin authors such as Horace. Together with Silas Weir Mitchell (1829-1914) he was largely responsible for the improvement and development of American mental hospitals. He published quite extensively but his most important contribution was his clear description of subacute combined degeneration seconday to pernicious anaemia, and he made a number of important contributions on topics such as arsenical neuritis and the effects of alcohol – wet brain syndrome. He made a number of notable contributions on the history of medicine and was a member of the Charaka Club of New York where many of his discussions on medical history and ancient physicians were presented and published in its proceedings.

Charles Loomis Dana, Bernard Sachs (1858-1944) and Moses Allen Starr (1854-1932) were called “the New York Triumvirate.” It was Dana’s idea that Sachs should write a book on nervous diseases of children, the first of its kind in America.

«The old fashioned family physician and general practitioner . . . was a splendid figure and useful person in his day; but he was badly trained, he was often ignorant, he made many mistakes, for one cannot by force of character and geniality of person make a diagnosis of appendicitis, or recognize streptococcus infection.» New York Medical Journal, 1913; 97: 1.

«All the real, solid, elemental jests against doctors were uttered some one or two thousand years ago.»

We thank W. Mortone for correcting an error.

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