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William Alexander Hammond

Born  1828
Died  1900

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American neurologist and sanitary general, born, August 28, 1828, Annapolis, Maryland; died January 5, 1900, Washington.

Biography of William Alexander Hammond

William Alexander Hammond's father was a doctor. Hammond received his first academic education at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and continued his medical studies at the University of New York, graduating doctor of medicine in March 1848. He subsequently practised for one year at Philadelphia Hospital, and then entered the U.S. Army Medical Department as assistant surgeon in 1849, serving with the army for 11 years. His first tour of duty was in the Southwest, where he took part in campaigns against the Sioux Indians.

After a few years he became ill and convalesced in Europe where he studied military hospitals. He returned to the U.S. and a mutual interest in arrow and ordeal poisons and snake venoms led to a friendship with Silas Weir Mitchell (1829-194), and a joint publication in 1859 in the American Journal of Medicine. Being of the same age, they were on equal terms. Both were looking for antidotes for snakebite. One day Hammond mentioned to Weir Mitchell that while in Texas he had successfully used a certain antidote for rattlesnake poison. Mitchell then purchased a half dozen of these snakes, only to prove to his satisfaction that the antidote was of no value.

In 1860 Hammond resigned from the army to accept the chair of physiology and anatomy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. However, when the Civil War broke out in the spring of 1860, he returned to the army, serving as assistant at general Patterson’s headquarters. Regarding promotion, he was at the bottom of the list, but his accomplishments as inspector of hospitals, where he introduced humane management, were such that despite his youth – he was thirty-four – President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1965) in 1862 appointed him Surgeon General of the army with the rank of brigadier-general. He used his experiences during the war for to improve the field hospitals, establishing the U.S. Army Hospitals for Diseases of the Nervous System. He also established the Army Medical Museum

Unfortunately there was constant friction between him and secretary of war, Edwin M(cMasters) Stanton (1814-1869). Hammond, keen on intellect, indomitable in spirit and, to some, pompous and arrogant; Stanton autocratic, irascible and unrelenting in his prejudices. Their conflict came to a climax in 1863 when general Hammond was ordered on an extended, obviously permanent, inspection tour. This caused Hammond to demand restoration of the prerogatives of his office or trial by a court-martial. Tried in 1864 by a ”packed court” on the trumped up charge of irregularities incident to the purchase of medical supplies, general Hammond received a verdict of guilty and was dismissed from the Army. In 1878 he was vindicated by Act of Congress

On leaving the army he arrived in New York penniless and in debt, and set up practice in neurology. This not only brought him prominence but also made him exceedingly wealthy. In 1874 he was appointed professor of psychiatry and nervous diseases at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, University of the City of New York and, in, 1876 at Bellevue Hospital Medical College

Hammond was among the seven who founded the American Neurological Association. In 1888 he returned to Washington, where he died of a cardiac ailment in 1900.

Playwright, novelist and lecturer as well, Hammond wrote a neurology textbook. His voice was so powerful that it could be heard up-wind in a hurricane. Moreover, there was a substantial dash of Paracelsus in him. He was not only an outstanding leader and talented organizer, but also an aristocrat among the labourers in the neurological field. Tough-fibered to begin with, and toughened further by exposure in Kansas while on duty in the Indian country, he was, above all, a ”brave figure out of the past, a reminder of the days when words were plain and men were men."

In 1862, with J. H. Brinton, J. J. Janvier Woodward and G. A. Otis he began compiling The Medical and Surgical History of the Rebellion.


  • A treatise on hygiene, with special reference to the military service. Philadelphia, 1863.
  • Lectures on venereal diseases. Philadelphia, 1864.
  • On wakefulness, with an introductory chapter on the physiology of sleep. Philadelphia, 1865.
  • Insanity and its medico-legal relations. New York, 1866.
  • On sleep and its derangements. Philadelphia, 1869.
  • The physics and and physiology of spiritualism.
    New York, 1870.
  • The Medical and Surgical History of the Rebellion.
    Written by Joseph Janvier Woodward (1833-1884), George Alexander Otis (1830-1881), Charles Smart (1841-1905), under the direction of Joseph K. Barnes (1817-1883), Surgeon General of the Army. Washington, D.C., Government Printing Office, 1870-1888. One of the most remarkable works ever published on military medicine. An index of operators and reporters appears at the end of the third surgical volume. This index makes it possible to look up any surgeon and find the patients he treated. The work was highly praised by Virchow (1874): ”Whoever takes in hand and examines these comprehensive publications will continually have his astonishment excited anew by the riches of the experience, purchased at so dear a price, which is there recorded . . .”
  • A Treatise on the Diseases of the Nervous System.
    New York, D. Appleton & Co, 1871.
  • Clinical Lectures on Diseases of the Nervous system.
    New York, 1874.
  • Insanity in Its Relations to Crime. New York, 1875.
  • Spiritualism and Allied Causes and Conditions of Nervous Derangement. New York, Putnam, 1876.
    A book of fantastic tales, such as that of a girl abstaining from food and drink for years, raising in her doctor’s mind the question: ”Why does the body grow when nothing goes into it?”
  • Rudolf Virchow:
    Die Fortschritte der Kriegsheilkunde, besonders im Gebiet der Infectionskrankheiten. Berlin, Hirschwald, 1874.
    His quotation on The Medical and Surgical History of the Rebellion is on page 7.
  • Mil. Surgeon, 1929, 64: 98-110, 252-262 (Duncan).
  • Army Med Bull, 1940, 52: 42-46 (Phalen).
  • Chiefs of the Medical Department, United States Army, 1775-1940. Biographical sketches. Washington, D.C., privately printed, 1940 (Phalen).

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