Magazine On-line [fall 2007]
Email this link to a friend


Celebrating Transylvania's Medical History

Medical symposium presenters were, from left, Transylvania physics professor Jamie Day, University of Kentucky history professor Eric Christianson, and Charles T. Ambrose, professor in the UK College of Medicine.

At one point during his scholarly presentation on the history of the Medical Department of Transylvania University (1799-1859), University of Kentucky history professor Eric Christianson departed momentarily from his more academic language to emphasize in layman’s terms the overall importance of Transylvania and its pioneering medical school.

“Transylvania was, indeed, the real deal,” Christianson said. “It was the first significant institution of higher education west of the Alleghenies. It had the first medical school in the region, and the dominant one for a number of years. It was one of the most extraordinary medical institutions in an extraordinary era.

“Horace Holley (president of Transylvania from 1818-27) hoped it would be the ‘mark’ for education in the Western United States, and in many ways, it certainly was. It turned out generations of physicians for the Western states and others in the Union.”

This remarkable heritage was the centerpiece of a day-long symposium held August 8 at Transylvania titled “The Medical History of Transylvania, Lexington, and the Ohio River Valley.” The event attracted a staff member of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., (see sidebar) among the enthusiastic turnout of 56 historians, doctors, teachers, and others from Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, and Tennessee.

Participants were treated to three morning presentations and lunch before taking part in afternoon tours of Transylvania’s special collections, the University’s Moosnick Medical and Science Museum, and medical history sites in Lexington.


Christianson opened the morning session with a presentation titled “Medicine at Transylvania University and Lexington, 1795-1859.” He is associate professor and director of graduate studies in history with a joint appointment in the College of Pharmacy at UK. He is an expert in the post- 1700 history of science, health, technology, and the environment.

Among the themes Christianson highlighted in his talk was the prominence of Transylvania’s medical department, especially during the 1830s and ’40s, the height of its glory. At that time, the school was considered to be on a par with its sister institutions at such distinguished colleges as Harvard, Yale, and Pennsylvania. Its faculty of noted professors and practitioners, its extensive holdings in medical texts and the latest scientific apparatus, and its well equipped medical building gave it all the resources it needed to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with any school in the nation.

“People could rightly claim at that time—although comparisons can be difficult to do—that not Yale nor Harvard nor the College of Physicians at Pennsylvania itself could offer a comparable library or suite of philosophical apparatus to teach modern medicine or chemistry than could be found at Transylvania,” said Christianson. “That’s quite a boast, but it’s one that had a lot of substance.”

Christianson noted that this period was a time of great activity in the region and that Transylvania and its medical school were a central part of that.

“Lexington was on the urban frontier, and this whole neck of the woods was full of hope and future and excitement at that time,” he said. “There was something tremendously vital going on at Transylvania for quite some time, sustained by the faculty, the infrastructure, the library, the scientific apparatus, and visions of a future.”

Transylvania’s first medical hall was built in 1827 and used until 1839 when a second, more elaborate hall was constructed that today is described on a Kentucky Historical Society marker as a “Massive building of Grecian architecture with facilities not surpassed at the time by any school in America or Europe.” The second hall burned to the ground in 1863.

“Transylvania’s second medical hall was a striking building,” Christianson said. “Even in Philadelphia, they wrote about what a wonderful, beautiful building and how well equipped it was.”

As Christianson profiled some of the prominent professors and practitioners associated with Transylvania during these years, he gave particular attention to a surgeon of great renown.

“Without a doubt, the single most important individual to be associated with Transylvania was Dr. Benjamin Dudley,” Christianson said. “He was arguably one of the top two or three surgeons during this period. He was European trained, with experience in London and Paris, and was well known as a lithotomist (surgeon who removes stones from the bladder, kidneys, or gallbladder).”

Christianson, who has done extensive research on the matriculation records of the medical department, said he has determined that 4,385 students took courses in the school. As one example of the school’s drawing power, he pointed to the many students who came from Tennessee.

“Tennessee provided 699 of the matriculants to Transylvania,” he said. “During the antebellum period, eastern, central, and western districts of what became the Tennessee Medical Association were filled with Transylvania graduates, who formed the core of Tennessee’s medical profession. This would be true of a number of other states, also.”

Adding to the stature of Transylvania’s medical department, Christianson said, was the fact that it was part of a broader university.

“Most of the medical schools during the 19th century were proprietary schools, not affiliated with a university,” he said. “They were businesses. Transylvania was one of the few that had a formal affiliation with a liberal arts institution. Transylvania University had a medical department, a law department, a preparatory department, an academic department. Harvard had the same thing. If you were just a medical school off on your own, most people would look down their noses at it.”


Transylvania physics professor Jamie Day, who is also curator of the Moosnick Medical and Science Museum, gave the audience an overview of the University’s extensive and important holdings in historic scientific and medical apparatus. This equipment was used by faculty and students in the University studying natural sciences as well as by students in the medical department.

Among the numerous items of particular relevance to medical history are the anatomical models. These, and many other items, along with a large group of medical and scientific textbooks, were purchased by Transylvania faculty members on expeditions to Europe, primarily London and Paris.

daguerreotype camera
Transylvania’s scientific and medical apparatus collections include a daguerreotype camera, an aquatic or field microscope, and a traveling pharmacy used by 19th-century physicians.

In addition to his overview, Day’s presentation focused on his two primary areas of research involving the collections, which are anatomical models and a daguerreotype camera.

“The anatomical models are made of wax and came from Florence, Italy, which was the center for the best wax modelers in the world at that time,” Day said. The models can be taken apart to allow students to understand the relationship of the body’s organs and other systems.

Day has done extensive research on the camera in Transylvania’s collections, enough so that he feels he has proof it is a daguerreotype camera, named after the French artist and chemist Louis Daguerre, one of the inventors of an early photographic process.

“The symposium was my first opportunity to discuss this research publicly,” Day said after the event. “I believe we do have a daguerreotype camera, one of the oldest in the world. It is an American made camera, and American scientific instruments from that era are more rare and distinctive than those from Europe.”

Also speaking after the symposium, Day said a particular charm of the Transylvania collections is that they were actually the working instruments and library of a pioneering medical school.

“Many schools have cabinets of apparatus that are pristine and beautiful, because they’ve never been used,” Day said. “Our apparatus was used, and it shows signs of that. Our books were used by faculty and students, and some have notes in the margins. You can tell these books were studied, and that means a lot.”


Charles T. Ambrose, professor in the department of microbiology, immunology, and molecular genetics at the UK College of Medicine, completed the morning presentations with a look at the medical history of the region titled “Medicine in the Ohio River Valley, 18th-19th Centuries.” He teaches courses in pathogenic microbiology and electives in medical microbiology. Ambrose sponsored the symposium, along with Transylvania.

Ambrose began by looking at the area’s original inhabitants, the American Indians, and some of the remedies they created for various ailments. Their treatment centered on the use of about 90 herbal drugs, along with sweathouses, equivalent to modern saunas.

In his discussion of the region’s pioneers, Ambrose noted that the most devastating medical problems for them, as well as the American Indians, were outbreaks of smallpox, measles, chickenpox, diphtheria, scarlet fever, and typhus. He made special reference to cholera, an acute intestinal infection that can cause death within 6-10 hours, which was especially deadly to Lexington’s early population.

“Lexington reported only five cases of cholera in 1832, but in early June 1833 the disease suddenly reappeared in the city,” Ambrose said. “At the time, 6,000 people lived here; the epidemic killed 500 within three months.”

Even during the years when Transylvania’s medical department was flourishing, the practice of medicine was still in its infancy in many ways, Ambrose said.

“The weakness of the various treatments... was that they ignored the underlying cause of each illness, such as bacterial, viral, hormonal, and so on,” Ambrose said, referring to such treatments as bleeding, puking, purging, blistering, and poulticing. “Indeed, this knowledge was not gained until the later half of the 1800s, when European scientists made discoveries which started medicine on its modern ascent. Before then, the ordinary physician treated not diseases, but symptoms.”

Ambrose was the tour guide for an afternoon bus ride through Lexington that highlighted sites of historical and architectural interest, including medical sites and those relating to the 1833 cholera epidemic. The tour included a stop at the Lexington Cemetery gravesite of William “King” Solomon, famous for having dug the graves of many cholera victims.

Ambrose has also researched and written about the connection between Transylvania’s Medical Department and the founding of the American Medical Association (AMA). His paper on the subject— “The Secret Kappa Lambda Society of Hippocrates (and the Origin of the American Medical Association’s Principles of Medical Ethics)”—was published in 2005 by the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine and traces the establishment of a medical fraternity in 1819 for the students of the medical department. The greater significance of the organization lies in its members who helped found the AMA in 1847 and devised its Principles of Medical Ethics.


The symposium appealed to and attracted an interesting mix of scholars and academics, physicians and historians, and lay people interested in the topics.

Aileen Novick, program director for the historic Locust Grove home (c. 1790) in Louisville, was among the participants. She came away very impressed with the symposium and Transylvania’s collections, along with some information that will help her interpret Locust Grove to visitors.

“One of the children of the family who built Locust Grove was Dr. John Croghan, a medical doctor,” Novick said. “So we are always interested in finding out who his contemporaries would be in Kentucky and what the medical ideas of the time were like.”

Locust Grove even has a direct link to the Transylvania medical department. The home displays a specimen cabinet that belonged to Charles Short, a Transy faculty member before moving to Louisville.

“I had no idea of the extent of Transylvania’s collections,” Novick said. “I think it’s important for Kentucky to know how early on, there was a good medical school here.”

Jeff Wehmeyer, science team leader at the Fordham Sciences Library at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, works with historic books in the library’s collection of local and regional history.

“The biggest treat for me was to see some of the items displayed in the rare books collection,” Wehmeyer said, commenting on the afternoon tour he took that was hosted by special collections librarian B. J. Gooch. “A colleague and I teach an undergraduate course on the history of healthcare, and this was the first time I had seen works that I had read about in preparing to teach that course.”

Richard Floyd, a retired Lexington physician and longtime member of the Transylvania Board of Trustees, was already familiar with the medical school’s heritage in general, but found the symposium to be eye-opening.

“There was a lot brought out in the symposium I was not aware of,” Floyd said. “A lot of people in the community don’t realize the position Transylvania played in producing the most physicians to care for the wounded during the Civil War.”

Andy Moore ’71 is a Lexington physician specializing in plastic surgery who has vivid memories of many of the scientific and medical items found in the collections.

“I was at Transylvania during the transition from the old Carnegie Science Building to the new Brown Science Center,” Moore said. “We helped move a lot of the old stuff from the attic of Carnegie over to Brown Science. Dr. Leland Brown used to teach a course on medical history, and he would incorporate some of those items in that course.”

Moore gained a new appreciation for a heritage he was already familiar with.

“I knew Transylvania had one of the strong medical schools back then, but I didn’t realize it was head-to-head with Philadelphia institutions and that surrounding medical schools grew with some of our professors who left here for greener pastures as our school broke up.”


When all was said and done, the symposium seemed to have served its purpose of enlightening its audience and spreading the awareness of this important history.

“I thought it was a very handsomely done affair,” Ambrose said, who added he was able to deepen his understanding of Emmet Field Horine, a Louisville physician who donated about 500 historic titles to Transylvania’s special collections, through conversations with several attendees from Louisville.

“I believe that people were very attentive and that it went well,” said Christianson. “Audience members asked lots of good questions of me and the other presenters, especially in terms of whether this is a collection we should perhaps invest in, and I certainly do think it is.”

“I think it raised, and in some cases reawakened, the awareness of how deep and broad our history is,” said Day. “It was a very mixed crowd, yet everyone seemed to enjoy it. I didn’t see lay people confused by the material, and I didn’t see historians thinking it wasn’t rigorous enough. We struck a good balance.”

Produced by Office of Publications three times a year