An Online Catalog of the Exhibit

Dr. John Collins Warren

Dr. John Collins Warren (1778-1856), circa 1850
From an original presented by Dr. Frederick T. Lewis to the Harvard Medical Library, 1937

The history of medicine in Boston and, in particular, at Harvard Medical School is often a sort of family chronicle. The same famous names—Putnam, Shattuck, Bowditch, Storer, Cheever, Wyman—appear over the years as members of new generations assume roles in the profession of their parents and grandparents. But there is one Boston family—the Warrens—whose contributions range from the foundation and first lectures of Harvard Medical School and the construction of its campus to the development of innovative surgical techniques and the performance of one of the most famous operations in American medical history. The research, writing, teaching, and medical and surgical labors of the five celebrated Doctors Warren have left an indelible mark on the development of Harvard Medical School and indeed shaped the very course of medicine and medical education in this country over the past two hundred years.

The Warren home, circa 1860

The Warren family home at 2 Park Street, Boston, circa 1860
From the collections of the Boston Medical Library

This year, as the Countway Library of Medicine assumes responsibility for the exhibits, specimens, and instruments of the Warren Museum, this display of rare books, manuscripts, photographs, artwork, and artifacts from the collections of Harvard Medical School and the Boston Medical Library has been mounted as a tribute to the five members of this illustrious family and their tradition—in every sense, a family practice—of contributions to American medicine.

John Warren (1753-1815)

Surgeon and educator John Warren was born on July 27, 1753, the son of a Roxbury farmer. He attended Harvard College, graduating in 1771. After studying medicine with his older brother, Joseph Warren (1741-1775), he removed to Salem to work alongside Dr. Edward Augustus Holyoke.

Dr. John Warren was put in charge of a series of military hospitals during the Revolutionary War. After the end of the conflict, he opened his medical practice in Boston, specializing in anatomy and surgery, and held the presidency of the Massachusetts Medical Society. Dr. Warren performed one of the first abdominal operations in this country and was known for his amputations of the shoulder joint. He also was a trustee of the Massachusetts Charitable Society and one of the founders of the Massachusetts Humane Society. Dr. John Warren

Dr. John Warren (1753-1815)
: engraving, 1783
From the collections of the Boston Medical Library

In 1780, Dr. Warren delivered a private course of anatomical lectures on human dissection to colleagues. A second series, sponsored by the Boston Medical Society during the autumn and winter of 1781, drew some Harvard College students, as did a third. As a result, the president of Harvard asked Dr. Warren to organize a plan of medical study. He did so and, on November 22, 1782, Dr. John Warren was appointed to the professorship of anatomy and surgery—the first faculty member of the new medical institution. Benjamin Waterhouse and Aaron Dexter were soon added to the faculty, and the first lectures in the Harvard Medical School were delivered in 1783. In 1810, the school removed from Cambridge to Marlborough Street in Boston, and its students were able to use hospital facilities for clinical study.

Although his son, Dr. John Collins Warren (1778-1856) joined him in medical practice in 1802 and, seven years later, was appointed Adjunct Professor of Anatomy and Surgery at Harvard, Dr. John Warren found the dual labors of teaching and medical practice heavy. His health began to fail, and he died of an inflammation of the lungs leading to heart failure on April 14, 1815.


John Warren lectures


John Warren (1753-1815)
Lectures upon Anatomy :
manuscript, 1783-1785

Partially in the handwriting of Dr. John Warren, this volume of lecture notes, beginning on December 10, 1783, contains the earliest surviving record of teaching at Harvard Medical School. The lectures were delivered in Harvard Yard, probably in Holden Chapel.

After summarizing the history of his subject, Dr. Warren then justifies dissection as an essential component to anatomical study: "At the first view of dissections, the stomach is apt to turn, but custom wears off such impressions. It is anatomy that directs the knife in the hand of a skilful surgeon, & shews him where he may perform any necessary operation with safety to the patient. It is this which enables the physician to form an accurate knowledge of diseases & open dead bodies with grace, to discover the cause or seat of the disease, & the alteration it may have made in the several parts."

Bequest of Dr. John Warren to the Harvard Medical Library, 1928

A View of the Mercurial Practice in Febrile Diseases (Boston : T. B. Wait and Company, 1813)

Although Dr. John Warren published a number of pamphlets and articles—including the first article to appear in The New England Journal of Medicine and Surgery—this is his only monograph. It was published near the end of his life and concerns the medical uses of mercury in fever treatment.

Gift of Dr. John Collins Warren to the Harvard College Library, 1837, and transferred to the Harvard Medical Library

Portrait of John Warren


Portrait of Dr. John Warren (1753-1815) by Mary B. Hazelton after Rembrandt Peale, 1934

Gift in Memory of Dr. Henry Lyman of the Former Officers of U. S. Army Base Hospital No. 5 to the Harvard Medical School, 1934


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