Friday, July 23, 2010

Who is George Otis?

Dr. George Otis must be regarded as one of the mainstays of the Museum. He served for 17 years until his early death at 50 in 1881. Under his direction, the second, much larger Catalogue of the Army Medical Museum and the Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion were published, as well as many shorter monographs. Over 100 years after his death, Otis has become something of a cipher. His personal life is hard to trace. He married Pauline Baury in 1850. They had three children, Agnes Pauline, Anna Maria, and Alfred Louis, but only the girls seem to have survived to adulthood. His wife apparently died as well, since in 1869 he married Genevieve Poe and later disinherited her for abandonment. Thousands of pages of his official correspondence exist, but the formal style of the nineteenth century gives little feeling for the man. We can turn instead to his friends. Otis is described by his colleague J.J. Woodward as, "Hesitating, often embarrassed in his manner in ordinary conversation, especially with strangers, he became eloquent when warmed by the discussion of any topic in which he took interest." Otis was born in Boston on November 12, 1830. His father died before his first birthday and his mother returned with her son to her native Virginia. Otis had an undistinguished career at Princeton, preferring to read French literature instead of the assigned material. He returned to Virginia and privately studied in Richmond. He received his medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania in April, 1851. He spent the rest of that year and the next studying in Paris. A coup d'etat gave him the opportunity to begin a first-hand study of military medicine. He returned to Virginia in spring 1852 and the next year began the Virginia Medical and Surgical Journal. The Journal, in competition with the Stethoscope, was not a financial success. Otis sold a partial interest to Dr. James McCaw and moved to Springfield, Massachusetts but maintained his connection as corresponding editor. McCaw later became known for his organization of Chimbarozo Hospital in Richmond for the Confederacy. Otis enlisted as a surgeon in the 27th Massachusetts Volunteers to particpate in the war. He moved over to the regular army as the war continued and joined the Museum staff in 1864.

Otis wrote the first two volumes of the Surgical Section of the Medical & Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion as well as curating the collection of bones. He also oversaw the Division of Surgical Records. Otis supervised or created four photographic collections, the Surgical, Medical, Microscopical and Anatomical, which loosely paralleled the arrangement of the Museum. The Medical Series photographs, a very small run, consists of now little-used pictures of colons made by Woodward, who during the war was looking for physical clues to the cause of disease, especially the "alvine fluxes" or dysentery and diarrhea. Woodward also took thousands of Microscopical Series photographs in which he experimented with photomicrographs using artificial lights and specialized stains. Otis's Anatomical Series photographs compared skulls of aboriginal people throughout the world. This work stemmed from an arrangement with Secretary Joseph Henry of the Smithsonian Institution, under which the Army Medical Museum became the government's home for human anthropological remains while the Smithsonian handled cultural remains. Otis had plans for a larger publication (probably like the Surgical Photographs) and began compiling a checklist of the specimens which was published for the 1876 Centennial. The Army was not interested in funding this project though, and most of the photographs and remains were returned to the Smithsonian some years after Otis's death. Otis was also an accomplished surgeon and performed the difficult amputation at the hipjoint on Julius Fabry, removing the infected remains of his femur. Fabry survived for many years after the second operation.

Otis stayed with the Museum through a stroke in 1877 until his death in 1881. He continued working on Museum projects even after the stroke made him an invalid.

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