Hammond, William Alexander (1828-1900)

hammondA treatise on diseases of the nervous system. New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1871.

A treatise on hygiene: with special reference to the military service. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1863.

United States Surgeon General’s Office. The medical and surgical history of the War of the Rebellion (1861-65). Washington: Government Printing Office, 1875-88.

William Alexander Hammond, Surgeon General for the United States Army from 1862-1864, has been described by one biographer as “a dominant personality in any field he entered, attracting a following and developing active enemies” (Phalen 46). His theatrical behavior, large build and powerful speaking ability commanded attention (Phalen 46). Originally from Maryland, Hammond moved with his parents to Pennsylvania at age five, where he lived until he went to medical school. He received an M.D. from the University of the City of New York at the age of twenty. In 1849, he entered the U.S. army as assistant surgeon and remained for eleven years, participating in several campaigns against the Indians in New Mexico and Kansas. During these years, he also researched and wrote on the subjects of physiology and botanicals, and received notoriety in the field, which eventually led to a professorship offer. In 1860, Hammond resigned his military post to become the chair of anatomy and physiology at the University of Maryland’s medical school. However, his hiatus from the army was short; in 1861 he rejoined the army to participate in the Civil War. Due to his departure a year earlier, Hammond was forced to start as an assistant surgeon again, but because of his experience, he was able to serve as a hospital administrator, organizer and inspector (Kelly & Burrage 521; Phalen 42-43). In this capacity, he demonstrated great administrative ability which impressed several important individuals, including General George B. McClellan, who advised that Hammond be appointed the next Surgeon General. Other lobbying forces also supported this notion, including the Sanitary Commission, which was dissatisfied with the existing administration and desirous of a replacement for the Surgeon General. After Clement A. Finley was fired from the position in the spring of 1862, Hammond was appointed (Atkinson 364; Rutkow, Treatise on hygiene, viii-ix).

The union hospital system at the time was inadequate due to chronic inattention and official lassitude, but Hammond’s previous experience within the U.S. army and his knowledge of foreign military medical systems provided him with an excellent background for resolving the problem (Atkinson 364). Upon appointment to the position, Hammond initiated a major reorganization and improvement process. He hired inspectors to visit all the union hospitals and he created a strict medical examination system that rejected many incompetent physicians (Freemon 10). He also directed the construction and equipment of modern hospitals. As noted in one biographical sketch, under Hammond’s new system, the sick and wounded were better cared for than they ever had been before, and the mortality rate was lower than in the experience of any prior army (Atkinson 364).

In 1863, Hammond also managed to publish, A treatise on hygiene: with special reference to the military service, in which he presents his ideas regarding military medicine. Included within are floor plans of major hospitals of the world and remarks about which are the most and least appropriate ones (Freemon 65). The Reynolds Library has a first edition of this work. In addition to his many reforms as surgeon general, Hammond was also responsible for the introduction of the army medical museum and the Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion, a massive culmination of reports gathered from physicians and hospitals treating the war wounded. This collection was published by Hammond’s successor, and the Reynolds Library has a complete set of this series that Civil War medical history bibliographer Frank Freemon considers “the most important medical publication of the American Civil War” (132).

Despite his impressive achievements and efficiency as Surgeon General, Hammond aroused antagonisms from staff members who disapproved of his promotion ahead of those higher in rank (Kelly & Burrage 521). More importantly, his relationship with the Secretary of War, Edmund Stanton, was strained and suffering. As a result of quarrels with Stanton and his controversial removal of calomel from the Standard Supply Table, Hammond was brought up on trumped-up charges and dismissed in 1864. However, under an act of Congress in 1878, he was restored to the army and placed on its retired list (Phalen 45). After the war, his career remained active as he became professor of nervous and mental diseases at several medical schools. Neurology was a new specialty, and Hammond became a pioneer in the field. Medical history bibliographers Garrison and Morton identify Hammond’s 1871 book, A treatise on diseases of the nervous system, as the first American treatise on neurology (Norman 4542). The Reynolds Library has a first edition of this volume. Hammond contributed several other works to the neurology field, and he opened up a sanatorium for patients with nervous and mental diseases in 1888.

 

Image: William A. Hammond, Etched by H. B. Hall, New York, 1877; [From] Atkinson, William B., ed. The physicians and surgeons of the United States. Philadelphia: Charles Robson, 1878; Reynolds Historical Library.