John Shaw Billings: “I Could Lie Down and Sleep for Sixteen Hours without Stopping”

John Shaw Billings portrait, n.d. Photo courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.

We all know those people, who accomplish more in one hour than we do all week, who redefine “industrious” and excel at everything they try. Indiana native John Shaw Billings was the archetype, a visionary with seemingly infinite energy who revolutionized medical and bibliographical practices that endure into the 21st century. Billings stands among several Hoosiers who are profoundly influential, yet under recognized, including the inventor of the television Philo T. Farnsworth and creator of one of America’s first automobiles Elwood Haynes.

Billings was born April 12, 1838 in Allensville, Indiana; his family moved to the East Coast briefly in 1841 and returned in 1848. Ambitious from a young age, Billings made a deal with his father that, in exchange for forfeiting inherited property, his father would fund his college education. At the age of 14 and after intensive study, he passed the entrance exam for  Miami University at Oxford, Ohio, where he incessantly studied philosophy and theology at the college library. After earning his B.A., he entered the Medical College of Ohio at Cincinnati in 1858, where he undertook his thesis “The Surgical Treatment of Epilepsy” that would later inform his monumental bibliographical endeavors.

John Shaw Billings : an autobiographical fragment 1905 (facsimile copy of the original manuscript), courtesy of Archive.org.

Shortly after graduation, Billings’s training coincided with the start of the American Civil War, providing him with opportunities to apply his medical knowledge. In 1861, Billings traveled to Washington, D.C. and became a contract-surgeon with the military. Soon thereafter he was appointed assistant surgeon in the U.S. Army, working at the Union Hospital in Georgetown. While there, his “extraordinary manual skill and boldness in dealing with difficult cases attracted the attention of the surgeon-general,” and he was put in charge of Cliffburne Hospital near Georgetown.

As a Civil War surgeon at several prominent battles–including the Battles of Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Cold Harbor, and Petersburg–Billings was tasked with establishing field hospitals, operating and treating wounded soldiers for hours while under fire, and transporting waves of injured soldiers from battle sites with limited equipment. Billings lamented the trials of his work, writing to his wife about the Battle of Gettysburg:

“I am utterly exhausted, mentally and physically. I have been operating night and day, and am still hard at work. I have been left in charge of 700 wounded, and have got my hands full. Our division lost terribly, over 30 per cent were killed and wounded. I had my left ear just touched with a ball . . . I am covered with blood, and am tired out almost completely, and can only say that I could lie down and sleep for sixteen hours without stopping. I have been operating all day long, and have got the chief part of the work done in a satisfactory manner.”

After the battle, Billings understandably left field work for a brief period due to “nervous tension and physical exhaustion.” In August 1864, Billings helped edit field reports that became the monumental The Medical and Surgical History of the War and eventually transferred to the Surgeon-General’s Office, where he remained until retirement in 1895.

billings in army
Albumen silver print, ca.1862, courtesy of Smithsonian Libraries blog.

As the war concluded, hospitals submitted surplus operating funds to the Surgeon-General’s Office; these funds were given to Billings to build up the Surgeon-General’s library, which later became the National Library of Medicine. Billings expanded the collection by writing to editors, librarians, physicians, and State Department officials requesting book donations, eventually increasing its holdings from 600 entries in 1865 to 50,000 by 1873. The scope of the collection soon required a guide to help researchers locate desired publications. Billings understood firsthand the difficulty of locating such sources, as his thesis research required intensive time, labor, and travel to libraries in Cincinnati and Philadelphia.

With the assistance of Dr. Robert Fletcher, Billings devised a catalogue for the Surgeon-General library’s holdings, publishing the first volume of the Surgeon General’s Medical Index Catalogue in 1880. He hoped it “would spare medical teachers and writers the drudgery of consulting ten thousand or more different indexes or of turning over the leaves of as many volumes to find the dozen or so references of which they might be in search.” As new medical materials were published, Billings struggled to keep the Catalogue current, so he devised the Index Medicus, a monthly supplement that focused on new and select publications. The Index Medicus was the forerunner to the medical databases MEDLINE and PubMed.

library
Surgeon General’s Library, ca. 1890. Billings sits at center table, courtesy of New York Public Library Digital Gallery.

Prior to Billings’s systematic efforts to compile and organize medical literature, researchers and physicians had few methods to effectively locate sources, including medical studies and reports on operations. The Index Catalogue and Medicus served as a nearly comprehensive clearinghouse of medical literature, both current and historical, whose contents could aid in medical education and diagnoses. Dr. Stephen J. Greenberg and Patricia E. Gallagher summarize the magnitude of Billings’s efforts in “The Great Contribution,” contending that “with only ink and index cards, they [Billings and Fletcher] tamed an enormous and complex technical literature in virtually every written language on the planet” and that the indices “paved the way for the great databases that now are the primary underpinnings for the medical research of the future.”

Billings’s efforts at the Surgeon-General’s library served as the beginning of his library work, which would one day lead him to industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. For more information on Billings’s Civil War activities and establishment of the Surgeon-General’s library and corresponding Index Catalogue, see the Historical Marker Review.

Check back for Part II: “A New Era of Hospital Construction” about Billings’s involvement in the establishment of Johns Hopkins Hospital and how it revolutionized medical treatment and education.

Ambrose Bierce: The Evanescent Man

Ambrose Bierce by J.H.E. Partington. Courtesy of Library of Congress.
Ambrose Bierce by J.H.E. Partington. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

The history of American letters overflows with stories of eccentric characters, both from the pages and their authors. One particular author whose unique view of the world shaped his writings and his lifestyle was Hoosier Ambrose Bierce. Like Mark Twain, Bierce is usually associated with the San Francisco writing scene of the late-19th century. However, he spent many of his formative years in Indiana, learning about the newspaper business and ultimately enlisting in the Civil War. These early experiences not only shaped his incomparable writing style, but they influenced his distinctive views about life and religion.

Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce was born June 24, 1842 in Horse Cave Creek, Ohio. Bierce’s early life, after he and his family moved to Indiana, remains shrouded in mystery. Some sources indicate that the Bierce family moved to Kosciusko County in 1846, but it is hard to verify. Bierce reportedly lived on the family’s settlement in Walnut Creek until he was 15, when he moved to Warsaw to work as a “printer’s devil” (an apprentice tasked with multiple duties) for the Republican newspaper, the Northern Indianan. Reportedly, Bierce also traveled to Kentucky in 1859-60, learning typography at the Kentucky Military Institute.

After returning from Kentucky, Bierce reportedly lived in Elkhart from 1860-1861. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Bierce enlisted in Company C of the Ninth Indiana Regiment in April 1861 and served as a private for three months. He was promoted to Sergeant in July 1861, when he reenlisted for a three year term. His upgrade in rank came as a result of his valor during the Battle of Laurel Hill on July 10, 1861. He was wounded at Kennesaw Mountain in 1864 and eventually opted not to reenlist, mustering out in January 1865 with the rank of First Lieutenant. Bierce’s intense and often painful experiences during his service in the Civil War inspired much of his literary work, particularly his short fiction and journalism.

Company A, 9th Indiana Infantry. Photograph by Matthew Brady. Courtesy of U .S. National Records and Archives Administration.
Company A, 9th Indiana Infantry. Photograph by Matthew Brady. Courtesy of U .S. National Archives and Records Administration.

Bierce began his journalism career in 1867, writing poems and essays for the Californian and Golden Era, under newspaper editor James T. Watkins. From 1868-1872, Bierce wrote a local column for the San Francisco News Letter called the “Town Crier.” One critic referred to his writing as “humor [that] borders as nearly upon the blasphemous and sacrilegious as that of Swift or Sterne.” Another review considered his early works, “The Haunted Valley” and “Broke,” as offbeat pieces that showed his “capacity, acute observation, and descriptive powers of very unusual simplicity, grace, and effectiveness.”

For the next three years, Bierce lived and worked in England, under the pseudonym “Dod Grile.” The origins of his unorthodox pen name came from an 1872 letter, written by a friend and early employer of Bierce in England named Tom Hood, who addressed Bierce as “Dear God Rile.” Bierce used an anagram of it, “Dod Grile,” as a pen name while in England. As biographer Roy Morris speculates, Bierce may have chosen this simple name as a way to attract readers, same as Samuel Clemens did with “Mark Twain.”

Bierce’s columns appeared in English and American newspapers. Bierce also published three collected humor works while in Great Britain; his most successful was Cobwebs from an Empty Skull, published in 1873. Prominent advertisements and reviews in This Week’s News and Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper solidified their modest success.

A lithograph of the devil from Cobwebs from an Empty Skull. Courtesy of Internet Archive.
A lithograph of the devil from Cobwebs from an Empty Skull. Courtesy of Internet Archive.

After his time in England, Bierce returned to California and began work at the Argonaut and the Wasp and established his successful column, “Prattle.”  This column gave Bierce a platform to express his views on politics, current events, literature, and history, often with a humorous slant. As an example, this short quip about a millionaire’s dining habits appeared in the March 13, 1886 issue of the Wasp:

There is a man in San Francisco—a millionaire who has revived a very ancient custom, I am told. This gentleman is rather fond of dining people at his house—mostly men. Between the courses, now and then during the meal, he introduces various uncouth monsters, whose antics are supposed to amuse and edify the guests. I am told they don’t. A friend of mine has asked me to complain of the infliction—which I willingly do, although it is not the simplest method of relief that my friend could have thought out. If he does not relish monsters with his dinner why does he not dine at home and ask to have the monsters sent over to him afterward, as a separate entertainment?

By 1898, Bierce renamed his column “War Topics” and wrote mostly of his early support and subsequent ambivalence regarding the Spanish-American War.

In 1887, he worked for newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst at the San Francisco Examiner. Like in Britain, Bierce’s columns were nationally syndicated, in outlets like the Wichita Eagle, The Louisiana Democrat, and the Washington Herald. Even though Hearst gave Bierce nearly complete editorial freedom, a growing antagonism existed between them. This may have been due to Bierce’s disgust with some of Hearst’s other journalists, specifically after 1906. Bierce formally left the employ of Hearst in March of 1909 to focus on compiling his collected works and memoirs.

In 1891, he compiled many of his Civil War tales into Tales of Soldiers and Civilians.  The book included “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” which Hoosier satirist Kurt Vonnegut called the “greatest American Short Story.”  The widely anthologized tale excellently displays Bierce’s style and grasp of the complexities of war.  Film maker Robert Enrico adapted the story into an Academy Award winning short film (1963), which Rod Serling subsequently used as a Twilight Zone episode.

In this excerpt from “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” Bierce reflects on death in war:

Death is a dignitary who, when he comes announced, is to be received with formal manifestations of respect, even by those most familiar with him. In the code of military etiquette silence and fixity are forms of deference.

 Many reviewers praised the Tales of Soldiers and Civilians after its publication. A New York Tribune reviewer noted, Bierce’s stories are “elaborated pictures of what the American soldier actually experienced in the great war [Civil War].” New Orleans’ Daily Picayune called Bierce a “genius” and considered the anthology the “most noteworthy book of stories by an American writer published in ten years.”

Title page of Tales of Soldiers and Civilians. Courtesy of Internet Archive.
Title page of Tales of Soldiers and Civilians. Courtesy of Internet Archive.

It is somewhat fitting that an author known for his unexpected plot twists would have a surprise coda to his own life.  Bierce’s mysterious disappearance in 1914 proved to be as complicated as his early years in Indiana. After his last letters to family and friends in 1913, there is only one primary source (a letter to a friend) that suggests that he went to Mexico. The other indication that he was headed that way is in letters from the fall and winter of 1913, where he repeatedly describes his future trip to Mexico. His final letter to a family member, dated November 6, 1913, notes that “I shall not be here long enough to hear from you, and don’t know where I shall be next. Guess it doesn’t matter much.” However, a letter from December 26, 1913 to friend Blanche Partington places him in Chihuahua, Mexico but the last sentence of the letter leaves it more ambiguous: “As to me, I leave here tomorrow for an unknown destination.”

Based on the evidence of this last letter, Bierce possibly went to Mexico, but as investigator Joe Nickell notes, this supposed last letter attributed to Bierce, and preserved by his daughter, is probable at best. Therefore, it is more likely that he disappeared after 1914 and that the claim that he went to Mexico is plausible but not confirmed, based on his letters from late 1913. Bierce’s “death” was as elusive as the man himself.

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge and Other Stories by Ambrose Bierce is available at the Indiana Historical Bureau book shop.

Visit Part Two to learn about Bierce’s connection to 19th-century freethought.