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.

The Hamilton County School of Illustration

The period between the 1890’s and the 1920’s is known in the art world as the Golden Age of American Illustration.  A surprising number of people from Hamilton County, Indiana, were contributors to this movement.  Until recently, it wasn’t realized how interconnected they were.  However, research has now uncovered material showing the extent of their influence on each other.

George Brehm easel
George Brehm at easel, courtesy of Hamilton East Public Library Collection.

The notion of a common group was first brought up in the Noblesville High School annual in 1904 when they noticed how many alumni were going on to artistic careers.  The group got a name from a February 2, 1913, article in the Indianapolis Star which reported on a book that one member had illustrated and used the phrase “Noblesville School Forges to the Front Again.”  (This is actually a misnomer – some of the artists were from towns like Carmel.  Noblesville was just the largest community in the area.)

The patriarch of the group was Granville Bishop (1831-1902).  Bishop was born in Fayette County and his family moved to Hamilton County in 1836.  He was a self-taught artist who taught penmanship, painted wagons, and did advertising signs on buildings to supplement his income from painting.  He did well enough to support a wife and five children despite being physically handicapped.   Unfortunately, few examples of his work exist today.  There are two paintings at the Indiana State Museum and a painting of the Indian chief Red Cloud somewhere in the Indianapolis area.  According to an interview with George Brehm in the May 1943 issue of the Rainbow, the national magazine for the Delta Tau Delta fraternity, Bishop and an unknown woman watercolorist were credited as the inspirations for some of the next generation of Hamilton County illustrators.

James Whitcomb Riley, illustrated by George Brehm, Bookman magazine (December 1903): 349, accessed Hathitrust.org.

George Brehm (1878-1966) and James Ellsworth “Worth” Brehm (1883-1928) were key members of the group.  After graduating from Noblesville High School in 1898 and 1902 respectively, they went to Indiana University and other schools for training in art.  George achieved his first local fame by doing caricatures of Hoosier authors.  After working at the Indianapolis Star, they moved to New York around 1905 and were soon very successful. George had his first Saturday Evening Post cover in 1906 and Worth had his first cover in 1908.  They established separate careers in 1912 when Worth moved to an artist colony in Connecticut. George and his family had an apartment in New York and a summer home on Martha’s Vineyard.  Much of the brothers’ work was based on scenes from their boyhood in Noblesville.

Worth Brehm Song Cardinal
James Ellsworth Brehm, “The Song of the Cardinal,” Retail Catalog of Standard and Holiday Books (1913-1914): 76, accessed Google Books.

Franklin Booth (1874-1948) and Hanson Booth (1884-1944) were raised in Carmel and followed much the same path as the Brehms.  Hanson went to Noblesville High School and was a classmate of Worth Brehm.  Franklin Booth would return to Carmel from New York on regular occasions and eventually built a studio behind his family’s home.  He is the only one of the four artists who is buried in Hamilton County.  He developed a very unique style based on hundreds of pen strokes that would make the finished drawing look like an engraving.  Three books have been written about Franklin and his style which, among other things, has become an important influence on modern comic book artists.

Hanson Booth Boys Life 1914 Nov
Hanson Booth, Boys’ Life (November 1914), accessed Google Books.

These four artists did illustrations for books, advertisements, and stories in magazines such as Ladies Home Journal, American Magazine, Colliers, and Cosmopolitan.  For a short time, they ran an art school together.  Their work could also be found in the business magazines of the period.  At one point or another, all of them worked with James Whitcomb Riley.  George Brehm did work as varied as Saturday Evening Post covers, women’s magazines, Business Week, and Edgar Rice Burroughs stories.  Worth Brehm was known for his illustrations of children, and became famous for his images of Penrod, Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and others.  Franklin Booth did pipe organ advertisements and worked with authors like Theodore Dreiser and Joyce Kilmer.  Hanson did not become as well-known as his brother, but did work for pulp adventure magazines, Popular Science, and Boys’ Life.

twain
Circa 1923, image courtesy of Terapeak.

Thomas Blaine Stanley (1884-1965), a classmate of Worth Brehm and Hanson Booth at Noblesville High School, became known for a different kind of drawing.  He began as an illustrator, but eventually got a degree in English.  He used his degree to teach courses in business English, which eventually developed into the modern profession of Marketing.  He wrote two standard textbooks on the subject, which would have been used by the sort of people who populated the fictional HBO series “Mad Men.”  Along with this, he used his art skills to become a cartoonist, creating a regular business-oriented comic strip in the magazine Advertising and Selling.  It could be considered a “Dilbert” for the 1920’s.

Thomas Stanley (2)
Thomas Stanley, Advertising and Selling (June 26, 1920), accessed Google Books.

Franklin Booth had protégés – Ralph Applegate (1904-1978) and Booth’s nephew Grant Christian (1911-1989).  Applegate was known for creating murals at the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago.  Christian was a part of the WPA post office mural project and did murals in Indianapolis and Nappanee.

There were also acquaintances of the group who were recognized locally for their art talent, but went into other careers.  Worthington Hagerman (1878-1967) worked for the State Department and was Consul in Lisbon, Portugal, during WWII.  Buren Mitchell (1886-1955) became a respected college theater teacher in Oregon.

Russell Berg
Russell Berg, accessed Stanton Renner Collection.

There were other area illustrators, but it’s not known how much they interacted with the group.  Russell Berg (1901-1966), did illustration and editorial cartoons, and became known for his Chautauqua performances involving drawing and lecturing.  Floyd Hopper (1909-1984) was known regionally for his watercolors, and known locally for his illustration and mural work.

While Hamilton County is not typically thought of as having an artistic heritage, obviously there was inspiration here.  The tradition is evident in the ever-developing Carmel Arts and Design District, which features various galleries, showrooms, and the Hoosier Salon. Continuing to research and discuss artists of the past will highlight Indiana’s artistic heritage and, hopefully, encourage others to follow.

Learn more about the state’s rich artistic history with IHB’s state historical markers: William Merritt Chase, William Forsyth, and T.C. Steele.