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Silas Weir Mitchell papers

Identifier: MSS 2/241-03

Scope and Contents note

The S. Weir Mitchell Papers, spanning 1788 to 1949, contain Mitchell's correspondence, travel journals, diaries, literary notebooks, and manuscripts of his speeches, poems, and unpublished autobiography. The bulk of the collection concerns Mitchell's family life and literary career, but also present is material pertaining to Mitchell as a physician, such as correspondence with his British and American colleagues and records of his studies of patients with nerve injuries. The collection also includes Mitchell family papers, genealogical information, clippings, and correspondence pertaining to the preparation of a Mitchell biography.

S. Weir Mitchell's personal papers are in Series 1; of special interest are items pertaining to Mitchell's estate, including papers left on his desk at his death, a will written by Mitchell just weeks before he died, and appraisals of his wines, books, and china. Also present is a list of items sold at a sheriff's sale in the 1930s and an inventory of Mitchell's rare book and autograph collection, which was sold to an auction house in 1941. Subseries 1.2, which contains royalties statements from several different publishing houses, provides a record of Mitchell's wages as an author. These monthly statements, spanning 1882 to 1918, document Mitchell's earnings from each of his works, whether a medical book, novel, or volume of poetry.

Other personal papers in Series 1 include Mitchell's academic transcript from the University of Pennsylvania (complete with a record of misconduct charges) and lecture notes (1849-1850) from Charles D. Meigs's class on obstetrics at Jefferson Medical College. Also present are items that Mitchell might have saved for sentimental reasons, such as obituaries of his father and older brother; souvenirs from his trip to Japan in 1901; a photograph of himself with a child, perhaps one of his grandchildren; and records of the military service of his younger brothers. Also of interest are literary manuscripts presented to Mitchell by his friends, including a typescript play (1894) by Thomas Wharton and Owen Wister based on Mitchell's Francois Villon, and a signed, typescript poem (1892) by Oliver Wendell Holmes.

As is evident from the papers in Series 2, S. Weir Mitchell took a keen interest in genealogy and spent considerable time researching his family history. (For information on Mitchell family genealogy, consult Appendix A.) Mitchell's genealogical research involved collecting and studying his ancestors' papers and corresponding with distant relatives. Subseries 2.1 contains the papers of physician Alexander Mitchell (1766-1804), S. Weir Mitchell's grandfather; included are several letters and his 1799 list of balances. Also present is correspondence concerning the possible friendship between Robert Burns and John Mitchell, Mitchell's great-grandfather. Series 2 contains correspondence and miscellaneous papers of John Kearsley (d. 1819), S. Weir Mitchell's great-grandfather. Also present is genealogical information concerning the Henry family, Mitchell's mother's side of the family; included are letters from Mitchell's grandfather, Alexander Henry (d. 1847), and genealogical information pertaining to the Fitz-Randolph and Snowden families. Present in Subseries 2.4 is correspondence with Bessie Symons, Mary Hay, and Howard F. Hay concerning the link between the Mitchell, Symons, and Penn families. Finally, Series 2 contains miscellaneous correspondence concerning genealogy and an essay, "Adventures and misadventures in the wilds of Virginia" (1860), the author of which is unknown.

Series 3 contains Mitchell family correspondence and papers. Included in this series are the papers of S. Weir Mitchell's father, John Kearsley Mitchell (1798-1858), and his son, John K. Mitchell (1859-1917), who were both physicians. In addition to providing specific information about the Mitchell family, the papers in Series 3 provide general information about life in Philadelphia during the nineteenth century. (For additional information on the Mitchell family, consult Appendix A.)

Subseries 3.1 contains John Kearsley Mitchell's diary from an 1817 voyage to China; in the diary, he recounts the trans-Atlantic journey, describes the native people of Sumatra and Java, and explains the Malay language. Also present are numerous letters from John Kearsley Mitchell to his wife, Matilda, many of which send reports from Canton, China, where he was stationed. These letters reveal a great deal about social conventions, courtship, and the status of physicians during the early nineteenth century. Subseries 3.1 also includes John Kearsley Mitchell's correspondence with Michael Faraday, William F. Johnston, David Rittenhouse Porter, and Richard Rush; the finding aid contains an item-level calendar of this correspondence. Matilda Mitchell's (1800-1872) papers, including numerous letters to her husband and her son, S. Weir Mitchell, are in Subseries 3.2.

Series 3 contains letters from Mitchell's sister, Elizabeth Kearsley Mitchell (1825-1874), to her family and to her friend, Bessie Kane. Also present are S. Weir Mitchell's letters to his family written while he was studying and travelling abroad during 1850 and 1851; these letters contain descriptions of English hospitals, surgical techniques, and physicians, and accounts of Mitchell's daily life and medical studies in Paris. This series contains nearly one hundred letters from Mitchell to his son, John K. Mitchell, most of which were written during the 1870s when John was attending St. Paul's School in New Hampshire. Mitchell's letters from his 1901 trip to Japan are also in this series.

Series 3 includes a small amount of correspondence from S. Weir Mitchell's younger sisters, Sarah Mitchell Neilson (1831-1906), called "Saidie" by her family, and Letitia ("Tish") Mitchell Harrison (1832-1914). This series also contains the papers of S. Weir Mitchell's brothers; included are Robert Walsh Mitchell's (1836-1872) letters to his family from Panama, where he worked on the Panama Railroad in the 1850s, and military records from his service as an army captain during the Civil War. Also present are letters and personal papers relating to Edward Donnaldson Mitchell's (1843-1864) service as a medical cadet during the Civil War. Included are several letters to William W. Keen, whom Edward befriended during the war.

Mary Cadwalader Mitchell (d. 1914) became S. Weir Mitchell's second wife in 1875. Her papers, in Subseries 3.10, consist of letters to S. Weir Mitchell and to her daughter-in-law, Anne K. W. Mitchell. Also present is her essay describing an African-American servant who worked for the Cadwalader family when Mary was a girl. The collection includes two letters written by Maria Gouverneur Mitchell (1876-1898), S. Weir Mitchell's daughter, who died of diphtheria at the age of twenty-two. Present in Subseries 3.12 are John L. Cadwalader's (1837-1914) letters to his sister, Mary Cadwalader Mitchell, and brother-in-law, S. Weir Mitchell.

The papers of S. Weir Mitchell's son, physician John K. Mitchell (1859-1917), include a poetry notebook, the manuscripts of two lectures on nursing, and letters to S. Weir Mitchell, Mary C. Mitchell, and Talcott Williams. Other correspondents include Sophy Dallas Irwin, Fanny Kemble, Amelia Gere Mason, Fielding H. Garrison, and Sir William Osler; the finding aid contains an item-level calendar of these letters. Papers belonging to John K. Mitchell's wife, Anne K. W. Mitchell, are contained in Subseries 3.14. Included are letters to S. Weir Mitchell and Mary C. Mitchell; correspondence with the Century Company concerning the publication of the essays of her father, John Worthington Williams; miscellaneous correspondence, including a signed letter from William H. Taft; and papers relating to her genealogical research. Series 3 also contains letters from S. Weir Mitchell's granddaughters, Mary Mitchell Freedley (b. 1894) and Sarah Worthington Mitchell Macdonough (b. 1896). The papers of S. Weir Mitchell's younger son, Langdon Elwyn Mitchell (1862-1935), are in Subseries 3.15. Included are letters to family members and newspaper clippings documenting his career as a playwright and his 1891 marriage to actress Marion Lea. Series 4 contains Mitchell's correspondence with physicians, literary figures, and other acquaintances. The letters are original, unless otherwise noted on the finding aid, and in some cases, a run of correspondence is accompanied by a letter explaining its provenance. Subseries 4.1 consists of a disbound letterbook containing resolutions from various societies and sympathy letters on the 1858 death of Mitchell's father, John Kearsley Mitchell; included are letters from Robley Dunglison and Samuel Henry Dickson. S. Weir Mitchell's correspondence with American and British physicians is contained in Subseries 4.2; included are letters from John Shaw Billings, Sir Lauder Brunton, Harvey Cushing, Simon Flexner, Fielding H. Garrison, George M. Gould, J. Hughlings Jackson, William W. Keen, Hugo Munsterberg, Hideyo Noguchi, Sir William Osler, Sir James Paget, W. S. Playfair, Sir D'Arcy Power, Sir Ronald Ross, Beverley R. Tucker, Sir John Batty Tuke, and J. William White.

Correspondence with literary figures is in Subseries 4.3. Included are letters from Richard Watson Gilder, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Charles Lea, George Meredith, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Howard Pyle, Agnes Repplier, James Ford Rhodes, James Whitcomb Riley, A. L. Wister, and Owen Wister. Also included is Mitchell's extensive correspondence with Amelia Gere Mason (170 items) and Sarah Butler Wister (106 items). Both women, who were among Mitchell's closest friends, offered support and advice on personal and literary matters. General correspondence with friends and acquaintances is in Subseries 4.4; correspondents include Andrew Carnegie, Danske Dandridge, professor Max Farrand, artist Frank Holl, Frances Butler Leigh, Louisa S. Minot, Anne Thackeray Ritchie, Agnes M. Swann, William H. Taft, Charles D. Walcott, and Owen Jones Wister. Correspondence and papers relating to studies of patients with nerve injuries are also in Series 4. Included is the correspondence of S. Weir Mitchell and John K. Mitchell, both of whom conducted follow-up studies of the patients S. Weir Mitchell treated during the Civil War; these studies were included in John K. Mitchell's Remote Consequences of Injuries of the Nerves and Their Treatment (1895). In addition to correspondence, Subseries 4.5 contains completed patient questionnaires, case reports, and miscellaneous papers. Finally, Series 4 contains miscellaneous correspondence pertaining to nursing, fear of cats, psychotherapy, and a proposed monument to Civil War surgeons. Also present are letters from John Bigelow, Horace Howard Furness, William Dean Howells, and James Whitcomb Riley, in which the correspondents respond to Mitchell's queries about their sleep and dream experiences; the finding aid contains an item-level calendar of these items.

Series 5 consists of thirty-one travel journals and diaries, spanning 1851 to 1912. Early in life, Mitchell kept a journal only when he travelled; the earliest journal in the collection documents his 1851 trip through Europe with his sister Elizabeth. Also present are journals of his frequent camping and fishing trips, made between 1869 and 1874, to the Great Lakes region of Canada and the United States. Included in Series 5 is a journal from Mitchell's 1879 trip to Yellowstone Park, Wyoming, and several journals recounting trips to Europe made between 1880 and 1891. Many of the journals contain poem manuscripts, probably written during Mitchell's travels.

Mitchell did not make a serious attempt to keep a daily diary until the mid-1890s. Series 5 contains all of his diaries spanning 1894 to 1912, with the exception of the 1902 and 1913 diaries. (Mitchell's 1913 diary was part of an earlier gift presented to the Historical Collections of the Library of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia by Mitchell's granddaughters, Mrs. Mitchell Macdonough and Mrs. Vinton Freedley.) The diaries are sketchy; Mitchell frequently went for days or even weeks without making an entry, and the entries he did make consist of fairly brief observations about his activities. Because of Mitchell's shaky hand, many of the entries in the later journals are hard to decipher; the later journals also contain entries written in another hand, perhaps by Mitchell's personal secretary. The diaries reflect the pace of S. Weir Mitchell's daily life and provide a record of the people he met, the places he visited, and his general health and state of mind.

Present in Series 6 are ten volumes of S. Weir Mitchell's literary notebooks, spanning 1889 to 1910. These volumes contain poetry manuscripts and notes for Mitchell's novels, including outlines, story ideas, character sketches, quotations, and references from other works. The notebooks reveal sources that inspired Mitchell and explain how he developed plot and characters; the notebooks also document the extensive historical research Mitchell conducted before writing an historical novel. Included in these volumes is an early draft of Phillip Vernon (1895), notes for Hugh Wynne (1896), and historical notes, probably used for The Red City (1907). Other notes and outlines are for works that Mitchell never completed. Many of the poems in the notebooks were inspired by different locations, such as Venice, Newport, Egypt, and Japan.

Series 7 provides additional examples of S. Weir Mitchell's writing. This series contains a typescript copy of his unpublished autobiography, and holograph and typescript speech manuscripts spanning 1896 to 1913. The speeches, some of which were never published or delivered, cover both literary and medical topics. A selection of manuscript and printed poems is in Subseries 7.3, and Subseries 7.4 contains Mitchell's miscellaneous writings. Present is his 1841 account of a visit to Newport (written when Mitchell was only twelve), his reminiscences of a discussion with President William H. Taft, and his unpublished work, "An adventure on Fifth Avenue". Also present are tear-sheets of Mitchell's short story, "The waters of oblivion", which was published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine in 1944 through the efforts of his daughter-in-law, Anne K. W. Mitchell. The final item in Series 7 is a typescript copy of A catalogue of the scientific and literary work of S. Weir Mitchell, published in 1894.

Series 8 contains hundreds of clippings, spanning 1881 to 1925, from British and American newspapers and journals. The clippings are stamped with dates and the titles of the periodicals from which they came, and many are labeled with numbers that correspond to their subject content. About half of the clippings relate to S. Weir Mitchell (reviews of his work, obituaries, general articles about the man); the other half pertain to the wages of physicians and literary figures. The source of these clippings is unclear; they might have been collected by a clipping service.

Series 9 contains correspondence and other materials pertaining to the preparation of a biography of S. Weir Mitchell. Talcott Williams (1849-1928), a friend of S. Weir Mitchell and the Mitchell family, agreed to write a biography of Mitchell in 1916, but he died before the project was completed. Series 9 contains Williams's correspondence, most of which pertains to his attempt to collect copies of Mitchell correspondence; included are letters from Robert Abbe, John Shaw Billings, Harvey Cushing, Bayard Henry, William W. Keen, Amelia Gere Mason, and Owen Wister. Anne K. W. Mitchell, as the inheritor of S. Weir Mitchell's papers, oversaw the biographical project from the start; Series 9 includes her correspondence with Fielding H. Garrison, William W. Keen, Louisa S. Minot, Langdon Elwyn Mitchell, and Beverley R. Tucker. After the death of Talcott Williams in 1928, Anne K. W. Mitchell hired Anna Robeson Brown Burr (1873-1941) to complete the biography; some of Burr's correspondence is also in Series 9. Subseries 9.4 contains a large collection of typescript notes, probably prepared by Anne K. W. Mitchell's assistant, Elizabeth Dunbar, which were used in the preparation of the biography. Other papers pertaining to the biographical project, such as contracts and publication materials, are in Subseries 9.5.


  • Majority of material found within Bulk, 1850-1928
  • Bulk, 1850-1928 1788-1949


Biographical note

S. Weir Mitchell, physician, novelist, and poet, was born in Philadelphia on 15 February 1829. Mitchell was the son of John Kearsley Mitchell (1798-1858), a physician and lecturer at Jefferson Medical College, and Matilda Henry Mitchell (1800-1872). S. Weir Mitchell entered the University of Pennsylvania at the age of fifteen but withdrew during his senior year when he became ill. In 1848, he enrolled in Jefferson Medical College, and by March 1850, at the age of twenty- one, Mitchell had completed his medical degree.

In the fall of 1850, S. Weir Mitchell departed for Europe with his sister, Elizabeth. Elizabeth stayed with her younger sister in England, and Mitchell settled in Paris to study medicine. During this influential year, Mitchell dined with Sir James Paget and Edward Jenner, studied with Claude Bernard, and purchased his own microscope. After a year in Paris, he travelled with his sister in Italy and Switzerland. At the request of their ailing father, Mitchell and Elizabeth returned home in the fall of 1851.

Upon returning to Philadelphia, Mitchell set up a demanding schedule for himself; he assisted his father during the day and worked in the laboratory in the evenings. It was during this time that Mitchell conducted experiments with snake venom and first became interested in neurology. By 1855, John Kearsley Mitchell had retired, and Mitchell became responsible for the support of his parents and siblings. A few years later, Mitchell started a family of his own. He married Mary Middleton Elwyn in 1858, and the couple had two children, John K. Mitchell (1859-1917) and Langdon Elwyn Mitchell (1862-1935). In 1862, Mitchell's wife died of diphtheria.

During the Civil War years, Mitchell worked as a contract surgeon in Turner's Lane Hospital in Philadelphia, an army hospital for nervous diseases. Turner's Lane was an ideal location for Mitchell to pursue his interest in nerve diseases and wounds of the nerves. Mitchell was joined by William W. Keen and George R. Morehouse in conducting extensive neurological research at the hospital. The three physicians took careful notes, wrote detailed case studies, and published the results of their findings in numerous articles and books, including Reflex Paralysis (1864) and Gunshot Wounds and Other Injuries of Nerves (1864). Their pioneering work was praised for its accuracy, thoroughness, and wealth of statistics. In 1864, having received some degree of notoriety from his work at Turner's Lane, Mitchell resigned as a contract surgeon. Known as an authority on nervous diseases, he soon limited his practice to this specialty. In the early 1870s, Mitchell was appointed to the Philadelphia Orthopaedic Hospital and Infirmary for Nervous Diseases where he continued his neurological research and developed innovative treatments for patients with nervous ailments. During this period, Mitchell discovered a disease called erythromelalgia, or Weir Mitchell's disease. Mitchell also discovered the connection between eyestrain and headaches, and he introduced the "rest cure", a revolutionary method of treatment for patients, especially women, who suffered from hysteria and neurasthenia. Mitchell continued to publish medical works during the 1870s, including Injuries of Nerves and their Consequences (1872), which was still used by the French as late as World War I; Wear and Tear (1873), a book on overwork and mental fatigue written for a general audience; and Fat and Blood (1877), which describes Mitchell's rest cure treatment. In terms of his personal life, Mitchell married Mary Cadwalader in 1875, and his daughter, Maria Gouverneur, was born in 1876.

By 1880, at the age of fifty, Mitchell embarked on a serious literary career. He wrote poetry and several novels, including In War Time (1882), Roland Blake (1886), Hugh Wynne (1896), Dr. North and his Friends (1900), Circumstance (1901), Constance Trescott (1905), and Westways (1913). Having secured his reputation as a "literary physician", Mitchell became a popular figure both at home and abroad; he corresponded regularly with such notable figures as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Andrew Carnegie, William Dean Howells, Sir William Osler, and George Meredith. Mitchell frequently gave speeches before social clubs and professional organizations, and when his busy schedule allowed, he travelled extensively in the United States, Europe, Japan, and Egypt.

S. Weir Mitchell was actively involved in numerous local and national medical societies. He was founder and first president of the American Neurological Society and first president of the Philadelphia Neurological Society. Mitchell also served presidential terms for the Association of American Physicians, the American Association of Physicians and Pathologists, the Congress of American Physicians and Surgeons, and the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Mitchell's honors and achievements include honorary memberships in the British Medical Association, the American Academy of Medicine, and the Royal Academy of Medicine in Rome. He was awarded honorary degrees from Harvard University, the University of Bologna, the University of Edinburgh, Princeton University, the University of Toronto, Jefferson Medical College, and Johns Hopkins University. In 1906, S. Weir Mitchell received the Franklin Medal.


8.5 Linear feet

20 boxes + 1 oversize folder

Language of Materials


Provenance note

After S. Weir Mitchell's death in 1914, his papers were left to his son, John K. Mitchell. Three years later, when John K. Mitchell died, his widow, Anne K. W. Mitchell, inherited the papers. During the 1920s, the Mitchell Papers were transferred between Langdon Elwyn Mitchell, Talcott Williams, and Anna Robeson Brown Burr, all of whom were considering writing a biography of S. Weir Mitchell. Burr's biography, Weir Mitchell: His Life and Letters (1929), was the only one completed. In 1950, Ernest Earnest published a second biography, S. Weir Mitchell: Novelist and Physician. In the forward to this work, Earnest states that:

Thus, in 1950, most of Mitchell's papers were still with the Mitchell family, probably with one of his granddaughters, Mrs. Vinton Freedley or Mrs. Mitchell Macdonough. By the 1980s, a book dealer came into possession of the Mitchell Papers; eventually, Palinurus Rare Books came to hold the collection as it now stands, which includes Mitchell's papers, papers of the Mitchell family, and notes and correspondence pertaining to the Mitchell biographical project.

The Mitchell Papers were purchased by the Historical Collections of the Library of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia from Palinurus Rare Books on 21 December 1990. The purchase of the Mitchell Papers was made possible by donations from the McLean Contributionship, the Barra Foundation, the Hassell Foundation, the Groff Family Trust, the Claneil Foundation, and the Library Books Fund. Contributions also were made by the following individuals: Steven Peitzman, John Eckman, Philip Hodes, Mrs. George Blumstein, Fred Rogers, David Cooper, and Harry Shubin.

The S. Weir Mitchell Papers were processed and catalogued from September 1992 to February 1993. Acidic copies and clippings were photocopied and discarded. Printed items, such as books, pamphlets, and reprints, were also removed from the collection (see Appendix B).

1788 (1850-1928) 1949 20 boxes (8.5 linear ft.) and 1 oversize folder

Separated materials - oversize

Flat file no. 1, drawer 2

Contents: 1 diploma
Silas Weir Mitchell papers
Finding aid prepared by wvg
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Code for undetermined script
Language of description note

Repository Details

Part of the Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia Repository

19 S. 22nd Street
Philadelphia PA 19103 United States