In Part I of this series, we learned about the establishment of the peculiar adjunct of Williams: the Berkshire Medical Institution (or College), in the early 1820s, at Pittsfield. What was the medical school associated with Williams College like?
First, bear in mind that Pittsfield was not a short ride down U.S. 7 as it stands today. To be sure, the roads between Pittsfield and Williamstown followed substantially the same routes: the most direct route ran through South Williamstown, along the route of the Green River and up over the pass at New Ashford, down through Lanesborough, and along the east side of Lake Pontoosuc into Pittsfield. But in the 1820s, it was a rugged route — in 1815, the sole scheduled rider carried the news and mail along this route but weekly. (A longer, slightly easier route ran around Mt. Greylock (still known as “Saddleback Mountain,”), through Adams and its “north village,” then down through Cheshire to approach Pittsfield from the east).
Pittsfield itself had recently seen significant development of Park Square, today’s Pittfield Common. Among that development was what would become the site of the medical school. In 1809, Simeon Griswold had opened “The Pittsfield Hotel,” a three-story establishment on the east side of Park Square, the right-most building in this picture. By 1821, however, it had failed to maintain the enthusiasm from its opening, its furniture was well-worn, and the structure needed repairs.
And so, Dr. Childs purchased the building in January, 1822, and soon converted the stables for use in anatomy. At its opening, the Berkshire Medical Institution therefore occupied a principal place in the heart of Pittsfield. In 1824, the old stables were removed and a new building and outbuildings constructed with the medical school in mind, while the former Pittsfield Hotel building was converted to lodging and boarding for the students. Given all this construction, it’s no surprise that the school renewed its request for funds from the legislature.
The campus buildings pictured at the top of this post would remain in use until the early 1850s, when one was destroyed by fire and the entire medical school was moved to a new building on South Street. Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose American Magazine of Useful and Entertaining Knowledge Vol. 1 is the source for the photo (also found in Pittsfield’s entry in the Images of America series of books) described the medical school as it was in the late 1820s or early 1830s:
This institution is located in Pittsfield, the shire town of the
county of Berkshire, in the state of Massachusetts; a large and
flourishing inland village, near the centre of that county, and in the
western part of the state. The institution is connected, in some
respects, with the college in Williamstown, in the north part of that
There are six professors in this
institution ; viz. of surgery and physiology ; general anatomy and
physiology; the theory and practice of medicine; materia medica,
pharmacy and obstetrics ; medical jurisprudence ; botany, mineralogy,
chemistry and natural philosophy. The number of students is from
eighty to one hundred.
The reading term begins on first Wednesday of February, and continues
till the last of August. During the months of February, March, and
April, practical anatomy with operative and demonstrative surgery are
attended to by the professor of surgery and physiology ; who also
hears recitations on the principles and practice of surgery. From
eight to eleven lectures a week are given. Recitations and a course of
instruction in the theory and practice of medicine, materia medica,
&c. by the professor of that department. Instruction is also given in
botany and mineralogy. Admission to the library, cabinet of anatomy,
natural history and mineralogy, is gratis. The annual lecture term
begins in September, 2nd Wednesday, and continues fifteen weeks.
Students were issued tickets to attend lectures — such as this one for anatomy:
The Berkshire Medical Institution would issue a lot of these tickets over the next half-century, eventually graduating 1138 doctors. Among them was Mark Hopkins ’24, whose experience will be covered in the next installment of this series.
To Be Continued.