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When Williams Had a Medical School, Part 3: Mark Hopkins

Mark Hopkins sculpture, in the 'Hall of Fame' at Bronx Community College.

Continuing the series from Part I and Part II.

At commencement in 1824, Mark Hopkins graduated from Williams. Those in attendance could hardly have known that this was not the conclusion of his Williams days. And alongside Hopkins was a sign that even if he didn’t yet envision his lifelong association with the College, he wasn’t about to leave: the first medical degrees awarded by the President and Trustees of Williams College went to seven members of the Berkshire Medical class that began in 1823.

Hopkins was soon to follow them. He went to Pittsfield directly after his graduation to begin his course of study, but quickly departed to teach part of the year in Stockbridge. At the end of the year, Hopkins was invited back up to Williamstown to be a tutor at the College. But after two years, he took his leave of Williamstown once more, returning to his medical studies (and continuing to teach, mainly to pay the medical expenses of high school). At first, Hopkins resumed his medical studies in New York, but in the spring of 1828 he returned to Pittsfield, where Professor Dewey enlisted him in teaching high school at his Berkshire Gymnasium, a boys’ prep school Dewey founded and would soon leave Williams to run, in conjunction with his association with the medical school.

By 1825, the enrollment at the Berkshire Medical Institution had increased to 112 and 21 students would graduate. In his return to Pittsfield, Mark Hopkins roomed with a son of New York’s Governor Clinton, who may have been one of Professor Dewey’s high school students. Small glimpses of Hopkins’ experience in Pittsfield are recorded in his surviving letters, many written to his brothers. In May 1828, writing to his brother Albert, then in Stockbridge, Hopkins reported on his experience and requested some necessities:

I think I should like to have by me some of the Eupatorium so you may put some in a paper — none of your large stalks, and bring it. The other thing is — if Mother can spare them with perfect convenience — two or three towels — They have a washroom here where they all wash but I prefer to find my own towels OK, and wash in my own room . . .

We get up at half past four and keep busy most of the day — I cannot yet tell how I shall like it, though the getting up part I think I shall like well.”

Half past four is pretty early! A later letter describes how Hopkins spent the time:

[I] exercise a good deal. I commonly walk from 2 to 4 miles during the day, soemtimes more besides exercising from 5 to 6 in the morning in the Gymnasium — From the nature of my duties here it will be difficult for me to get away so I cannot say when I shall be at Stockbridge, though perhaps if you will engage to bring me back on Monday morning I may walk down some Saturday and spend the Sabbath with you…

By the end of 1828, Hopkins had left Pittsfield again for New York, on an invitation from William Emerson to teach grammar, rhetoric, and composition at “Mrs. Smith’s School.” The initial offer was for Hopkins to be paid $400 per year for 2 hours a day of teaching; the job was eventually revised to 2 1/2 hours per day and $500 per year. These funds were sufficient to pay the board and tuition for Hopkins’ remaining lectures.

Leaving for New York did not disqualify Hopkins from completing his degree at Berkshire, however. As reported in the Almanack of American Medicine in 1832, the institution required that only one of the two necessary courses of lectures (i.e. semesters of work) be completed in Pittsfield, as long as one also completed three years of total study (including lectures) and a dissertation and examinations before the professors and two fellows of the Berkshire Medical Society. And so, while attending lectures in New York, Hopkins completed his dissertation. On the Fourth of July, 1829, he reported to his brother:

I have sent my dissertation for M.D. to Pittsfield and I am glad it is the last thing of the kind I shall ever be obliged to write. I have also to pay them $15, and my tuition here and then I shall be through with that — But as Steph. Tucker said of the beans “before you get through with one hill another comes.” I begin already to enjoy some of the pleasures of a Drs. life in being called up nights &c &c.

And so, it was Mark Hopkins, M.D., thanks to the Berkshire Medical Institution under the President and Trustees of Williams College, 1829. His career as a doctor would be short-lived: within another year, he received his appointment as Professor of Rhetoric and Moral Philosophy at Williams, and by 1836 he would be president of the College. Not that Hopkins’s association with Berkshire would end, even after the medical school and Williams parted ways. In 1840, Hopkins would return to give an address to the students on “how far medicine can properly be called a science” and “the qualities of mind that ought to be cultivated by the physician.”

Why did Mark Hopkins head off to study medicine after his graduation from Williams? The answer is lost to time. In his biography of Hopkins more than a century ago, President Carter observed:

The choice of the medical profession may seem strange to those who knew Dr. Hopkins in the full tide of his career as a philosopher and theologian. He was so eminent a master in these fields that a consciousness of fitness for something else seems singular…

Very possibly the flourishing condition of the school at Pittsfield was one influence that led him into medicine. He must have known a good deal of the school through some of the students, and may have caught the desire for this study from their enthusiasm… [I]t is plain now that the training derived from his studies for the profession of a physician became of the greatest use to him in his later life-work. It was the guidance of the higher Hand that was preparing him for a larger career.

Hopkins’s 1840 address at Pittsfield further underscores why we don’t think of him in his medical role:

It is now ten years since I have attended to the practice of Medicine, or to the studies connected with it. Not that those studies have lost their interest to me, but I have been so much occupied with other things as necessarily to exclude them. During this period, if I may judge from the nature of the case, or from the years that preceded it, there have been changes, it may be improvements, both in the theory and practice of medicine. Of these changes however, whatever they may be, I am almost entirely ignorant; for ‘ few and far between’ have been the rambles that I have taken along the shores of medical literature, to see what accident, or the love of truth, or the love of fame or of money, may have thrown up upon the surface of that ever restless sea.

Fortunate are we today, then, to know Mark Hopkins as the most famous president of the school in Williamstown, not as the most famous student of the school in Pittsfield.

Coming in the final part of this series: how Williams came to no longer have a medical school.

Sources: Arthur Latham Perry, Williamstown and Williams College; Franklin Carter, Mark Hopkins; Anonymous editor, Early Letters of Mark Hopkins: and Others from his Brothers and Their Mother (1929).