Thanks to Jeff for the unintentional reminder that I have one part of the story of the Williams College medical school has not yet been told. (See Parts One, Two, and Three).

Ebenezer Emmons, Williams Class of 1818, Berkshire Medical Class of 1830. Photo from RPI Earth & Environmental Sciences


This series would read very differently if Williams still had an associated medical school today. So what happened to Berkshire Medical, and why isn’t it a part of Williams today?

As noted in Part I, the origins of the association between Williams and the Pittsfield-based medical school are unclear, but that association appears to have aided in obtaining the medical school’s charter from the legislature and may have served two purposes: to legitimize the degrees granted by Berkshire Medical, and to provide some assurance of stability by anchoring it to an existing institution (albeit one that had just narrowly survived the Moore defection).

Within a decade, it became clear that the alliance of Williams and Berkshire served neither purpose.

Despite the legislative compromise that led to the association of the Berkshire Medical Institution with Williams, opposition to the competition a Pittsfield medical school brought to Harvard did not fade away with the enactment of the 1823 “Act to Incorporate the Berkshire Medical Institution.” Instead, opponents attacked the new school’s legitimacy — and the association with Williams College provided little defense.

A key battleground were state medical assocations. In the 1820s and 1830s, these organizations had not yet absorbed the exclusive licensing franchise that they hold today: in Massachusetts, the laws of the Commonwealth provided that the Massachusetts Medical Association was one of several possible licensing agents. Nevertheless, recognition by the MMA both  provided an important part of a doctor’s legitimacy and a common path to licensure. And the Harvard-dominated MMA refused to admit Berkshire Medical graduates to its ranks and refused to recognize Berkshire Medical degrees as conferring the right to practice medicine.

The dispute soon spilled over into neighboring states. A letter in a Utica, New York magazine gives a flavor of the argument:

Does a degree or diploma from Williams’ College, or the Berkshire Medical Institution, in Massachusetts, confer on the holder the right or license to practice physic and surgery in the State of New York’?

By the law of this State, ” no person shall practice physic or surgery therein, unless he shall have received a license or diploma for that purpose from one of the incorporated Medical Societies in this State, or the degree of Doctor of Medicine from the Regents of the University; or shall have been duly authorized to practice by the laws of some other State or country, and have a diploma from some incorporated College of Medicine, or legally incorporated Medical Society in such State or country.

By another provision of the law of this State, “the degree of Doctor of Medicine, conferred by any College in this State, shall not be a license to practice physic or surgery; nor shall any College have or institute a Medical Faculty to teach the science of medicine in any other place than where the charter locales the College.

As neither the Berkshire Medical Institution, nor Williams College is an ” incorporated College of Medicine,” or “legally incorporated Medical Society,” in the State of Massachusetts, it seems to me to follow, that a diploma or degree granted or conferred by either of those Institutions does not confer the right to practice physic or surgery in this State. — J.A. Spencer, 9 July 1832.

In response, the leaders of Berkshire Medical attempted to defend the status of her degrees. Professor Dewey (class of 1806) pleaded the case in the proceedings of the New York State Medical Society in 1833, citing the Massachusetts legislature’s 1824 attempt to legitimize Berkshire Medical:

“An act in addition to an act entitled an act regulating the Practice of Physic and Surgery. Passed Feb. 21, 1824.”:

Be it enacted by the senate and house of representatives, in general court assembled, and by the authority of the same, That any person who shall be graduated a Doctor in Medicine, in the Berkshire Medical Institution, by the authority of Williams College, shall be entitled to all the rights, privileges and immunities granted to the Medical Graduates of Harvard University.”

The act, to which the above is an additional act, gave to the Medical Graduates of Harvard University, the full right to practice medicine and surgery, collect their dues, &c.

The object of this additional act was to confer the same upon the graduates of the Berkshire Medical Institution. It will be seen, that they are graduated Doctors in Medicine in the Berkshire Medical Institution, and not at the University, or at or in Williams College. In other words, Williams College is empowered to graduate the student, by this act, Doctor in Medicine in the Berkshire Medical Institution.

In the meantime, interest and enrollment at Berkshire Medical exceeded expectations. Driven by the economical cost of living in Pittsfield and the renown of Dr. Childs, enrollment quickly climbed above 100 students and by 1828, Berkshire was graduating more students than Harvard itself. With a steady stream of students coming in, concerns that Berkshire Medical might not last were quickly allayed. And the medical school’s enrollment easily weathered turnover in its faculty and administration: Professor Batchelder, a founding trustee and faculty member, departed in 1828. In 1829, Dr. Josiah Goodhue, the first president of the medical school, died and was replaced by Billerica’s Dr. Zadock Howe.

It appears Williams also proved unenthusiastic about the arrangement. In his book Light on the Hill, Tufts historian Russell Miller characterized the association as “unprofitable” for Williams. For the first ten years, Williams included Berkshire Medical students and faculty in its annual catalog; after 1833, this practice ceased. And there remained the problem of distance: Williamstown remained too remote from Pittsfield for any degree of supervision to be practical.

Ironically, the end of the relationship would come during the first year that Mark Hopkins occupied the Williams presidency. The end came as it began – through an act of the Massachusetts legislature, on April 12, 1837:

Sect. 1 All medical degrees conferred upon the students in the Berkshire Medical Institution, may be conferred by the president, trustees, and faculty, under the same rules and restrictions as are adopted and recognized in conferring degrees of the same nature by Harvard College.

Sect. 2. Any person who shall be graduated a doctor in medicine, in the Berkshire Medical Institution, shall be entitled to all the rights, privileges and immunities granted to the medical graduates of Harvard College.

Sect. 3. There shall be a board of overseers of the said Berkshire Medical Institution, which shall consist of the trustees of the said institution, the president and secretaries of the Massachusetts Medical Society, the senators of the Commonwealth from the four western districts thereof, for the time being, exofficio ; and the following persons, and their successors, to be chosen as herein after provided, to wit: Edward A. Newton, Julius Rockwell and Robert Campbell of Pittsfield, Charles Sedgwick and George I. Tucker of Lenox, Henry L. Sabin of Williamstown, Asa G. Welch of Lee, James C. Alvord of Greenfield, Thomas Longley of Hawley, Solomon Reed of Rowe, Elisha Leffingwell of Montague, Joseph H. Flint and Elisha Mather of Northampton, Elisha Edwards of Southampton, Gardiner Dorrance of Amherst, George Ashmun of Springfield, and William G. Bates of Westfield ; which board shall meet each year at the annual commencement of said institution, and at such other times, and upon such notice, as they may prescribe; and ten members of said board shall constitute a quorum…

Sect. 6. An act in addition to “an act regulating the practice of physic and surgery,” approved by the governor on the twenty-first day of February, in the year one thousand eight hundred and twenty-four, is hereby repealed.

As with the original 1824 Act, it appears the pro-Harvard forces lacked the strength in the Massachusetts legislature to carry the day — the ambiguities around Berkshire Medical’s unique association with Williams would be resolved in the institution’s favor: not by granting further powers to Williams and its Trustees, but by elevating Berkshire itself to parity with Harvard.

In an interesting coda, in September of 1837, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled on the validity of an honorary medical degree conferred by Williams, under which the holder had sought to practice as a doctor. Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw — the father-in-law of Herman Melville, and author of an early opinion authorizing “separate but equal” segregation — ruled that:

Williams College has the general power of colleges, to confer degrees, but has no medical faculty, or regular school of medicine, attached to it. The Berkshire Medical Institution is incorporated by law, is a regular school of medicine, but has not, by law, the authority to confer degrees… We think therefore it was the manifest intent of the legislature, to provide that the candidate should have been educated in the Berkshire Medical Institution, and that his claims to the degree of doctor in medicine should have been sanctioned by Williams College. Both of these must concur.

With the judiciary having weighed in and the legislature having mandated equality between Harvard and Berkshire, the Massachusetts Medical Association caved, voting in 1837 that the graduates of Berkshire — including those from the Williams period — were entitled to admission into the association.

Berkshire Medical would remain the life work of Dr. Henry H. Childs (Williams 1802), who had been so instrumental in its founding. In 1837, he replaced Dr. Howe as the institution’s president, a capacity in which he would serve for thirty years. He would also serve — briefly — as Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts in 1843. Dr. Childs’ son Timothy graduated Williams in 1841, then graduated from Berkshire in 1844, and after a stint as a surgeon during the Mexican War, became a faculty member at Berkshire Medical and the Dean of its Faculty. Many more Ephs would follow in the footsteps of Mark Hopkins and continue their studies in Pittsfield: among them, Paul Ansel Chadbourne of the class of 1848, who would replace Hopkins as President of Williams, and John Wells Bulkley of the class of 1841, who treated President Lincoln after he was shot.

After some diminution in enrollment during the 1830s, the number of students rebounded to its zenith in the mid-1840s, with 130 students entering each year. But those prosperous days wouldn’t last long. A fire in 1850 wiped out the institution’s main building, and most of its contents.

With quick fundraising from both public and private sources, Berkshire Medical moved south along South Street, but enrollment began to decline. Matters were worsened by the Civil War, eliminating southern states as a source of students. Railroads and better roads also took a toll: whereas at its establishment, students were attracted to Pittsfield because even Cambridge seemed a great distance, by the 1860s, new medical schools in places like Ann Arbor began to seem accessible — and cheaper. As Pittsfield entered its manufacturing heyday, the city no longer offered the advantages of cheaper room and board that it once held.

By 1867, enrollment dwindled to just 35. With no endowment — indeed, the medical school had never been free from debt — The medical school could no longer afford to pay faculty more than a pittance, so in 1869, the trustees decided to wind it down and sell off its assets. Some of its equipment ended up with the newly-established Berkshire Athenaeum. The new building on South Street became a combination grammar school and high school — but it burned down in 1876. Today, doctors’ offices and a church stand near the site. And Berkshire Medical is remembered, if at all, for the addresses delivered there by Mark Hopkins and Paul Ansel Chadbourne, two Presidents of a College that has largely forgotten it ever had a medical school.

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