Amherst Magazine

The Healing Power of Old Doc

By William Sweet

147920160
Milliken Infirmary in 1938

This fall marks the 150th anniversary of the hiring of Dr. Edward Hitchcock Jr., who pioneered on-campus health programming, creating at Amherst the first structured college health program in the United States.

Nicknamed “Old Doc” by Amherst students decades before he’d warranted being called old, Hitchcock “was way ahead of his time and a real visionary,” says Dr. J. Robert Wirag, the recently retired director of health services for the University of Central Florida and a recipient of an American College Health Association award named in Hitchcock’s honor.

In the 19th century, academic leaders became increasingly concerned about the health of their students, men who shared the robust diet of the American farmer but who led much more sedentary lives. (Sound familiar?) In 1830, Hitchcock’s father, Edward Hitchcock Sr., president of Amherst from 1845 to 1854, put it bluntly: “Too many budding hopes have been blasted; too many wrecks are strewed around us, to suffer the reality to be hid no longer.”

Hired in 1861 to lead the Department of Physical Education and Hygiene, Hitchcock Jr. established a routine of medical exams for new students, exercise, a course in hygiene and treatment for the sick. While some colleges already had infirmaries, Amherst was the first to have a comprehensive program with an on-site physician.

An 1849 graduate of Amherst, Old Doc may have been inspired to the field of medicine by his father, who taught anatomy at Amherst and was plagued with health problems. A chronic sufferer of indigestion, rheumatism and headaches, Edward Sr. would weigh his food before meals and extoll the virtues of eating in moderation and abstaining from alcohol—this at a time when Americans consumed, on average, 4 gallons of straight alcohol per year and many considered the tomato poisonous. (In his book Dyspepsy Forestalled and Resisted, the elder Hitchcock warns against wet feet, night air and the “mighty and dangerous influence of love,” and urges students to honor the Sabbath by exercising indoors on Sundays, spending a couple of hours walking in their dormitory hallways or swinging chairs over their heads a few hundred times.)

In his first report to the college, Old Doc reported 17 cases of mumps, eight athletic injuries and four colds, not to mention cases of “quincy” (tonsillitis), colic, typhoid fever, boils, nervousness and sciatica. In most cases, Hitchcock was the only physician these men saw. Fifteen students would die during Hitchcock’s first 15 years at the college, most from typhoid fever.
Hitchcock came to be beloved by generations of Amherst men, who flocked to his lectures on sex and reproduction, dubbed the “smut lectures” by appreciative freshmen.

In 1875, after a student contracted typhus, went home to New York and died, Hitchcock campaigned for a campus infirmary. A three-story wooden building erected in 1897 off Triangle Street fulfilled his vision of a healing place “where a ‘mother’ can be found at any hour of the day or night, with a ready room and bed, and a good woman’s sense, who can nurse [the student] until he has found out whether he is really sick or not.” The construction of Milliken Infirmary in 1938 brought health services to the main campus. In 1984, Milliken was converted into a dormitory, and health services moved to its current location, the Keefe Health Center.

Campus health services have changed a great deal over 150 years, says Dr. Warren Morgan, the health center director at Amherst. Colds, flu and sports injuries still top the reasons for visiting the health center—colic, boils and typhoid fever, not so much.

Photo courtesy of Amherst College Archives and Special Collections