150 Years Ago: Amherst Established Nation’s First College Health Program
Dr. Edward Hitchcock Jr., Class of 1849
By William Sweet
The usual injuries and illnesses that accompany life at Amherst College—an ankle twisted on the squash court, a flu brought from home—can come upon students quickly, and the response can be quick and easy, too: a trip to the Keefe Health Center.
But students didn’t always have such a place to go. This fall marks the 150th anniversary of the hiring of Dr. Edward Hitchcock Jr., who pioneered on-campus health programming at Amherst College. Amherst’s was the first structured college health program in the United States.
Hitchcock, nicknamed “Old Doc” by Amherst students decades before he’d warranted being called old, attended the birth of college health programs, which over the next century and half would evolve into both physical education as an academic study and on-campus health care centers. “Old Doc” would attend to this labor for the last half-century of his life.
The American College Health Association is currently conducting a fundraising campaign in honor of the pioneering doctor and has paid tribute to him every year since 1961 by presenting the Edward Hitchcock Award for Outstanding Contributions in College Health.
“He was way ahead of his time and a real visionary,” said Dr. J. Robert Wirag, the recently retired director of health services for the University of Central Florida and a recipient of the award.
“Dr. Hitchcock in our mind is very alive and well for people in college health today,” he added.
Hitchcock’s philosophy of mens sana in corpore sano (a sound mind in a sound body), fell in line with that of academic leaders in his time. They had become 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, often resulting in debilitating disease. In 1830, Hitchcock’s father, Edward Hitchcock Sr., president of Amherst College 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.”
In response to such concerns, Harvard introduced a regimen of physical exercise patterned after those at universities in Europe. Amherst, Dartmouth, Williams and Yale followed suit, erecting gymnasiums on their campuses. In 1854, the subsequent president of Amherst College, William A. Stearns—who considered physical education instruction essential for the bodily, intellectual and spiritual health of students—proposed the original idea of a Department of Physical Education with a professorship. Six years later, the trustees voted to create such a department and work was completed on Barrett Gymnasium, where all students were required to perform systematic exercises for 30 minutes daily, four days a week. Before 1861, college health care was handled on a sporadic basis, said Wirag. “There were outbreaks that were related to public health, head lice and body lice, because people weren't washing and bathing as they should have. A lot of college students were adversely affected. There had been nothing in the way of a structured, proactive plan before,” he said.
The “Amherst Program” established a routine of medical exams for new students, exercise, a course in hygiene and treatment for the sick. While some campuses previously had infirmaries, Amherst was the first to have a comprehensive program with an on-site physician.
Hitchcock was not technically the first physician to serve the college, that honor having been given to Dr. John Hooker, hired in 1860 with the creation of the program. But Hooker grew ill, resigned within a year and was dead in two. In August 1861, Stearns offered the position to Hitchcock, an 1849 graduate of Amherst and 1853 graduate of Harvard Medical School.
At the time that Hitchcock took the position, he was an instructor at his boyhood alma mater, Williston Seminary (now the Williston Northampton School), and had just co-written the textbook Elementary Anatomy and Physiology with his father. Hitchcock may have been inspired to the field of medicine by his father, partly because the elder Hitchcock taught anatomy at Amherst and partly because the man was plagued with health problems, which Edward Sr. outlined in his 1830 collection of lectures, Dyspepsy Forestalled and Resisted. 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.
The younger Hitchcock set up a scientific laboratory in Barrett Gymnasium, with equipment to measure body dimensions and strength. For decades Hitchcock would keep detailed anthropometric records of the student body.
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. “Of these forty-four cases,” Hitchcock reported, “only two were obliged to leave the College, the one with Typhoid fever, and the one [a] with destroyed eye.” 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.
Over the years, while heading the Department of Physical Education and Hygiene, “Old Doc” also taught physiology, comparative anatomy and hygiene. He served as dean of Amherst College for many years, as trustee of both Williston Seminary and Mount Holyoke College and on the Massachusetts Board of Health, Lunacy, and Charity. His collection of papers on the history of the college, the Memorabilia Collection, would eventually become the cornerstone of the Amherst College Archives and Special Collections.
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. Some students would later remark that he could be considered the campus psychiatrist, because they could always trust him to listen to their personal concerns.
In 1875, after a student contracted typhus, went home to New York and died, Hitchcock began campaigning for a campus infirmary. A three-story wooden building erected in 1897 on a knoll off Triangle and Taylor Streets, Pratt Health Cottage fulfilled Hitchcock’s 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.” A matron and staff of nurses attended to sick and injured students there for the next four decades. The construction of Milliken Infirmary in 1938 brought health services to the main campus. In 1984, Milliken was converted into a dormitory, and the health services program was moved to its current location at Keefe.
Milliken Infirmary, 1938
Campus health services have, of course, changed a great deal over 150 years, said Dr. Warren Morgan, the current health center director at Amherst. And yet there are many similarities as well. Springtime colds and flu and sports injuries still top the reasons for visiting the Health Center—colic, boils and typhoid fever, not so much.
The campus health center is a daytime-only operation now, but it offers a wide range of services, including immunizations, routine check-ups and counseling. “Every dorm has a resident counselor on every floor, and every fall we meet with the RCs to orient them,” Morgan said. In addition, the campus has a cadre of student emergency medical technicians to act as first responders.
About 30 students will visit Keefe on a typical day, according to Morgan. Much as Hitchcock did when Amherst was a much smaller school, Morgan will likely see every student at some point during his or her four years at Amherst.
Morgan keeps the Dean of Students’ Office constantly informed about the health of the Amherst student body (within the limits of the patients’ confidentiality, or course), because he sees the health center’s work as integral to the college’s educational goals. “Our primary mission is to facilitate students doing the best they can academically, by monitoring and improving their health,” he said.
As the “Old Doc” ordered: mens sana in corpore sano.
Health at Amherst: A Look Back
1830 – Edward Hitchcock Sr. publishes Dyspepsy Forestalled and Resisted. He warns against wet feet, night air and the “mighty and dangerous influence of love.” He 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.
1856 – Amherst College President William A. Stearns writes, “The breaking down of the health of students, especially in the spring of the year, which is exceedingly common, involving the necessity of leaving college in many instances and crippling the energies and destroying the prospects of not a few who remain, is, in my opinion, wholly unnecessary if proper measures could be taken to prevent it.”
1861 – The college hires Dr. Edward Hitchcock Jr. to lead its new Department of Physical Education and Hygiene.
1876 – Tanaka Fujimoro, Japan’s first vice minister of education, visits the U.S. and returns recommending the “Amherst Plan” as the model of physical education for Japanese students.
1877 – Hitchcock approaches Amherst’s trustees to improve the state of the college’s privies, adding the luxury of enclosed sheds in the winter and composting toilets for each dorm. Hitchcock would later boast that there were no finer water closets than Amherst’s.
1897 – Pratt Health Cottage is built, thanks to a gift from George D. Pratt, Class of1893; Herbert L. Pratt, Class of 1895; and John T. Pratt, Class of 1896, all of Brooklyn, N.Y.
1900 – Amherst adds nurses’ quarters at Pratt Health Cottage and publishes a manual of conduct and responsibilities for nurses: “Nurses are reminded that the Cottage is neither a private house nor a hotel.”1908 – Offices, a kitchen and a maid’s room are added at Pratt Health Cottage.
1938 – A new health center is constructed in the Milliken building. Most of Pratt Health Cottage is demolished, except for small addition that is converted to a private home.
1984 – Milliken Infirmary is converted into student dormitory, and health services are moved to the Keefe building at 95 College St.
1995 – A meningitis outbreak claims the life of one Amherst student and lands another in the hospital. Health Services mobilizes extra staff from the UMass Heath Center to assist in collecting and disseminating information. The Health Center dispenses 1,297 doses of preventive medicine.