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EDWARD CLARK STREETER 1874-1947: A biographical appreciation for his friends and classmates

John F. Fulton

Early on the 17th of June 1947 Edward Clark Streeter, the distinguished collector and medical historian, died of coronary occlusion at "Red Brook," his home in Stonington, Connecticut, after an illness that had seriously restricted his activities for several years. Born at Chicago, Illinois, on 10 November 1874, the son of John Williams Streeter, a well-known physician and surgeon, and Mary Clark Streeter, he prepared for college at the Harvard School of Chicago, spent a year abroad, and then came to Yale and was graduated with the Class of 1898, having meanwhile been Editor of the Yale Literary Magazine and a member of various student societies including the Yale Union, Scroll and Key, and the Stevenson Club. Streeter took his medical degree in 1901at Northwestern University Medical School where he edited their Bulletin and took special work under Ludwig Hektoen. He served as resident physician in the Streeter Hospital until 1905 ,but shortly after his father's death he sold the practice and returned to the East.

In 1906 Streeter married Miss Alice Martha Chase of Waterbury, Connecticut, who throughout their happy married life shared with him the joys of travelling and collecting and entered enthusiastically into all his undertakings. They set out at once on a leisurely trip around the world, going first to the Orient, which always held a special fascination for him. After five months in Japan, they visited China and India, finally reaching Europe early in 1907. Following two months of study in the clinics of Vienna and several months in Paris (where their daughter was born), they returned to Boston where Streeter worked for the next two years at the Massa­chusetts General Hospital, devoting his attention among other things to the study of opsonins. In 1909 he returned to Europe and settled in Berlin whence he made weekly visits to Leipzig to work under Karl Sudhoff. After his return to Boston in January 1910 he resumed his postgraduate work at Harvard, conducting experimental work in bacteriology at the Massachusetts General Hospital.

It had long been apparent that Streeter was more interested in the history of medicine than in the actual practice of his profession. Filial respect rather than natural inclination had evidently determined the course of his early years, and gradually his approach to medicine inclined more to its historical aspects. It has been stated that when Streeter came East in 1907 he had settled in Boston because of the Boston Medical Library. Certain it is that he used its resources extensively and for many years he took an active share in guiding its progress. He also became associated with the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, first as a member and later as President of its executive committee and also (until 1922) as President of the Corporation, a group of three physicians who officially owned the Journal and undertook the financial responsibility of underwriting the expenses of its publication.

After the United States declared war on Germany, he entered service (10 July 1917), serving overseas from 22 August 1917 to 22 January 1919 as Quartermaster of Mobile Hospital 39 (the Yale Unit). During this period he found rest and relaxation in tramping the French countryside, which to his well-stored mind was rich in historical relics, and in recalling times more peaceful and picturesque. This contemplation of the past seemed completely to shut out the present, but Dr. George Milton Smith, his frequent companion on these jaunts in the forward areas, still associates the Renaissance painter-anatomists with the not-too-distant roar of gunfire, for their conversation sooner or later always came around to the sixteenth century—to that period in which he would have chosen to live and that group of artists who were more real to him than were many of his contemporaries.

Sometime before the War, Streeter had met Fielding H. Garrison, the eminent American medical historian, and, as was inevitable, they became warm friends. Each was quick to appreciate the other and to recognize his worth; each gave the other helpful understanding whenever it was needed. The letters of the summer of 1914 and 1915 are revealing human documents-revealing of Garrison himself, but more par­ticularly of the spell Streeter so often cast upon other scholars. Thus on 2 July 1914 Garrison wrote from Atlantic City (as usual by hand):

My dear Doctor Streeter, Your very welcome letter came to hand this afternoon, like a refreshing breeze from the North, and I put in a cool afternoon on the veranda, looking out at the sea and meditating on our pleasant foregatherings of a few days back. My meeting with you was the one bright spot in this two weeks of enforced rest-cure by the sea, and I wish you could have stayed longer, as you were beginning to have a very soothing Asclepiadean effect upon my addled brain and perturbed spirits.... Your grave, almost exotic ways have an especial charm for me and remind me of the courtly Emersons and Hawthornes of the past. I notice, too, that you take your time about everything, like a true seigneur, a trait that has always seemed to me to be an index of capacity for depth in the individual—at any rate it connotes anything but superficial, slapdash haste and folding spy glass views of things, such as most of our fellow countrymen are given to, and I venture to predict that if you follow your true bent, you will be able to reflect a great deal of credit upon medical scholarship in this country in the future.

Two weeks later he wrote again in a similar vein:

Seriously, however, more than all the medico-historical researches that you, Sudhoff, Klebs or the collective talent of this country could perpetrate did I value a certain spiritual side of you which had a very soothing effect on a tired but irritated man. I trust you will take what I said in good part,as seriously meant, and implying that, on very short acquaintance, I had acquired an enormous respect for you which is not usual to a man of my age. You seemed and seem to me a sort of Aesculapius or healer of my troubles, and I hope you will continue this kindly role, as, like most Southern types, I attach more importance to softness and gentleness of manner than to the achievements of a John Hunter or Virchow.

And this, a year later (11 August 1915):

There is no medical scholar in this country who can hold a candle to friend Streeter, who, as Stinker says of Brahms, throws off the finest wine from the richness and cloudiness of the mediaeval ferment, "and how fine, how incomparably noble is a draught of this wine after the thin, acid and bubbling stuff concocted at each season's vintage." Vale.

In 1919 when a return to peacetime pursuits was not without its difficulties, Streeter continued to find comfort in the warm praise of this old friend, who intimated nevertheless that the benefits flowed from Boston rather than to it:

[17 June 1919] It was good to see you again and the few hours I spent with you have been the pleasantest and most stimulating I have gone through since I saw you at the Shoreham. I sometimes think you ought to have been a clergyman of the credo of Emerson's Bohemian Hymn or the Motto of Nathan der Weise. "Introite, nam et heic Dii sunt." At any rate, your introits do soothe my perturbed spirit, and you are a great little old stimulator of the best that is in others. How some of those Washington history people did wax enthusiastic over you after your Aristotle spiel! I laid underground plans with Hoeber to get it for his Annals.

And early in 1920 evidence of their warm friendship is found in a letter to Mrs. Streeter:

Dear Alice:... I agree with you about Edward. "His soul is like a star and dwells apart," and I have seen no one quite like him, except Osler himself. I was taken with him the very first time I saw him, and never has an unkind word passed between us and there never will. It is perfectly delightful to have him blow me up now and then, as far as such a gentilhomme could blow anybody up—I mean about religion and such things. I fear I am like John Streeter when it comes to the kirk, but whenever I am in Boston over Sunday, I shall be seen at the Old South in company with you and Ned.

Edward Streeter was one of the foremost medical humanists of his generation. A classical scholar of unusual capacity, his Latin and Greek being impeccable, he took particular delight in perusing medieval classics in their original texts. Although he had read widely and was as familiar with Greek and Roman medicine as he was with the medicine of the American Revolution, he directed the greater part of his time and energy to the Renaissance, particularly as it affected France. He was fascinated by that colorful group of medical humanists that flourished at Lyons in the 1530's: the encyclopedist, Symphorien Champier, Etienne Dolet, the printer, Jean Canape who translated the classics of ancient medicine into the French vernacular, Michael Servetus, physician-geographer and victim of the Inquisition, and above all François Rabelais, prince of medical humanists who was then working on his celebrated edition of the Commentaries of Hippocrates. Streeter studied the evolution of Gargantua and Pantagruel in such detail that many of the foremost Rabelais scholars sought his counsel on points bibliographical and textual.

Sixteenth-century Paris and its inhabitants he also came to know as well as (perhaps better than) he knew their twentieth-century counterparts, and the same was in large measure true of the school at Montpellier and the towns of northern Italy where the Renaissance in both art and medicine had such a spectacular flowering. He meditated all his life over the relationship between the painters and anatomists of this period and was interested in every detail of their technique—even considering how the pigments were ground and the exact colours mixed.

In May 1921 Harvey Cushing, Malcolm Storer, and Streeter were responsible for the formation of the Boston Medical History Club. Also in this same month Streeter was made Lecturer in the History of Medicine at Harvard and there began the informal weekly meetings at his home at 280 Beacon Street where he shared with students his collection of in­cunabula and early texts and the riches of his well-stored mind. His familiarity with old books—the authors, the printers, the whole panorama of the period—and his manner of speaking of them as acquaintances or close friends (according to his appraisal of them) seemed to banish the centuries and make the people as real as D. B. Updike and his nearby Merrymount Press (at 232 Summer Street). Those evenings with the old books arranged on the grand piano and with Dr. Streeter's vivid portrayal of their role in earlier times fired the spirit of many a student with his own unquenchable enthusiasm.

His wealth of knowledge and devotion to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries never rested heavily on his shoulders, and in the Yale Quatercentenary Record of his college class he writes lightheartedly, incidentally poking fun at the iniquities of all questionnaires:

My History. 'Live in history now, don't wait to live in it in the here­after—c'est notre devise. I soak in history, bathe in it, lave in it, but when you speak of my history since 1910 I do not, simply don't, get your meaning. I have no history since 1910 and if I had, would not divulge it to you. History ends in 1527, with the sack of Rome. Everything since is mere piffle-pate, or as we might say, sequacious dependency on the Renaissance, even to feeble repetition.

The collecting instinct was in Streeter's blood and during his years of study abroad he had begun in earnest to follow this urge, it being a pursuit he never abandoned. He placed great emphasis upon 'state,' especially of his older books, and he was constantly on the alert for better copies to replace poorer examples. First came the essential reference works, then early editions of the medical classics. As was to be expected, the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century anatomists and the early French humanists were soon well represented: Vesalius, all his important precursors and subsequent plagiarists, Guy de Chauliac and his followers. Then Nicolaus Pol claimed his attention, and he began to reassemble the library of that fifteenth-century humanist, purchasing many of the volumes with their owner's characteristic inscription.*

An interest in weights and measures and their bearing on early medicine was heightened by a winter in Italy and Sicily where many Abyssinian and Egyptian specimens were found, and this interest continued unabated for the rest of his life. His patience and ingenuity in securing a desired rarity could seldom have been equalled. It was a game that he pursued quietly but relentlessly, for stakes great or small. In one in­stance he discovered a unique eighth-century Anglo-Saxon piece on which he set his heart. Various offers met with no success; but when the owner's invalid wife was told she must spend the winter in a warmer climate—a holiday that her husband could ill afford : Streeter gallantly came to the rescue; and presently the weight was his. In the case of the New England spinster who had a rare early American yard­stick, the powers of persuasion had to be exercised an even longer time, but in the end he won, as he always did.

The early apothecary shop, full of colour and variety, also stirred his collector's zeal with its jars, its mortars and pestles, the various systems of weights and measures that had been used over the years by those who dispensed drugs. In the spring of 1923 we find him typing the following to Cushing:

I was negotiating the purchase in Rome from Sig. Gorga of a 17th Cent. Venetian Pharmacia complete but the villain's price was too steep and I consequently dropped the trade. I have come home with nothing except some books and weights and balances.... I remained in London for three weeks getting out some work for the Sudhoff Festschrift at the Roy. Soc. of Med. Haunted the Wellcome Museum with Thompson, breakfasted with the Singers and made dates with D'Arcy Power which that busy man could not keep. Old Sir John Macalister wept to hear of your devoted labour on the Osler biography.

I was asked to sit in on one of the sessions of the Hist. of Med. section of the Society, and met Sir John Barry, Parkes Weber et al. Altogether a radiant stay in the happy green fields of little of England.... I will see you I hope before ten days are run. Much, much engaging matter to lay before you.

As with many ardent collectors whose driving enthusiasm leads them from one precious item to another, Streeter in 1928 found himself faced with the necessity of temporary retrenchment. He therefore without warning disposed of a large portion of his library through a Philadelphia dealer; it was at this time that he also sold his collection of books from Pol's library. The wrench was a serious one which he did not care to discuss, for the books he disposed of had been his companions for years and bore marks of his devoted attention, and to part with them must have seemed like giving up his oldest friends. Two years later the family moved permanently to their summer home at Stonington, Connecticut, and his friends were presently writing him jokingly about ploughing, rotation of crops, and wielding a paint brush-both an artisan's and an artist's. Country life did occupy much of his time, as did his children, now four in number, to whom he was deeply devoted and whom he taught sailing and much else; but meanwhile his interest in collecting continued un­abated, for it was too deep-running to be abandoned, and the weights and measures grew apace and a shed was arranged to house the increasing number of objects for the apothecary shop. At about this time, also, various Wall Street operators began to question who that man Streeter was who appeared quietly in Providence from time to time and played the market with such devastating accuracy. It must have given him much inward glee thus to move the pawns and match wits with the financial powers of the City. But this claimed only passing attention, and life went on pleasantly and unobtrusively in many of the familiar patterns.

It was now the students at Yale to whom he gave weekly lectures on the history of medicine, and it was through letters rather than conversations that he and Cushing had to discuss their mutual problems, Vesalian and otherwise. Thus, on 2 November 1932:

Dear Harvey: I have searched memory with lighted candle and can get no light on Malloch's sheet advertising Vesalius's Fabrica. I think he has confused the matter; there was a book of the period of the Fabrica once in my possession, by Benedetto Varchi, of the Florentine Academy, and in one of his addresses to that body, Varchi refers (with a reference to Fuchs' Historia Stirpium also) to the Vesalian volume. I gave the book to a young lady of Boston, from whom I can borrow it again, but cannot steal. The reference is direct enough, but extremely brief, as I recall.

Boston is a far-off Horatian echo to me these days—but when you speak out of that hill-top yonder, it is all brought back to me.... I have just built me a study and rearranged my Hand Apparat about me and find that this operation gives me a real itch for work.

Just down from Portland where I jolted those Cumberland maniacs who helped swing this mad country toward Roosevelt, by telling them about the lateral assistance that Medicine has always received from the laity. It was great sport and a fair piece of unpremeditated art on my part.

With Cushing's transfer to New Haven and his increased attention to his library, correspondence between the two collectors about bookish matters became more frequent and Cushing soon began to write about his ideas concerning a medical-historical library at Yale. Hearing that Streeter was thinking of disposing of the remainder of his books-several hundred volumes of working tools and texts, many of great rarity-he suggested that they come to Yale. Soon they were under the roof of the medical school, the first of the collections actually to be given to the University in response to Dr. Cushing's plan. In 1938 when there was a rumor that the weights and measures collection might be sold to someone in Philadelphia, Wilmarth Lewis, a long-time friend of the Streeters as well as a member of the Yale Corporation, coun­selled delay and when the next year the Sterling Trustees appropriated funds for the new Yale Medical Library, Streeter requested that space be set aside for these collections and also for his apothecary collections, his only stipulation being that the floor in one of the rooms be of red tile. This room, thanks to Edward Streeter, is now a replica of an early apothecary shop—this and much else.

Satisfactory display of the weights and measures collection was made possible through the friendly aid of Mr. and Mrs. Lewis, who grasped the opportunity of fostering Streeter's generous impulse by their gift of the museum cases. Prior to the formal opening of the Library on 15 June 1941, Dr. Streeter personally arranged all his collections and from that time onward he added to them continuously. His visits, unannounced so that they would cause no one trouble, always meant generous accessions to round out and strengthen the holdings. During the last few years when, as he said, he was "living on borrowed time," he demurred at anyone helping him even with the lifting of heavy objects, but went about arranging and rearranging the thousands of pieces, always happy to talk to any student who dropped in and to display his latest purchases with pride or to tell the story connected with their acquisition. For there was always a story.

Streeter's seventieth birthday fell in November 1944, and a few of his friends at Yale arranged a dinner in his honour. There were no formal speeches and little fanfare, but knowing his fondness for typography, particularly that of France in the sixteenth century, Mr. Carl P. Rollins, Printer to the University, worked overtime to arrange an attractive menu in the spirit of the Lyons printers of the 1540's. It proved to be a 'touch' that pleased Streeter enormously, as did the venison which was the only red meat that could be obtained at that particular moment. The menu cover with its reminder of the 'prince of medical humanists' is reproduced herewith for his friends.

His collecting had lately taken a new direction; he was anxious to strengthen his holdings in nautical science and to find the important landmarks in the instruments of navigation measurements and also in astronomy. This latter facet had received welcome impetus, for his son John had turned to the sciences, and to astronomy in particular, and father and son found themselves brought closer together by a common bond even though at times their acquisitive instincts were pointed in the same direction. The joys of collecting were thus enhanced by competition within the ranks of his family circle.

Streeter always made light of his own accomplishments, insisting that he was an amateur compared with scholars such as Sudhoff and Sigerist. He lived quietly and unobtrusively, his scholarly attainments being all too little known because of his reserve and his reluctance to publish; but he inspired scores of students whom he followed closely wherever they might go. And from his lifelong study and meditation flowed the serenity, the gentle but devastating humor, and the spiritual strength which were his precious gift to those who were privileged to be his friends.

*The Pol collection was sold in 1927 and eventually was obtained by Dr. Edward H. Cushing for the Cleveland Medical Library. Dr. Max H. Fisch has recently brought out a detailed catalogue of the Pol Library (Nicolaus Pol Doctor 1494. New York, H. Reichner, 1947, 246 pp.). [back]


The therapeutic administration of tuberculin in surgical tuberculosis. Boston med. surg. J., 1910, 162, 5-7. [With H. F. Hartwell] Also: Pub. Mass. Gen. Harp., 1910, 3, 194-199.
The treatment of infections of the urinary tract with bacterial vaccines. Boston med. surg. J., 1910, 162, 409-415.[With H. F. Hartwell] Also: Pub. Mass. Gen. Hasp., 1910, 3, 176-193.
Bacillus in acne; B. acnes. Pub. Mass. Gen. Hosp., 1910, 3, 100-204 [With H. F. Hartwell]
The date of Lacumarcino's "De morbo gallico." Proc. XVIIth Internat. Congr. Med., 1913, sect. 23, 373-376.London, 1914.
Exhibit commemorating the quater-centenary of the birth of Vesalius. Ameri­can Medical Association, Atlantic City, June 22-26, 1914. [Boston, 1914.] 5ll.
Francia and Achillini. Med. Pickwick, Saranac Lake, 1915, I, 60.
Catalogue. Baby pathfinder to Fenway Court. [Issued on the occasion of Charaka Club meeting, Boston, Dec. 1915.] 4pp.
A fourteenth century English manuscript of Guy de Chauliac. Proc. Charaka Club, N.Y., 1916,4, 107-111,2 pl.
Leoniceno and the School of Ferrara. Bull. Soc. med. Hist., Chicago, 1916, 1, 18-22.
The role of certain Florentines in the history of anatomy, artistic and practical. Bull. Johns Hopkins Hosp., April 1916, 27, 113-118.
An unpublished bronze écorché. Ann. med. Hist., April 1917, 1, 73-74.
Sculpture and painting as modes of anatomical illustration. Ann. med. Hist., Dec. 1919, 2, 305-329. Also (pp. 370-402) in: Mortimer Frank's translation of J. L. Choulant's History and bibliography of anatomic illustration. Chicago, 1920;New York, 1945.[With F. H. Garrison.]
Osler as a bibliophile. Boston med. surg. J., 1April 1920, 182, 335-338.
Osler as the man of letters. New York med. J., 22 May 1920, 111, 922-923.
Cultural factors influencing science in the pre-Renaissance. Bull. med. chir. Fac. Maryland, Oct. 1920, 13, 2-8.
Mediaeval libraries of medicine. 500 A.D. to 1500 A.D. Bull. med. Lib. Ass., Jan. 1921,n.s., 10, 15-20.
Exhibit of early medical texts illustrating practice in fevers, plague, etc. Ex­hibition Room, Fine Arts Department, Boston Public Library. American Medical Association, Boston, June 6-10, 1921.[New Haven, Printed by the Yale University Press, 1921.]42, 2 pp., 4 pl.
Foreign dealers in old medical literature. n.p., n.d. [1922].4 pp.[A convenient list, with addresses, put together for his friends.]
Fifteenth century miniatures of extramural dissections. In (pp. 207-210, 5 pl.): Essays on the history of medicine presented to Karl Sudhoff on the occasion of his seventieth birthday November 26th 1923. London, Oxford University Press, 1924, 418 pp. Also: Zurich; Seldwyla, 1924. [With Charles Singer.]
Giambattista Canano. Biographical notice. In (pp. 13-39): Musculorum humani corporis picturata dissectio. (Ferrara, 1541?) Facsimile edition, annotated by Harvey Cushing and Edward C. Streeter. Florence, R. Lier & Co., 1925.
Impromptu in a library. Bull. int. Ass. med. Mus., 1926, 9, 393-396. (Sir William Osler Memorial Number.)
The Boston Medical and Surgical journal—beginnings and development. New Engl. J. Med., 23 Feb. 1928, 198, 24-26.
Notes on an exhibition of ancient weights and measures. Nautical Museum, Pratt School of Naval Architecture, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, February June 1929. [Cambridge] 192.9. 8 pp.
Economic organization of the medical services. [Abstract] Johns Hopkins Hosp. Bull., Jan. 1930, 46, 141.
Leonardo da Vinci and the practice of dissections among Florentine artists. Long Island med. J., March 1930, 24, 144-147/
Vesalius at Paris. Yale J. Biol. & Med., Dec.1943, 16, 121-128.


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