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  • Recollections of a Civil War Medical Cadet: Burt Green Wilder ed. by Richard M. Reid
  • John M. Harris Jr., MD
Recollections of a Civil War Medical Cadet: Burt Green Wilder. Edited by Richard M. Reid. (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2017. Pp. x, 148.)

Recollections of a Civil War Medical Cadet recounts the Civil War remembrances and reflections of American neuroanatomist, Burt Wilder, who served as a young medical cadet in a large Union Army hospital. This book adds to Reid's 2010 presentation of Wilder's memoirs, which described his later experiences as regimental surgeon for the black Fifty-Fifth Massachusetts Volunteers (1).

Recollections is in three sections: Reid's thirty-one-page introduction, Wilder's fifty-eight-page edited remembrances and notes of the period, and [End Page 128] Wilder's thirty-two pages of appendices—mainly supplemental information he collected in later life. Along with the introduction, Reid adds eighteen pages of endnotes and eighteen illustrations; roughly 40 percent of Recollections is Reid's material. Wilder's recounting and interpretation of his life experiences modestly enhances our understanding of Civil War medicine and Reid's work fleshes out background details, but, to me, Reid misses a larger opportunity.

The book covers nine months, from July 1862 to May 1863. As it begins, Wilder is a twenty-one-year-old comparative anatomy student at Harvard who is not interested in fighting for the Union, but is willing to help its cause. Fortuitously, a friend arranges for him to serve as an acting medical cadet, essentially an apprentice physician's assistant, at the newly built Judiciary Square Hospital in Washington, DC. Lacking formal medical training, Wilder's energy and aptitude soon gain him a regular commission as a medical cadet, and, within nine months, credentials as a physician and a commission as a Union Army assistant surgeon with the Massachusetts Fifty-fifth.

Reid only tangentially mentions Wilder's subsequent history, which is relevant to the reader. Following his wartime service, Wilder abandoned medical practice and returned to his first loves, comparative anatomy and zoology, becoming a professor at Cornell University (2). In addition to teaching thousands of students, he frequently contributed anatomical and educational articles to the medical literature (2). According to a contemporary, he coined the term "neuron" in 1884 (3). In 1885 he was president of the American Neurological Association (4).

Within the accomplished context of his later life, Wilder's observations on wartime medical Washington, DC, particularly on key actors, such as surgeon general and cofounder of American neurology, William Hammond, provide insightful reading. Wilder offers thoughts on being an "almost" doctor that any medical student today would recognize, albeit in the horrific setting of the Civil War. Here he is, stone sober, hanging out with drunken colleagues, or elsewhere frantically compressing an artery during surgery. At other times he adds his energies to Joseph Woodward and John Brinton's work on the Army Medical Museum and writing of The Medical and Surgical History of the War of Rebellion.

In later life Wilder tried to answer questions that his wartime situation raised, but were unseen at the time. These informative musings make up the appendices. Who were some of his friends and mentors? During the war Wilder had a dustup with Surgeon General Hammond, also a later president of the American Neurological Association. Did Hammond remember the event? No. What did Walt Whitman really contribute to Washington hospitals during the war? Not much. [End Page 129]

Reid sets the historical context with his introduction. He describes Wilder's sources. He reminds the reader, referring to recent works by Bollet (5), Humphreys (6), and Devine (7), that Union Army medicine during the Civil War had its problems, but also catalyzed subsequent improvements in medicine and public health. During his brief service as a medical cadet, Wilder was at the center of much of this. Reid adds value with his considerable digging into the people Wilder mentions. No name goes without annotation.

Reid has surfaced an interesting fragment of Civil War history and the historiography is well done, but, for me, what is missing is the biographical and social context of Wilder's story. Reading...


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