The Warrens and Other Pioneering Clinician Pathologists of the Massachusetts General Hospital During its Early Years

An Appreciation on the 200th Anniversary of the Hospital Founding

Robert H Young; David N Louis


Mod Pathol. 2011;24(10):1285-1294. 

In This Article

The First 'Surgical Pathologist': William Fiske Whitney

From 1888, the hospital was well served by another illustrious figure, Dr William Fiske Whitney (1850–1921),[25,26] whose career saw the movement of diagnostic pathology from the realm of the surgeon to the hand of the specialist pathologist. Dr Whitney (Figure 12) was an HMS graduate and, after serving as a house officer at the MGH, studied in Berlin, Munich and Strasburg. His early interests were in anatomy, which served him well when he turned his attention to pathology. In 1879 he became Curator of the Warren Anatomical Museum (Figure 12), serving as such for a remarkable 42 years, indeed until his death.[27] He was appointed pathologist to the MGH in 1888 and served the hospital in that capacity until his retirement in 1916. From 1901 to 1916, he carried the specific title of Surgical Pathologist, the first to do so at the MGH. Dr Whitney had a broad diversity of interests, ranging from conventional diagnostic pathology to forensic pathology (he testified frequently in court on murder cases) to infectious disease (being for a decade Professor of Parasitic Diseases of the Veterinary School of Harvard University). He was also noted to have 'familiarity with more than half a dozen different languages.' In a tribute to Dr Whitney after his death, Drs J Collins Warren and Samuel J Mixter noted his 'wonderful skill and quick diagnosis and knack in the examination of fresh specimens'.[25] In their obituary, they provided an early description of the importance of a great surgical pathologist: 'The hesitating surgeon, knife in hand, uncertain whether to do a trifling operation or one terribly mutilating and severe, could always depend on the decision of his mastermind and vast experience, and a great number of men and women today owe their intact bodies, or their lives, to his quietly spoken opinion'.

Figure 12.

(Left) Dr William Fiske Whitney. (Right) Cover of the booklet on The Warren Anatomical Museum prepared by Dr Whitney (1911).

Dr Whitney should be considered a major transitional figure in the practice of pathology at the hospital. He was the first person to spend his career at MGH oriented firmly around the practice of pathology, rather than practicing pathology part-time while serving as a physician or surgeon. Second, he set the stage for the burgeoning of surgical pathology in the years after the formation of the Pathology department in 1896. One of his trainees was Dr Harry Fairbanks Hartwell who, after 7 years as an orthopedic surgeon at MGH, was appointed Assistant Surgical Pathologist in 1911 and was formally appointed as Surgical Pathologist upon the retirement of Dr Whitney in 1916. He held the position of Surgical Pathologist through 1938. It is remarkable that Drs Whitney and Hartwell served as the surgical pathologists for the hospital for half a century (1888–1938), extending from the earliest incarnations of the field to its near-modern practice.


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