Surg. Reed Brockway Bontecou, Medical Staff, U.S. Volunteers
Carte de visite by unidentified photographer, circa 1864
Collection of the author

Reed Bontecou displayed a remarkable talent for collecting at an early age. As a teen in the early 1840s, he gathered flora and fauna from the area around his Troy, New York, home, and meticulously arranged the samples in groups. "His work was so carefully done and his collections so extensive, that, even yet a student, he was entrusted with the teaching of others," noted a friend. (1) Young Bontecou had a particular fascination for shells, and would often stay up late at night to sort, classify, and label them. In 1846, at age twenty-two, he joined an Amazon River expedition sponsored by the local natural history society. True to his instincts, he collected rare scientific specimens during the yearlong voyage. After his return, he embarked upon a career in medicine—perhaps motivated, in part, to save lives after the death of his mother two weeks after his birth. (2)

Flash forward fifteen years. In 1861, he left his physician's practice and position as the surgeon of the Twenty-fourth New York militia to become the top medical officer of the state's Second Volunteer Infantry. He departed with his regiment for Virginia, and tended patients under fire for the first time in June on the battlefield of Big Bethel. He left the Second three months later to take charge of an army hospital at Fortress Monroe. (3)

Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., the head of the U.S. Medical Department published a document that would ignite Bontecou's childhood passion for collecting. (4)

William Alexander Hammond
(1828-1900) pictured as a
brigadier general, circa 1865
Collection of the Library of Congress
Surg. Gen. William A. Hammond (5) issued a circular in May 1862 that called on doctors to gather specimens of "morbid anatomy" for the new Army Medical Museum, established to improve soldier care. They sent in shattered bones and other examples. On New Years Day 1863, the museum's catalog was printed. It contained the first reference to the submission of photographs of specimens. In June 1864, another circular specifically requested medical officers to submit photographs of unusual cases. (6)

By this time, Bontecou served as chief of Washington’s Harewood Hospital. The tidy 3,000-bed facility was situated on landscaped grounds with flower and vegetable gardens. It was here that he applied photography to create a unique visual record of injured soldiers. (7) "Bontecou is considered by photographic historians as probably the first to practice the application of photography to the field of military service," noted a biographer, but not the first to use photographs to record pre- and post-operative views of wounded soldiers. That honor belongs to Dr. Gurdon Buck, a brilliant New York City pioneer plastic surgeon. (8)

One of the hundreds of cases Bontecou documented in photographs was that of Pvt. Lewis James Matson of the Second New York Cavalry. The fresh-faced farm boy suffered a gunshot in the left knee in an advance at Five Forks, Virginia, on April 1, 1865. That same day, field surgeons amputated his leg at the knee joint. Four days later, Matson entered Harewood to convalesce. However, gangrene set in. Bontecou decided to operate and ordered a pre-surgical photograph. Matson, wearing only a shirt, sat in profile upon a bench, gazing down at the infected stump. In surgery, Bontecou cut away three inches of the lower third of the thigh. This time the stump healed perfectly. Bontecou ordered up another photograph, which shows Matson again in profile, but this time dressed in his uniform, his left pant leg rolled up to reveal the successful conclusion. Matson left Harewood in August 1865, returned home to his newlywed wife, and lived until 1904. The post-operative photograph was included in his military service and pension records. (9)

Pvt. Lewis James Matson after his
successful operation
Collection of the Otis Historical Archives,
National Museum of Health & Medicine
Matson beat the odds: According to Bontecou, more than fifty per cent of knee joint amputations ended in death. (10) Gangrene and other post-operative infections raised the number even higher. Bontecou avoided amputation unless absolutely necessary. He saved as many limbs as possible by excising fractured bone.

Not all of his patients survived. Bontecou remembered, "I practiced excision on ten cases of gunshot fractures of the thigh, in the middle and upper third, after the battle of Williamsburg, in May, 1862. They had been subjected to rough transportation, and were in a very bad condition. They all proved fatal." (11) Perhaps his highest profile case, Maj. Gen. Ormsby Mitchel, ended in death after the general succumbed to yellow fever.

Bontecou left the army in June 1866, after the closure of Harewood Hospital. Four years later he reconnected with the military as acting assistant surgeon at Watervliet Arsenal in Troy. He also served as a pension examiner. (12)

He maintained a successful surgical practice for four decades after the war. An active member in many professional organizations, and participant in conferences at home and abroad, he authored numerous articles and papers, including an 1888 pamphlet that introduced "Bontecou’s Soldier's Packet for First Wound Dressing," a package of antiseptic bandages carried by soldiers to initially treat their own battlefield injuries. (13)

Bontecou’s peers respected "his unselfish character, his strict devotion to the truth, his extreme modesty and his unswerving fidelity to his students, colleagues and friends," noted one physician. Another doctor called him, "the Napoleon of Surgeons." (14)

In the shadow of his honorable public face lay hidden a private disgrace. In 1883, his wife and the mother of his five children, Susan, divorced him after an alleged affair with a young woman. (15)

Bontecou lived until age eighty-three, dying in 1907 after a brief illness. A son and partner in his practice, Dr. Reed Brinsmade Bontecou, and daughter, Josephine, (16) an outspoken feminist author married to noted journalist Lincoln Steffens, survived him in their line of French Huguenot and Scotch ancestry. (17)

Of his many accomplishments, Bontecou’s collection of pre- and post-operative soldier photographs is his best known. The largest pioneer contributor to the innovative Army Medical Museum, he donated hundreds of images and thousands of specimens. The photographs have been widely reproduced in various forms, including the landmark series, The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion.

1. Rensselaer County Medical Society, An Address Delivered at the Banquet Tendered Dr. Reed Brockway Bontecou, pp. 4-5.
2. Among the teachers that inspired him to become a physician was Dr. Thomas C. Brinsmade (1802-1868). Bontecou studied medicine under Brinsmade, and also attended lectures at the medical department of the University of City of New York in 1844-45. After the Amazon trip, he attended the Medical College at Castleton, Vt., and graduated in May 1847. He immediately joined the practice of Dr. Brinsmade, who had lost his partner, Dr. John Wright, another of Bontecou’s mentors. The death of his mother as a motivation is the author’s conjecture. Ibid.
3. Bontecou served at the Hygeia United States Army General Hospital at Fortress Monroe, Virginia, from September 1861 to September 1862. Reed B. Bontecou military service record, NARS.
4. After leaving Hygeia, Bontecou served briefly in the Surgeon General’s Office in Washington, D.C., then was given charge of a hospital in Beaufort, South Carolina, where he attended Maj. Gen. Ormsby McKnight Mitchel (1810-1862). He rose to be the chief of all the hospitals in Beaufort. He received high marks for his care of the wounded during the Siege of Fort Wagner. In August he served a stint on the hospital steamship Cosmopolitan. He took charge of Harewood Hospital in October 1863. Ibid.
5. Brig. Gen. William Alexander Hammond (1828-1900) is credited with establishing the Army Medical Museum to improve care for sick and wounded soldiers and make specimens donated by doctors available for study. His successor, Brig. Gen. Joseph K. Barnes (1817-1883), furthered the development of the museum and its mission.
6. Burns, Early Medical Photography in America, pp. 1452-1453.; Blair O. Rogers, M.D., “Reed B. Bontecou, M.D. — His Role in Civil War Surgery and Medical Photography,” Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (2000): 2.
7. Mike Fitzpatrick, “Dr. Reed Bontecou,” Military Images (2003): 1.
8. Blair O. Rogers, M.D., “Reed B. Bontecou, M.D. — His Role in Civil War Surgery and Medical Photography,” Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (2000): 2.
9. Ibid.; Surgeon General’s Office, The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion (1861-65), Part III, Vol. II, p. 391.; Lewis J. Matson military service record, NARS.; Julia A. Matson pension record, NARS.
10. Bontecou, What Class of Gunshot Wounds and Injuries Justify Resection or Excision in Modern Warfare?, p. 7.
11. Ibid.
12. Morris, The Bontecou Genealogy, pp. 120-121.
13. Bontecou, What Class of Gunshot Wounds and Injuries Justify Resection or Excision in Modern Warfare?, p. 12.
14. Rensselaer County Medical Society, An Address Delivered at the Banquet Tendered Dr. Reed Brockway Bontecou, p. 14.; The (Troy, N.Y.) Semi-Weekly Times, March 28, 1907.
15. Susan Northrup (1828-1911) and Bontecou married in 1849. She alleged criminal intimacy between her husband and Emma Josephine Murray, also known as Emma Brockway. According to the 1870 U.S. Census, she is the daughter of Reed Brockway. There may be a genealogical connection between this branch of the Brockway family and that of Bontecou’s mother, Samantha Brockway Bontecou (1803-1824). New York Times, November 28, 1883.
16. Josephine Steffens authored the autobiographical novel Letitia Berkeley, A.M., published in 1899.
17. Kelly, A Cyclopedia of American Medical Biography, pp. 98-99.

In Print
This column originally ran in the January 2009 issue of the Civil War News

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