John Collins Warren (1778-1856)

Engraving of Dr. John Collins Warren (1778-1856) by T. H. Welch after a daguerreotype by John A. Whipple, 1848

One of the most renowned American surgeons of the 19th century, Dr. John Collins Warren (born on August 1, 1778) graduated from Harvard College in 1797, then began the study of medicine with his father, Dr. John Warren. In 1799, he went abroad, continuing his medical studies in London and Paris, working with such luminaries as the pioneer anatomist Sir Astley Cooper (1768-1841). He received an honorary medical degree from Harvard in 1819.

Bust of Dr. John Collins Warren (1778-1856) carved by Robert Ball Hughes, 1856

On his return to America in 1802, Dr. John Collins Warren entered into partnership with his father and also began to assist him with anatomical lectures, dissections, and demonstrations at Harvard Medical School. He was named Adjunct Professor of Anatomy and Surgery in 1809, then, at his father’s death, assumed the Hersey Professorship of Anatomy and Surgery. He held that post until he was granted professor emeritus status in 1847. Dr. Warren was also the first dean of the Medical School and promoted its removal from Cambridge to Boston to obtain better access to clinical facilities. Over the course of his long career, he assembled an extraordinary teaching collection of anatomical and pathological specimens. He presented it to the Harvard Corporation in 1847 along with $5000. This was the beginning of the Warren Anatomical Museum.

Photograph of John Collins Warren (1778-1856) with his hand resting on a skull, circa 1850

Dr. Warren was as comfortable with operative surgery as academic anatomy. He was skilled in tumor and cataract surgery and amputations and performed the first operations for strangulated hernia and the first staphylorraphy (correction for fissure of the soft palate) in America. His most famous operation occurred on October 16, 1846, at the Massachusetts General Hospital, when Dr. Warren was invited to perform the first public demonstration of a surgical operation on a patient under ether anesthesia. His personal journal for this day simply notes, “Did an interesting operation at the Hospital this morning, while the patient was under the influence of Dr. Morton’s preparation to prevent pain. The substance employed was sulphuric ether.” Dr. Warren was quick to see the remarkable advantages offered by “Morton’s preparation” in surgical procedures, and he then championed the cause of etherization through his work and publications.

Albumen print of Dr. John Collins Warren (1778-1856), circa 1855

Dr. John Collins Warren was also closely associated with the foundation of Massachusetts General Hospital and was the facility’s first surgeon. He held an appointment on the hospital staff until 1853 and was then on its Board of Consultation until his death on May 4, 1856.

John Collins Warren (1778-1856)