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History of the Medical Society of Milwaukee County

Established in 1846, the Medical Society of Milwaukee County (MSMC) has been the cornerstone of medicine in Milwaukee, making landmark contributions toward healthcare locally and on the national level while helping to build the Milwaukee community and its traditions.

Today, MSMC is comprised of 3,500 physicians. These physicians retain the highest principles, contribute time and resources to improve access and quality care for the underserved and actively shape the future of healthcare.

Each year, we grow stronger as a community as a result of their knowledge, expertise, wisdom and courage.

Early records show that there was a “doctor” in Milwaukee by 1839.

On May 5, 1846, Milwaukee’s physician population was 24. The estimated population of the county was 9,499. The 24 physicians gathered in Milwaukee’s first courthouse on the site of what is now Cathedral Square, for the purpose of forming a Medical Society. One of the Society’s original missions was to issue Medical diplomas to students who trained earnestly in the “art and science” of medicine.

E.L. Marsh was the Medical Society’s first president. Dr. Dousman was one of the censors. A Wisconsin town was later named after him. You will also recognize some of the pioneer physicians through the Milwaukee streets that are still named after them. 

The history of the Medical Society of Milwaukee County is rightfully directed toward the men and women who made up the organization. These learned men and women helped to build this community, its traditions. Their descendants are currently responsible for offering Milwaukee some of the best medical care and technologies available in the United States and in the world.

It was hard to earn a living as a physician in the mid 19th century. Most of the medicines were teas and herbs. The surgical knife was often a saw and the anesthetic was at times nothing more than a bullet. Many of these college educated physicians turned their intellect to other pursuits that would help build Milwaukee into a strong industrial city.

Milwaukee’s first renowned and educated physician was Dr. Enoch Chase who pioneered the quinine cure, a serendipitous error. Dr. Chase was preparing a prescription that was supposed to be 25 grams of calamine, a compound of zinc and ferric oxides. Instead the record shows he used quinine, a crystalline alkaloid made from tree bark. It worked, and Dr. Chase was then prescribing quinine for all of his patients. Chase didn’t come to Milwaukee to be a doctor.  When word spread that a doctor was in town his services were requisitioned. His remedy for the fever was calomel, “administered in heroic doses.”

Dr. Aigner was joined by Dr. Johan Fessel. The two physicians were among the organizers of the Milwaukee Music Society. His love of music caused Dr. Fessel to organize the first string quartet in the American West. Dr. Francis Joseph Jung was another one of the exiled German physicians who came to Milwaukee in 1849. Today Milwaukee is proud of its summer ethnic festivals. You’ll be surprised to know that they didn’t start with Mayor Henry Maier. In the 1850s the big civic celebration held on May 31 was “Volksfest”.  Dr. Jung was the promoter and treasurer of the city’s first “Volkfest”. The festival was held on Spring Street, later to be known as Grand Avenue, and today Wisconsin Avenue.

Dr. Charles Orton was another Milwaukee physician turned civic leader. Dr. Orton not only held the post of city and county physician for 12 years, he also served as the Milwaukee Common Council president.

A female physician was a rarity in the 19th Century, Dr. Laura H. Ross was one of the first three women in America to receive hospital instruction on an equal footing with men. She graduated with an MD from Philadelphia medical school in 1856.  Dr. Ross migrated west to Milwaukee where a few physicians including Dr. Erastus B. Wolcott made her feel welcome.  “But the majority of them made her the object of much unfriendly criticism,” historian F.L. Frank noted.

In the 1800s Medical Society membership proved that you were a “scientific practitioner”. The Society dragged its feet on Dr. Ross’ application. She held her ground and was eventually elected a full time member. Later she married Dr. Erastus B. Wolcott. But Dr. Dr. Laura Ross Wolcott’s stellar reputation was of her own making.  She was a strong supporter of the Wisconsin Academy of the Arts, the Women’s Suffrage Association and the Humane Society.

It took until 1985 for the physicians of the Medical Society to install their first woman as president, Lucille B. Glicklich, MD.

The lead founder of the Medical Society of Milwaukee County, Dr. Erastus B. Wolcott’s image can be seen sitting on a horse in Lake Park. He is a linear descendant of Oliver W. Wolcott, of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. He settled in Milwaukee following his military service. Milwaukee would be his home until his death in 1880.

Dr. Wolcott held every post there was to hold in the State Medical Society of Wisconsin, served as a regent for the University of Wisconsin, a Trustee of Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company and was the first president of the Wisconsin Humane Society.

Chase was a builder. He constructed a wagon trail over the Kinnickinnic River, which is now the street that bears his name. He bought the land where the river crossed Lincoln Avenue and established the Chase Valley Brickyards.

There was Dr. James Johnson, Milwaukee’s first health commissioner and member of the Board of School Commissioners in 1846. Eventually the city hospital at 12th and Grant was named after him.

Dr. Alfred L. Castleman came to Milwaukee from Kentucky in 1835 and quickly became the territory’s most popular of physicians. He became involved in urban planning and eventually became a delegate from Milwaukee to the state’s constitutional convention. 

Dr. Lewis McKnight opened his medical practice in 1848. By 1958 his general practice was thriving and so was Milwaukee. Dr. McKnight became the first medical director of Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company. The 19th century physicians employed by NML played a pivotal role in the financial success of the company. These doctors rode across the state teaching their colleagues a scientific way in which to take medical histories and do physical examinations.

Political oppression in Germany during the 1840s and 1850s was the cause of a large migration of people to Milwaukee. Among them was a number of physicians who were responsible for much of the city’s early cultural heritage.

There was Dr. Aigner was became president of the first higher education German-American school first known as the Engleman School and later as the German English Academy. The historic landmark building at 1020 N. Broadway was the home of the Medical Society of Milwaukee County from 1883-1993.

Wolcott’s skills as a surgeon electrified his 19th Century colleagues.  On June 4, 1861 he and Dr. Charles Stoddard performed the world’s first successful nephrectomy (kidney removal).

In 1851 Dr. John Knowles Bartlett was called upon to read notes on the use of the anesthetic agents during labor. The use of ether was in an experimental stage. It was hoped that the use of ether would mollify Scottish clergymen who were vehemently opposed to the use of chloroform during labor and delivery.

As a simple citizen of Milwaukee, Dr. Bartlett became active in upgrading public “common” school education curriculum, public health measures and the establishment of a public library.  The east side street was named after him in 1857. His colleagues elected him vice president of the American Medical Association in 1871.

Dr. Solon Marks moved to Milwaukee following his service in the Civil War. His operative procedures received national attention when their results were published in medical journals.

(Article reproduced in part from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Advertising Section,”150 Years of Caring & Concern”, Sunday, May 5, 1996.)

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