John Hill Brinton had a distinguished career in medicine, serving as the first curator of the Army Medical Museum (now the National Museum of Health and Medicine, an element of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology) and later as a surgeon at prestigious Philadelphia hospitals.
Brinton was born in Philadelphia on May 21, 1832. He received his bachelor of arts degree at age 18 from the University of Pennsylvania in 1850, and graduated in 1853 from Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia. Following his graduation, he spent a year attending medical schools in Paris and in Vienna, Austria before returning to Philadelphia to enter into general practice.
The museum's first curator, John Brinton (center with beard), at Petersburg, Va., collecting specimens during the Civil War.Brinton held the chair of surgery at the University of Pennsylvania until the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. In August of that year, President Lincoln commissioned him as a brigadier surgeon of volunteers, with orders to report to Maj. Gen. Fremont, commander of the Department of the West. Brinton was subsequently ordered to report to Brig. Gen. U.S. Grant, who had just assumed command of the District of Cairo, and was assigned to duty in the office of the Army of Tennessee and Cumberland rivers. Brinton was involved in the Battles of Fort Henry and Fort Donaldson, and the Battle of Shiloh.
In the summer of 1862, after the appointment of assistant surgeon William A. Hammond as surgeon general of the Army, Brinton was ordered to Washington, D.C. and assigned duty in the office of the surgeon general. In June 1862, he was ordered to prepare "the Surgical History of the Rebellion," and on Aug. 1, 1862 "to collect and arrange in the military medical museum all specimens of morbid anatomy which may have accumulated during the commencement of the rebellion in the various United States hospitals or which may have been retained by any of the medical officers of the Army." This order recognized and authorized the foundation of the U.S. Army Medical Museum contemplated in the circular order from the Surgeon General's office on May 31, 1862.
Carrying out this task was difficult, because Brinton had to inform the skeptical that the museum "was not for the collection of curiosities, but for the accumulation of objects and data of lasting scientific interest, which might in the future serve to instruct generations of students." To carry out these orders, Brinton visited the headquarters of the armies in the field and various hospitals to collect information, data, and illustrations for the surgical history of the war and specimens for the museum. These visits proved to be useful for two reasons. They allowed him to collect specimens. And secondly, he was able to create a greater interest among field surgeons about the museum, which prompted them to send in more surgical specimens.
In spite of early indifference and the very real difficulties of collection, the specimens came in, even though the case histories which were to have accompanied them were frequently lacking. Enough material had been received by the end of 1862 to warrant issuance of a small catalog in January 1863. In a covering letter to Surgeon General Hammond, Brinton noted that "all the contained specimens," numbering 1,349 objects, had been collected since the museum's establishment in August and the number was "being daily augmented." Of the objects cataloged, 985 were surgical specimens, 106 were medical, and 103 were missiles, "for the most part extracted from the body."
Also, Brinton understood the uses of photography in medicine: it was more accurate, quicker and potentially more comprehensive than the traditional artistic approach. Eventually it would be cheaper as well. He soon employed photographer William Bell, apparently on contract. Bell, who would later receive fame for his work out west on the Wheeler expedition of 1872 and in Patagonia on the 1882 Transit of Venus expedition, was a local Washington photographer available to photograph soldiers' wounds that Brinton and his successor Dr. George Otis found interesting. Much of Bell's work in the early years of the war centered on photographing the specimens collected by the museum. These specimens were usually of gunshot wounds and showed how the bullet had fragmented the bone. When viewing these early photos there are two important points to keep in mind. America's last major war had been the much smaller conflict with Mexico 13 years earlier in 1846-1848. As a result, most doctors, whether career military officers or newly enlisted civilians, had almost no experience with gunshot wounds, especially those made by the newly-developed Minié ball. Minié had developed a conical bullet that came out of a rifled barrel; this high-speed bullet caused a significantly worse wound than the older soft lead ball. Secondly, no one knew what a wound looked like inside of damaged tissue as X-rays would not be discovered for another 30 years.
It was also Brinton's task to find a location for the museum. The museum was initially located at the Old Riggs Bank Building on Pennsylvania and 15 Street in Washington, D.C. A larger space was needed as more specimens came in, and the museum was then moved to the Corcoran building on H Street.
In 1864, Brinton was relieved of duty at the museum. He thought his transfer due to any of three reasons: he was an appointee of Surgeon General Hammond (court-martialed over improperly purchasing blankets, but actually due to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton's dislike of him), he was a cousin of George McClellan (the discredited general and failed presidential candidate), and he was the proponent of an unpopular plan to retain volunteer surgeons equal in rank to the regular Army surgeons at the close of the war. In his autobiography, Brinton maintained a sense of humor about his transfer:
"I had been a long time in Washington, and had many friends," Brinton wrote in his autobiography. "To some of these, I said good-bye, and to one of them, Mrs. Stephen A. Douglas, I sent a picture. I had often joked with her when officers had been sent away from Washington under the displeasure of the Secretary of War, -- exiled in fact, for the Secretary looked upon a detail to Louisville or St. Louis as a banishment, quite as in Russia they regard banishment to Siberia. Some officers took removal from Washington as a rather hard fate, but I had often told Mrs. Douglas that I was sure to be decapitated, but that when it came, like St. Denis (she, Mrs. Douglas, was a Catholic), I would lose my head with good grace. So I requested one of the artists of the museum, (Hermann) Faber, a German of facile pencil, to make a pen-and-ink sketch of myself as St. Denis leaving the museum, head in hand, for the region of the setting sun, with the bloody headman's sword, the unfinished work of the "Surgical History of the War," etc.
Brinton was assigned to normal medical duties as medical director in the field in the Missouri Campaign, as superintendent of hospitals in Nashville, Tenn., and as medical director for the Army of the Cumberland. After the war ended, he returned to Philadelphia to practice medicine and was appointed lecturer on operative surgery at Jefferson Medical College, and later as professor of the practice of surgery and clinical surgery, and surgeon to Jefferson Hospital.
In 1869, he was Mutter lecturer on surgery and pathology and chairman of the committee on the Mutter Museum at the College of Physicians in Philadelphia. He died on March 18, 1907 in Philadelphia.