Edward Elisha Phelps

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Edward Elisha Phelps (April 24, 1803 – November 26, 1880) was a prominent American physician.


Edward Elisha Phelps, M.D. LL.D., died at his residence in Windsor, Vermont, on Friday, Nov. 26, 1880. He was born in Peacham, Vermont, April 24, 1803. His father, Dr. Elisha Phelps, removed to Windsor soon after his birth.[1] His education, preliminary to the study of his profession was conducted at Mrs. Seaton's private school in Cornish, N. H., and with Parson Crosby at Charleston, N.H. He entered the Military School of Capt. Alden Partridge, at Norwich, Vt., near the time of its establishment, and graduated from it with honors in 1821, probably. In 1822 we find him in attendance on his first course of medical lectures, at Dartmouth Medical College. He was for two years a student in medicine with Prof. Nathan Smith, then a resident of New Haven, Conn., but early in life settled in Cornish, N.H., and at Hanover. He graduated in Medicine at Yale, in the class of 1825. Impaired health led him to go South for a time, during which he used his mathematical knowledge acquired at Norwich, assisting in the survey of the Dismal Swamp Canals, also following up on his studies in natural science, particularly in Botany. In 1828, he commenced his professional life in Windsor, when in September 4, 1830, he married Phoebe Foxcroft Lyon, of Boston, Mass., who with a daughter, survives him.

His unusual talent, assiduously cultivated by study, soon brought him reputation and prominence among his professional brethren. In 1835 he was elected to the Professorship of Anatomy and Surgery in the medical school connected with the Vermont University, at Burlington, Vt. This chair he held for two years. He received from the Vermont University the honorary degree of A. M., in 1835, and also that of LL.D. in 1857. In 1841 he was appointed Lecturer on Materia Medica, Medical Botany and Medical Jurisprudence, in Dartmouth Medical College. In 1842 he was chosen Professor of Materia Medica and Therapeutics, and Lecturer on Medical Botany, which chair he held till 1849. During these years he collected and arranged the contents of the very complete and beautiful Museum of Medical Botany, of the Dartmouth Medical College. In 1849 he was transferred to the chair of Theory and Practice of Medicine and Pathanatomy, then vacated by Prof. Joseph Roby. This chair he occupied till 1871, when he retired from the work of teaching in the College and became Professor Emeritus of Theory and Practice of Medicine. Since 1871 he has been occupied somewhat in constructing and filling the Museum of Pathological Anatomy, the money for which purpose was furnished by the gift his friend, Hon. Edwin W. Stoughton, as an evidence of his appreciation of the Doctor's services to himself, and of his professional eminence, and that he might aid others to attempt to reach like eminence.

On the breaking out of the War of the Rebellion, his services were early sought by his native State, in securing proper persons to act as medical officers for the volunteer regiments sent out by the State. He was a member of the State Board of Examiners of Surgeons during the war. His high estimate of scientific attainments, as above social positions or political influence resulted in keeping the medical appointments from his State of a much better quality than were those of some other States. But the promptings of his patriotism and his love for the military life and methods, fostered by his education at the Norwich Military School, would not allow him to be content with the services he could render to his own State. In the fall of 1861 he went to Washington, and presented himself for examination and appointment as Surgeon in the United States Army. He received an appointment, and served on the staff of the Commander of the First Brigade of Vermont Volunteers during the winter of '61-2, and nearly or quite through the Peninsular Campaign in the spring and summer of '62. Impaired health compelled his return to Vermont, where he was appointed to the medical charge (Brigadier Surgeon) of the Camp and the Military Hospital at Brattleboro. This hospital was built up under his own most careful and persistent attention, and it became one of the most perfectly arranged economically conducted hospitals in the country. The large percent of recoveries in it, due to the skill with which he administered it, combined with its healthful situation, gave it and him great and well deserved credit. Near the close o the war he was transferred to a hospital in Kentucky, from which he returned to his home and his practice in Windsor, when his country no longer needed his services.

In his prime, Dr. Phelps was a man possessed of great physical and mental vigor. During his lectures at Hanover he would often ride from Windsor to Hanover in the morning, deliver his lecture, and return by a wide circuit for consultation, and attend to a large practice at home before retiring at night, and he would continue thus for weeks. He was a very keen observer and a careful reasoner. His will was strong, often even to obstinacy, and whatever he undertook he followed out with the utmost perseverance, without regard to his personal convenience or comfort, sparing no means to accomplish what he esteemed to be desirable ends. His carelessness in respect to the pecuniary rewards for his professional labor amounted to a decided wrong to himself and family. He was esteemed in his professional work, by his patrons, for his skill and scientific attainment rather than for his use of the manners and arts which are calculated to please the fancy and prejudice. For these things he cared less than nothing. His professional and scientific study was most untiring and long continued. His lamp was the last one in the village to be extinguished at night, and the first to be lighted in the morning. It was the rule of his life to rise in the morning and go about his work or study at whatever time in the morning he awaked; believing that his waking was to be taken as evidence that he had obtained all the rest from sleep that he required. The habit thus formed very much disturbed the last months of his life, when disease prevented work and made an increasing demand for rest. The sleep and rest would not come nor stay for his call. He accomplished a great deal in the way of work with the microscope – an amount which many not half as much occupied by professional work would think it impossible to do. He occupied many hours of the last days of his life, when confined to his room and his bed, in perfecting his microscopial preparations. He read many works in the German language before the demand for German works became so great as to call for their translation and publication in English, and quoted them so largely in his lectures that he was playfully named by the students "Old Rokitansky." (Baron Carl von Rokitansky) He was for many years universally esteemed as the most thoroughly learned man in his profession, in this portion of New England at least.

As a teacher he brought forth many and rich treasures of knowledge from the stores in his possession, and was always held in the highest respect by the students who listened to his teachings. Doubtless many found his learning too deep and extensive for their limited comprehension. His papers and discussions in the medical societies to which he belonged were always most eagerly sought and listened to, and most highly prized. His brethren in all the regions about often sought counsel from his superior wisdom in their cases of doubt and difficulty. Many and long have been his excursions through the valley of the Connecticut, from Maine to Canada. He had a most intense hatred of all appearance of pretense an sham, which he took not the slightest pains to conceal. Charlatans would never meet him but once if it was in their power to avoid him. With all his learning and love for scientific acquisition, he left nothing in writing, either as a book or writings for periodicals, if except a few papers prepared for the Vermont Journal on the subject of Temperance in its scientific aspects. He was distrustful of his ability as a writer, and was never satisfied with the measure of his attainments, but was always striving for fuller knowledge for himself before he could communicate to others. His last year was largely occupied with thoughts regarding the life to come, and he died with a full belief and acceptance of the truth of the Christian religion.


  1. ^ Wikisource-logo.svg Kelly, Howard A.; Burrage, Walter L., eds. (1920). "Phelps, Edward Elisha". American Medical Biographies. Baltimore: The Norman, Remington Company. 


  • The Vermont Journal, December 18, 1880.

 This article incorporates text from The Vermont Journal, a publication from 1880 now in the public domain in the United States.