A common thread; a controversial theme

The seal of the Massachusetts General Hospital, where Federal Burt spent four months in 1827, was approved by the Trustees in late 1817. The Chairman, Colonel Joseph May, was directed to “cause a Seal to be engraved, with a suitable device, as the Seal of the Corporation.” The striking similarity to the state seal was a way of reinforcing the connection of the hospital with the Commonwealth. In fact, the Trustees record the seal as “having, in the Centre, the arms of Massachusetts, viz. an Indian with his bow in the one hand, an arrow in the other, & on his right a star; & being encircled with the inscription ‘Massachusetts General Hospital 1811.'” The creation of the seal cost $10.50.

The seal was used until 1980, when it was replaced with a depiction of the Bulfinch building. The MGH Ladies Visiting Committee, established in 1869, operated (and still operate) the hospital’s General Store and sold merchandise with this logo. When the logo became obsolete, members of the Committee “feared being left with a great deal of merchandise with the Indian logo, but everything is in great demand for souvenirs.” Later, the annual report for the General Store “reported no problem in selling all ‘Indian’ merchandise as souvenirs.” One is hard-pressed to find examples of the old logo; a notable exception being the large carved stone one shown above, which is located in a passageway between the old Resident Physician’s Building and a parking garage on the MGH’s main campus.

Left: MGH lapel pin, sterling and blue enamel, 3/4 inch diameter, purchased on eBay, 2018.

Examples of the representation of a Native figure abound in state, county, town seals and flags and beyond, and on careful review reveal much about the relationship between the new arrivals from Europe and the land’s original residents — from the colonists’ viewpoint. The original 1629 seal of Massachusetts Bay Colony (below) features a single central figure saying “Come over and help us.” The image has evolved over time, but remains controversial if not downright offensive. In 2015, The Boston Globe carried a piece by Yvonne Abraham with the headline, “It’s no Confederate flag, but our banner is still pretty awful.

Similarly, the Society for Propagating the Gospel in Foreign Parts seal carries the legend “Transiens adjuva nos” — a reference to Acts 16:9: “And a vision appeared to Paul in the night; There stood a man of Macedonia, and prayed him, saying, Come over into Macedonia, and help us.” The society was founded in England in 1704 by the Rev. Thomas Bray. The Society for Propagating the Gospel among Indians and Others in North America was an offshoot established in 1788. Its members included many men with MGH affiliations: William Phillips (president of the Society from 1806 to 1827), Jeremy Belknap, Nathan Appleton, Samuel Eliot–and John Collins Warren, who became a member in 1825.

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