I. We begin with a letter…

1827 f burt 1

In late spring 2016, I encountered in the Archives of the Massachusetts General Hospital a letter from a patient to his surgeon, written nearly 200 years ago. There was just enough information in the document to intrigue me and to spark curiosity about the patient and his circumstances, as well as the personality of the young hospital and its relationship with the surrounding community. Ever since then, I have pursued anything I could find that might offer information, no matter how fragmented, about this patient, in order to piece together a picture of his life and times. The quest resulted in a rich trove of sources — hospital publications, genealogies, correspondence, town histories, city directories, sermons and papers, and perhaps most remarkably, in the collections of the New Hampshire Historical Society, a journal kept by the patient himself while in the Hospital, together with correspondence he received from his family and friends during his hospitalization. All these combine to present an intriguing, complex tale of love and courage, sorrow and hope, faith and despair, and offer an intimate view of the lives of men and women in early nineteenth century New England.

“The Hospital is an asylum for the suffering and the sick…”

As with many other stories, this one could begin with the birth of the patient — Federal Burt — in 1789 — a baby whose very name reflects the newborn government of the United States. But I choose to start instead with what marked the beginning of my quest: the letter, dated May 8, 1827. (This was barely five years after the hospital opened.) Graceful swoops and swirls enhance the capital letters of the first words: “To John Collins Warren MD — Dear Sir — If a patient may be permitted…” Elegant light brown script covers two pages, with certain words underlined for emphasis. Yet there are corrections or amendments interspersed — just a word or two here and there — written in a bolder, more upright hand. After seeing some of Burt’s handwritten sermons, it later became clear to me that he had engaged a scrivener — a professional scribe — to pen the letter. The signature was simply “F. Burt.” It would take many weeks of research to discover that this patient was a Congregational minister from Durham, New Hampshire.


The recipient, John Collins Warren, then 49 years old, was acting surgeon at the Massachusetts General Hospital, which in the short five years since its opening in September 1821 had fulfilled its promise to become a destination of healing for the people of the city of Boston, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and beyond. The Trustees noted with pride that “The situation of the hospital…allows it to be approached by water by all the New England States which border upon the ocean — patients have already been received not only from the State of Maine but from New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and even from Vermont, and many from the interior of our own state.”

“An asylum for the suffering” — Federal Burt’s description of Massachusetts General Hospital, an impressive edifice built of Chelmsford granite quarried by convicts from the Massachusetts State Prison. The building was designed by Alexander Parris and Charles Bulfinch. The first patient was admitted in September 1821. The hospital’s proximity to the Charles River allowed patients to arrive by boat.

Burt’s letter to Warren was written toward the end of the second month of what would be a four-month stay at the Hospital. From a highly personal perspective, and firmly grounded in his deep religious faith, the parson pled for “the welfare of the Hospital and the best interests of all concerned in it….The Hospital is an asylum for the suffering and the sick; and deservedly stands high in the estimation of the community. With respect to the sick, two things are to be properly regarded; their recovery, and their Salvation. Their recovery, in Providence, is to be promoted by a proper application of physical and moral means. The physical means of their recovery are committed to the directions of the Surgeons and Physicians and, so far as the Hospital is concerned, no one can doubt, are of the highest order.” But, he notes, “the application of moral means,” is an area whose deficiency is to be “deeply lamented.” He continues, “In a Christian land…it becomes the duty, clearly of those who provide for the sick in Hospitals the physical means of recovery, that they provide also the moral means.” To accomplish this, Burt makes a proposal:

Let a daily religious service at four o’clock P.M. be established in the Lecture room; to consist of reading the Scriptures familiar remarks and prayer; and to occupy one half hour. Let another half hour be devoted to those who are unable to attend the public service. On the Sabbath let there be a sermon. To provide for these services, let each regular minister in this city of every denomination be invited by the Trustees to officiate weekly by rotation,—an important Christian duty is discharged, and the means of promoting the best welfare of the sick, both in time and in eternity are applied.—

He calculates that “the additional labor which it will give to the City Ministers will not exceed fourteen hours and two sermons in a year. This, surely, no good man will regard as a burden.” A staunch Congregationalist, perhaps Burt drew on his familiarity with the “City Ministers” of that tradition to accomplish his proposal. The 1827 Boston Directory lists 36 churches in the city—all Congregational, but for two Baptist, two Episcopal, two Universal, one Methodist, one African Baptist, one African Methodist, and the Seaman’s Meeting.

Published annually, the Boston Directory included such essential information as the location of wharves, government offices, physicians, hospitals and apothecaries, a street directory, and list of residents — with people of color having a separate section.

In addition to these public houses of worship, nineteenth-century Boston charitable institutions tended to the spiritual health of their particular populations. The Rev. Jared Curtis (1777-1862) served at New York’s Auburn Prison at a salary of $200 a year before coming to the Massachusetts State Prison in Charlestown. The Rev. John Bartlett (1784-1849) was chaplain to the Boston Almshouse from 1807 to 1811; he also organized two meetings of prominent physicians and wealthy benefactors, eventually resulting in the creation of Massachusetts General Hospital and Asylum, later the McLean Insane Hospital. But, as Burt pointed out, no such provision was made for patients at the Massachusetts General Hospital.

This is curious, especially in light of the original founders’ firm grounding in the same Christian values Burt cites. In 1810, seeking funds to establish Boston’s first hospital, the physicians James Jackson and John Collins Warren appealed to both civic pride and moral obligation by noting that “Hospitals and infirmaries are found in all the Christian cities of the Old World; and our large cities in the Middle States [that is, Pennsylvania and New York] have institutions of this sort…and we flatter ourselves that in this respect…Boston may ere long assert her claim to equal praise.” They continue:

The wealthy inhabitants of the town of Boston have always evinced that they consider themselves ‘treasurers of God’s bounty;’ and in Christian countries, in countries where Christianity is practised, it must always be considered the first of duties to visit and to heal the sick. When in distress, every man becomes our neighbor, not only if he be of the household of faith, but even though his misfortunes have been induced by transgressing the rules both of reason and religion.

This last sentence has been adopted in truncated version by Massachusetts General Hospital (it is engraved on a wall in the hospital’s busy main corridor) in an attempt to convey the hospital’s close connection with the community, even the world. Yet omitting the qualifying phrases that follow, which offer leniency to those who are not “of the household of faith” or whose “misfortunes have been induced by transgressing the rules both of reason and religion” skews the original message, relieving it of religious connotations.

The Hospital’s first President, William Phillips (1750-1827), provides a singular example of the intertwined roles of religion and philanthropy in nineteenth-century Boston. The sermon preached on the Sabbath following Phillips’ funeral by Benjamin Blydenburg Wisner, pastor of the Old South Church (where Phillips had been a deacon for three decades), gives a view of some of the religious convictions that informed Phillips’ life: “He believed that men are to be justified, neither wholly nor in part by their own virtues, but solely on account of the merits of Christ. And on those merits alone did he rely,—firmly and habitually did he rely upon them, as the foundation of his hope of pardon and eternal life. He believed that the Spirit of God is the author of all holiness in fallen men. And he was ever ready to say, ‘By the grace of God I am what I am;’ to that grace did he constantly look to perfect the work of sanctification, which he humbly hoped had been commenced in his soul.”

“A chaplain for the hospital…”

The first documented request for a chaplain at the Boston hospital was sent directly to Phillips himself in 1823, from the recently widowed Ann Amory McLean who wrote to Phillips within a month of John McLean’s death. Phillips forwarded her letter to the Trustees with his endorsement.

The President of the Massachusetts General Hospital, in communicating the accompanying letter upon the subject of a chaplain for the Hospital, would respectfully add his own opinion, in favor of Mrs McLean’s suggestion, — whenever the Subject is considered by the Trustees.
Tremont St
5 Nov. 1823

The minutes of the subsequent Trustees Meeting, held November 17, record that “The Chairman [Colonel Joseph May] laid before the Board a letter of Mrs Anne McLean addressed to the President of the Corporation on the subject of the appointment of a Chaplain to the Hospital, transmitted to the Chairman in a note from the President Wm. Phillips Esq. expressive of his approbation of the proposition. The Chairman stated that he had waited on Mrs McLean & assured her that the subject would receive the early attention of the Board.”

Perhaps the Trustees were too enmeshed in other aspects of John McLean’s estate, with its “munificent bequest” to their institution, to pursue the suggestion of his widow, a philanthropist in her own right, who served on the board of the Female Bible Society, among other charitable groups. The only response (an indirect one at that) to her request located thus far is an 1826 letter sent to her Beacon Street home–three years after her original proposal for a chaplain.

I am directed by the Trustees of the Masstts Gen’l Hospital to say that they beg leave to place at your disposal one free bed at the Hospital in North Allen St., for the accommodation of such patients as my apply, from time to time, with your recommendation and who are proper subjects for relief and existing the regulation of the Hospital Institution…

Ann Amory McLean (1774-1834) was 22 years old when she married the wealthy merchant John McLean (1761-1823). Within a year of John’s death, wealthy and childless, she burst onto Boston’s benevolent stage, becoming active in the Widows Society, the Fatherless & Widows Society, the Penitent Females Refuge, and the Female Bible Society. In The Origins of Women’s Activism: New York and Boston, 1797-1840, Anne Boylan notes “her orthodox Calvinism dictated which organizations would have the benefit of her labors, and her wealth made her an especially attractive choice for organizational presidencies or vice presidencies.” No surprise, then, that she urged the MGH Trustees to attend to the unmet spiritual needs of the patients.

The Trustees further commissioned Gilbert Stuart to paint a portrait of her husband. A second portrait was commissioned of Ann McLean; it is now the property of Harvard University.

“Read and ordered to be filed…”

Despite the Trustees’ lack of action, word spread about the possibility of a chaplain at the Hospital. Within six months, a letter applying for the position was received. In April 1824, the Rev. Jonathan Burr, a Congregational minister in Sandwich, wrote to Phillips:

I have been recently been informed that the Directors of the Gen’l. Hospital intend, at no distant period, to appoint a Chaplain to that Institution, & that a number of individuals, connected therewith, are very desirous that the appointment should be made soon. If that be the case, I hereby request the favour of being considered as a candidate for that office.

The minutes record that “The letter was read and ordered to be filed”–nothing more.

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