Library Acquires Important Samuel Bard Manuscript

image of Samuel Bard manuscript

The Columbia University Health Sciences Library has recently acquired a manuscript by Samuel Bard (1742-1821), a founder of the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons (P&S) and a prominent early American physician.

Entitled Remarks on the constitution, government, discipline & expences [sic] of medical schools – submitted to the Regents of the University of New York in obedience to their requisition for such information, the 35 page manuscript was composed and signed by Bard in 1819 replying in his capacity as President of the College of Physicians and Surgeons.

The manuscript provides an important insight into the educational philosophy of one of the most notable physicians of the early United States.  The son of a doctor, Samuel Bard studied first at King’s (now Columbia) College before receiving his medical degree from the University of Edinburgh in 1765.  He was one of the six New York City physicians who in 1767 persuaded King’s College to establish a medical school, now the College of Physicians and Surgeons, the second oldest in the United States. Bard served as its dean and professor of medicine until its closure in 1776 due to the War for Independence and, after the newly renamed Columbia College revived the medical school in 1791, he served it first as dean and later as president until his death.  Bard Hall, the P&S residence hall, is named for him.

Bard writes that “the peculiar circumstances and wants of our Country” – especially that the United States was “extensive and but thinly inhabited” – meant that apart from a few physicians in large cities most American physicians were not well-paid.  Therefore, he continues, “the general mass of students of medicine are poor; it is therefore very important that we provide them with the best instruction at the cheapest rate.”

Although the U.S. is no longer “thinly inhabited,” the cost of medical education is still a concern in the 21st century as witnessed by the recent donation by Dr. Roy Vagelos (P&S, 1954) and his wife Diana (Barnard, 1955) of $250 million to support scholarships at P&S.

Samuel Bard's signature

Bard then compares and contrasts instruction at P&S with four other medical schools: the University of Edinburgh (his alma mater), the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard, and the University of Maryland.   He asserts that instruction could be reduced to five courses: anatomy, chemistry, practice of medicine, midwifery, and surgery.  Though Bard believes that clinical medical courses “when properly delivered by a competent Teacher, are among the most useful a student can attend” he realizes that they can only be offered when there is a faculty member attached to a public hospital.

Besides curriculum, Bard discusses the length of time students need to apprentice with a practitioner, the manner of examining candidates for the medical degree, and the best method of governing the College – “where some dissensions have again arisen” among the Trustees, he notes.

In addition to his involvement with the medical school, Bard was one of the founders in 1771 of New York Hospital, now part of New York-Presbyterian Hospital, the primary teaching hospital of the College of Physicians and Surgeons.  His Compendium of the Theory and Practice of Midwifery (1807) is considered the first obstetrics textbook written by an American and went through five editions by 1819.

The manuscript is the second by Bard to be acquired by the Health Sciences Library in recent years. In 2013, the library purchased the autograph manuscript of his 1811 “Discourse on the Importance of Medical Education” a lecture he delivered at the medical school that year.

The manuscript is in generally good condition though it will require treatment by conservators to prevent paper loss. Once this work is complete, the manuscript will be available for study and exhibition.