“He is looking for notoriety”: Dr. M.J.B. Messemer, Celebrity Coroner

The Aufses Archives recently announced the opening of a new digital collection of letters to and from Abraham Jacobi, MD, the “father of American pediatrics” and a towering figure in the history both of Mount Sinai and of nineteenth-century American medicine. The letters, most of which deal with the staffing and administration of Mount Sinai’s outpatient clinics, contain the historical traces of many other physicians and surgeons who passed through Mount Sinai in the late nineteenth century. Some went on to quiet careers in private practice; others were famous in their time but have since been forgotten.

One letter in the collection, dated March 1st, 1879, contains an update from Rudolf Tauszky, MD, Secretary of the Medical Staff of the Out-Door Department (that is, the outpatient clinics), informing Dr. Jacobi of changing staff assignments. Among other changes to the roster, Doctors M.J. and E.J. Messemer had been appointed to the internal medicine clinic.

These forgotten names piqued our curiosity. Who were they? How were they related? Research confirmed that the Messemers were brothers and had graduated from Bellevue Hospital Medical College (predecessor of today’s NYU School of Medicine) a few years previously. At a time when the modern system of clinical instruction was still in its infancy, positions in the charity outpatient clinics of a prestigious hospital were a valuable way for recent graduates to gain practical experience on the way to establishing a private practice.

Further research revealed the subsequent career of Michael Jean Baptiste (M.J.B.) Messemer, MD. He turned out to have been a colorful figure who was a minor celebrity in old New York.

New York Times, July 21, 1890

New York Tribune, May 27, 1891

New York City in the late nineteenth century was limited to Manhattan and a portion of what is now the South Bronx, and city politics were firmly under the control of Tammany Hall, of which Dr. Messemer was a loyal member. Today, the Chief Medical Examiner of New York City is a highly regarded professional, but in the 1880s the position of City Coroner was considered a “plum” job for Tammany loyalists whose incumbents could draw a high salary with relatively little work. Dr. Messemer became one of the city’s four coroners in 1883. One colleague, Coroner Levy, charged Messemer with spending much of his time in recreational travel, pleading sickness rather than attending to his public duties. Levy remarked sarcastically to a New York Tribune reporter that “I am afraid that the public is skeptical about him.”

New York Times, December 10, 1885

Dr. Messemer did investigate cases, however. Many of these were widely reported in the popular press, leading to accusations that Dr. Messemer was publicity-hungry and using the office of coroner to promote himself. In 1885, on the death of railroad magnate William Henry Vanderbilt, Messemer rushed to Vanderbilt’s mansion in the company of a reporter to inspect the body for foul play. A colleague accused him of “looking for notoriety,” adding that such an uninvited inspection was “wrong and uncalled for” under the Police Department rules governing suspicious deaths.

New York World, March 3, 1894

Dr. Messemer passed away in 1894 while traveling in Europe. The “widely known New Yorker,” wrote the obituary columnist of the New York World, “was ever willing to help his friends among newspaper men get news, and thereby get notoriety for himself. To-day Messemer furnishes another and a last story.” The will that Dr. Messemer had placed on file in New York left his entire estate to his brother, but his European mistress claimed he had written her into his will on his deathbed. Although she traveled to New York to contest the will in person, the suit was eventually settled in favor of his brother.

New York Evening World, April 23, 1894

The Master at Work: Abraham Jacobi, MD Manuscripts Now Available in the Mount Sinai Digital Repository

The Arthur H. Aufses, Jr. MD Archives at Mount Sinai is proud to make available an online collection of digitized correspondence to and from Abraham Jacobi, MD (1830-1919), the “father of American pediatrics.” Dr. Jacobi was a towering figure both at Mount Sinai, where he chaired the Medical Board for twenty-five years and is the namesake of the Alumni Association’s Jacobi Medallion, and in the broader world of the history of medicine. He was the first Professor of Pediatrics at an American medical school (beginning at New York Medical College and later moving to Columbia), and under his leadership Mount Sinai created the first department of pediatrics at a general hospital in New York City.

This digitized collection is the work of two institutions, the Aufses Archives and the Historical Medical Library of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, which generously made available scanned images of their own collection of Jacobi correspondence. By bringing together two geographically separated collections whose contents overlap in time and subject matter, this digitization project, which includes full transcriptions of all manuscripts, makes Dr. Jacobi’s story more accessible to scholars and the general public.

Although the majority of the collection deals with the staffing and administration of The Mount Sinai Hospital and its Out-Door Department (the outpatient clinics), one letter in the collection provides a fascinating glimpse into Dr. Jacobi’s medical practice. In 1884, at the request of an unidentified colleague, he examined an unnamed patient and replied with a brief but dense handwritten note describing his findings. Like modern physicians, Dr. Jacobi used close attention to his patient’s symptoms to perform a differential diagnosis. With no laboratories or high-tech equipment at his disposal, he relied solely on the evidence of his immediate senses, counting the pulse and percussing the chest to make a tentative diagnosis of secondary meningitis brought on by a pulmonary condition.

Dr. Jacobi comments that the “prognosis [is] bad, it is true — but still, who can tell?” His uncertainty tempered with hope reminds us that in hindsight, the decade of the 1880s was a pivotal time for modern medicine, when therapeutics had not yet caught up with rapid advances in accurate diagnosis. Nothing more is known of this patient or his eventual fate.