Winter 2002

  Current Issue
  Top Story
  Campus News
  Medical Updates
  Sparrow's Point
  Post Op
  Past Issues
  Talk To Us
  Site Index
  Search HMN
  Front Door

She Thawed His Icy Heart

By Anne Bennett Swingle

A recently discovered packet of letters reveals that William Halsted — formidable, reserved and austere — may have been anything but.

Every so often, a slice of Hopkins history appears on the landscape that casts an altogether new light on old preconceptions. That is what happened when the staff of Hopkins' Alan Mason Chesney Medical Archives came across a small collection of letters written between 1918 and 1921 by none other than William Halsted, the world-famous first director of surgery. "It was the first new information we'd had on Dr. Halsted in 30 years," says John Cameron.

Cameron, only the Hospital's fifth surgeon-in-chief, has read practically everything ever written by or about his predecessor and had come to know him as an austere and somewhat reclusive man. But when Cameron first read this correspondence-10 letters and a telegram written by Halsted when he was in his late 60s to Bessie Randall, a Baltimore woman 40 years his junior-he could scarcely believe his eyes. Here was an entirely different Halsted: a playful, affectionate and, at times, a quite simply besotted Halsted.

Cameron says he felt a kind of mortification when he first went through the gushy epistles composed by "the most important, innovative and influential surgeon this country has ever produced." No one, Cameron thought, must ever see these letters. But then, "I realized that, late in life, Halsted had a relationship that made him happy, and isn't that fortunate?" So this past November, with fellow Hopkins history buff Toby Gordon, vice president for planning and marketing, and archivists Nancy McCall and Marjorie Kehoe, Cameron published excerpts of the letters in Annals of Surgery. And now, as they say, the story can be told.

In November 1918, Halsted was 66. Famous, though not nearly as recognized as he would become after his death, he was an intimidating man whom people greeted with admiration bordering on reverence. Almost bald, quite nearsighted and sporting a bushy mustache, he strode through the Hospital corridors with a deliberate, measured tread and a singleness of purpose. He had an acid wit and was given to cutting jibes, often at the expense of others. With women he was overly polite and often a bit distant.

He'd been married for 28 years to Caroline Hampton, his former scrub nurse, and theirs by all accounts was a happy union, though the two regularly spent a portion of each year apart, when she stayed at their North Carolina retreat, High Hampton, and he journeyed abroad. Fastidious in his tastes, Halsted wore elegant clothes purchased in London and France and furnished his Bolton Hill brownstone with antiques and Persian rugs. He was also discriminating in his choice of friends. Bessie Randall clearly passed muster.

The daughter of a prominent Baltimorean who for 40 years served as a University trustee, Elizabeth Blanchard Randall, who was 26 years old in 1918, had been raised in the magnificent townhouse at 8 West Mt. Vernon Place (now the Mt. Vernon Club) and at the family's summer estate a towering mansion called Cloud-Capped, in Catonsville just south of the city. Through her father, she was well accustomed to moving in circles that included important medical men like Halsted and his great good friend and mentor William Welch, two of the Hospital's powerful "big four" founding physicians.

Halsted's first dated letter (Nov. 2, 1918), addressed to "My dear Miss Bessie," suggests that the two had known each other for quite some time. And while most of the correspondence Halsted left behind is to the point and distinctly lacking in emotion, the letters to Bessie fairly gush with wit, carefully chosen words, and German and French phrases: "I am charmed by your letter which even in its expurgated form is much too 'lurid' for my deserving, but not 'fur mein Fahigkeit' [ability] respective 'geraumigkeit, zu verschucken' [to swallow things whole] which, as young ladies so well know, is infinite in old men. Wonderfully distressed to hear of the 'malade' and the boiling oil [a wound treatment] and fearing that you may succumb before Xmas I am sending the enclosed card and nervously scanning the obituary notice columns."

In the fall of 1918, as World War I raged on in Europe and Randall prepared to go abroad as an aide to the Johns Hopkins Unit, Halsted writes (Nov. 22) from his home at 1201 Eutaw Place to say farewell and thank her for a Christmas gift:

Verily only a highly trained psychiatrist could have derived from such meagre data that copious tears were flowing on the corner of Eutaw Place and Dolphin Street. I wish that you might know how highly prized is each stitch of the dainty Christmas gift, the pockets of which shall harbour only the handkerchiefs reserved for the special occasions on which the recipient indulges in thoughts of a precious little lady in France. Please take good care of her, and be merciful to the lucky boys whom she nurses back to health and who pin their hearts on her sleeve. I wish our courageous and beloved little captain every possible success and happiness in her work and a safe return to her family and friends.

A telegram, sent on Dec. 10 to the Hotel Vanderbilt in New York on the eve of her departure, finds Halsted in need of help to cure his lovesick heart: "Letter flows [sic] on recovery of equilibrium. Sad case of love at first sight. Please consult alienist [psychiatrist] abroad in my behalf and advise."

During this period, Halsted continued to work, presenting papers, attending meetings of the American Surgical Association and serving as president of the Maryland Medico-Chirurgical Faculty, but he was not in good health. His digestion was bad, his diet severely restricted, and he'd had attacks of pain. The early months of 1919 found him confined to the house with a bad case of bronchitis, and in September of that year, he underwent emergency gall bladder surgery. On Sept. 1, just before he was admitted to Hopkins Hospital, Halsted wrote Randall a brief note: "I wish that you might know the pleasure your precious little billet doux gave or is giving me. The invitations to drive are all eagerly accepted, so please secure from Mr. Randall promises to chaperone us."

High Hampton, Halsted's North Carolina retreat.
West Mt. Vernon Place, c. 1915, where Bessie lived at #8, now the Mt. Vernon Club.
The Street Where She Lived: West Mt. Vernon Place, c. 1915, where Bessie lived at #8, far right, now the Mt. Vernon Club. Left, High Hampton, Halsted's North Carolina retreat.

By the summer of 1920, Halsted was fully recovered and sojourning at High Hampton. Years earlier, when he had married Caroline, her southern, aristocratic family (she was the niece of Civil War hero and U. S. Senator Wade Hampton) had not thought much of him, for he was a Yankee who knew nothing of riding, hunting or fishing. By now, though, this product of New York society, Andover and Yale was well acclimated to Carolina country life and High Hampton, where he played with his dogs, cultivated dahlias (he had one of the greatest collections in the United States) and was respected by locals as a country doctor who ministered to mountaineers and their animals alike. He wrote to Randall on Aug. 25:

I am delightfully touched by your gracious little letter received a few moments ago, but sorely distressed by the tidings it bears of Mr. Randall....I shall never forget his goodness to me during my recent sojourn at the Hospital, nor be unmindful of the manifold ministrations & delicate attentions of other members of the cherished family. I shall be very impatient for further news even at the risk of proving a nuisance to a beloved friend. We, too, have been fighting the ravages of the deluge. Our rainfall for ten days has been 22 inches. We, too, are reduced to the vulgar dahlia, but I enjoy the riotous colors of the rows of this unmentionable flower through the lawn of our garden.

And on Sept. 14:

"We have had a peaceful & happy vacation-a house full of guests for the past few weeks. The trout fishing in our pond has been remarkably fine. In fifteen minutes or less we invariably catch enough for dinner for a large family. How I wish that we could send you some and that you could be fishing with usyou & the other members of the family."

The following spring, with Caroline most probably in North Carolina, Halsted was in Baltimore, twittering once again to Randall (May 22, 1921):

"I am so distressed to learn that you have succumbed to the Ziegenpeler [mumps], as the incubation period may be as long as 24 days and the unfortunate victim is dangerous for several weeks after recovery I shall not despair of catching it from the fair lady for many a day.... Remember our engagement to see the Carpentier-Dempsey dispute in Hoboken, July 2."

The idea of the dignified Halsted escorting the winsome Bessie to a fight in Hoboken is nothing if not extraordinary. In the end, though, as his letter, written from High Hampton (July 12, 1921) notes, only one of them went:

So you really evented! Oh the deadly girls-blood thirsty too perhaps! I am truly thrilled at the thought of your braving the heat and mosquitos of Jersey City in order to witness the process of jellification of Carpentier's countenance...It was very charming of you to write me such a long and lurid description of the slaughter. High Hampton will prove too tame for you, I fear, after such thrilling adventures. But we have rattlesnakes and moonshiners & occasionally murders-two murders here this summer. Every car that booms up our driveway sets my heart a pitty-patting in the confident expectation that it carries the bride-the adorable chatelaine of Cloud-Capped.

High Hampton, Halsted's North Carolina retreat.

Engaged to Harry R. Slack, an otolaryngologist who had worked with Samuel Crowe, one of Halsted's proteges and biographers, Randall would be married in June 1922 (see "China Memories," HMN, spring/summer 2001). But Halsted kept right on writing, this time (Sept. 12, 1921) from High Hampton with another plea for help in healing his smitten heart:

Your most welcome letter bearing news both joyous and distressing survived the perils of our mountain mail route & greatly revived my drooping spirits & dripping corpus. How could you find time in the midst of your innumerous ([Sinclair Lewis'] "Main Street") duties and beatitudes & day dreams to compose such a delicious epistle. I carry it about with me every where-fishing excursions, on mountain trails, on raids of moonlight stills through "panther town," to Sunday School & the dahlia garden....How I wish you could all drop in upon us this moment at High Hampton. We have a housefull of guests at present; among them two pretty nieces of Mrs. Halsted & a charming doctor from New York... But we are sadly in need of social workers, particularly of those who specialize in derangements of the brain and disorders of the heart.

West Mt. Vernon Place, c. 1915, where Bessie lived at #8, now the Mt. Vernon Club.

As Halsted prepared to repair to High Hampton in the days following Randall's marriage, he was in poor health. The remarkable letter that follows is undated, but a clue to its date is Halsted's thanks, in German, for her gift of wedding cakes (colossally excellent), saying he has sampled two, one right after the other:

"Hochzeits Kuchen bitte zer versuchen." Zwei, der Reihenach, habe ich schon versercht. Sie seid Kolossal ausgezeichnet! How well you understand the male species. When all other, try gastronomy. Please picture me every morning at eight o'clock, unchaperoned, awaiting your arrival & prepared, flinging consequences to the winds, to float southwards on & on, sipping spongecakes & breathing inarticulate words into the interstices of the "bean catcher," between sips.

Perhaps it's too much of a leap to suggest that Halsted was under the influence when he wrote this, but it's worth noting that he had long struggled with an addiction acquired as a young physician in New York when he experimented on himself with cocaine while developing local anesthesia. Welch, for one, claimed that Halsted used morphine until the end of his life.

Desperately ill, Halsted returned to Baltimore suddenly at the end of August. His disciples George Heuer and Mont Reid were summoned immediately to operate for gallstones. Twelve days later, on Sept. 7, 1922, Halsted was dead.

Although Randall's correspondence with Halsted does not survive, her letter to Welch (Sept. 27), about Halsted's death, does:

"I know what a feeling of loss mine is and how much greater yours must be who has known Dr. Halsted for these many years....We only hope that he was not ill long and did not have to suffer. It was such a joy to have him at our wedding festivities and at our wedding. He seemed so well and bright and was having such a good time with all his friends. I imagine that that was the last time that many of them saw him."

This, then, is all we know of Halsted's relationship with his young female admirer. What remains is an inscrutable and unsolvable puzzle; indeed, this very private man is now, maddeningly, more enigmatic than ever. One thing only is clear: "Miss Bessie" detected beneath that austere veneer a spark of exuberance. She led him back to a place in his life that had been filled with a certain joie de vivre, and made it possible for Halsted, even in ill health and old age, to delight once more in youth and in beauty.