Ship’s surgeon, Battle of Lissa

20 July 1866 – It was a magnificent battle, valiantly fought and won in two hours. This was naval history – the under-armed Austrian Imperial Navy fleet trouncing double its size, using classic ramming tactics against the newest designs in naval strength. The daring and courage, the leadership – Ship’s Surgeon Ephraim Epstein was moved and thrilled, full of pride and admiration. He was sobered, too. Even from outside the fray he’d seen and heard the injured, dying and drowning men, the scrambles for rescue. The Seehund took on some of the wounded, including many from the Italian fleet, for their casualties ran to hundreds. Austria had only thirty-eight lost, 138 hurt. It was time to work. Like other naval Surgeons, Ephraim combined all three branches of medicine. He was physician, diagnosing and prescribing; he was apothecary, preparing and dispensing medicine; and he was surgeon, performing operations. He completed two amputations, six extractions of bullets and set two broken limbs. Burns and gashes needed treating too. From his Austrian patients, as he worked, Ephraim learned more about the triumph: how proud the men were of Admiral Tegetthoff, how he had drilled them, in maneuvers, in gunnery, how he planned the ramming even though the ship armoring was incomplete. Most of all, he showed he loved his men, he believed in them and their morale.

Late at night, exhausted and exhilarated by all he had witnessed, Ephraim began to compose a description of the extraordinary day.

Here, above, is a newly discovered photograph of Ephraim Epstein in uniform to mark the anniversary of the astonishing Battle of Lissa 152 years ago, 20 July 1866. Restless Dr Epstein, 37, left his post at the great Vienna General Hospital for a commission in the Austrian Imperial Navy.  See here for an illustrated historical description

In The Extraordinary Dr EpsteinChapters 19, Fierce as a Leopard, Light as an Eagle, and 20, Battle, set out the lead-up and Ephraim’s role. Many thanks to Professor Consultant Barry Kay for finding this photo in The American Journal of Clinical Medicine, Abbott Clinical Publishing Company 1910. See my earlier postings for a quick insight: As rumors built and First clash of ironclad fleets



The oldest, handsomest and best-loved

In his country practice, traveling miles by horse and carriage in all weathers, Ephraim began to feel the toll of West Virginia’s misty autumns, snowy winters, cloudy springs and humid summers. He would come home dog tired. He could not avoid the reality of approaching seventy and the equal reality of the need for income. His eldest two children were working but there were five more, the youngest only eight. He began to brood. He hated being an old man.

He opened the envelope, grunting in satisfaction at finding the banker’s draft — Helena had said the coal bill was due. And then as he read the letter his hands began to tremble. Looking at it again he went to the door and called Helena.

‘Is something wrong?’ she hurried from the back parlor.

‘I wondered if you would come out for a walk with me later.’ He would tell her the news gently, in a pleasant setting.

She hugged herself to his arm as they walked past an empty pasture. Where the woods began Ephraim stopped, took both her hands in his and chafed them, bent to warm them with his breath. ‘How would you feel about moving away from here?’ She pulled her hands away, startled. ‘I have had the most generous, wonderful, timely offer from Dr Abbott. It would mean living in the city — Chicago.’

Ephraim makes one last move — both in career and location. In Chapter 38, The Gleaner, after recuperating from a serious illness he accepts the offer of an editorial post with the journal of the Abbott Alkaloidal company. He and the family moved to Ravenswood, Chicago in 1899 where he lived and worked successfully until his death in January 1913, in his 85th year. The byline in his article above: The story of ‘The Gleaner,’ the oldest, handsomest and best-loved of the entire editorial staff of Clinical Medicine (Date ca 1906). Gleanings from Foreign Fields was Ephraim M Epstein’s regular column of translations from European medical journals. He also ran the Abbott medical library, fostering research.

It is new, it is progress!

‘If the patient survives the treatment, he’ll survive the illness,’ Ephraim said. ‘But this new dosing method sounds much more efficient — and safe!’

‘Convenient, too. Regrettably some physicians condemn it as quackery,’ his young colleague replied.

‘Why? Clearly this is not watered-down plants in sugar-pills, it’s alkaloids: measured, isolated, active principles. It is new, it is progress, a God-send!

Before the month was out Ephraim wrote to the Abbott Alkaloidal Company for a subscription to their journal and got with it, free, a leather-bound pocket case containing nine vials, each filled with one hundred alkaloidal granules. Among his choices: aconitine for fever, digitalin for heart and circulation, codeine for pain, coughs and colics, morphine sulphate for pain. A month of using the method — easy to handle, pleasant, efficient, effective — and he knew this was a cause he must champion. His passion drove him to action.

When Ephraim’s medical career began in 1859, bleeding, purging and herbal medicine guess-work were the modes of healing; click here  and here for a quick time-travel back to his life as a med student. In The Last Cause (Chapter 37) Dr Epstein happens upon a new form of medication and decides this is the future of medicine. He writes letters, then articles for the company’s journal. Finally in 1895 he travels to Chicago to meet Dr Wallace C Abbott, company founder. Ephraim was right, this era saw the vanguard of today’s scientific medicine. Abbott Pharmaceuticals now is a huge international corporation. Only a couple of years earlier the Chicago World’s Fair (lit up at night in the photo) displayed the latest in electricity, machinery, transport, industry, agriculture. Medicine, too, is part of the glittering future ahead.