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Dr. Washington F. Peck


Posted By: Annette Lucas (email)
Date: 7/11/2021 at 15:41:53

SOURCE: Biographical History and Portrait Gallery of Scott County, Iowa. American Biographical Publishing Company, H. C. Cooper, Jr., & Co. Proprietors. 1895


Within the past three years the grim Reaper who is no respecter of persons seems to have gathered to himself an unusually large number of those, who, in traversing the various avenues of life, had reached eminences which kept them at all times in public view. The names of men who have made history, brightened the pages of science and added greatly to the sum of human achievement seem to have been unusually numerous on the death roll of these later years, and in no one of the fields of labor to which their endeavors have been confined has a greater number of names been transferred from the roll of the illustrious living to the roll of the illustrious dead than in the field of medicine. In this profession, the department of surgery , in particular, has lost some of its brightest lights, its greatest minds, its most skillful operators. It is well known to ordinarily intelligent laymen that the progress of surgery, within the past decade, or certainly within a score of years last past, has amounted in effect to a revolution ; and among the men who have passed away within the period named have been some of those who were chiefly instrumental in bringing about this revolution. The names of MacKenzie, Hamilton, Barker, Sayre, Greene, Parkes, and that of the subject of this paper, Doctor Washington F. Peck, have been associated with an era of improvements in methods, of new discoveries and remarkable operations which has had no parallel in the history of surgery.

These were progressive minds, which could not be confined within circumscribed limits. They were so constituted that they could not be.content to follow beaten paths, and with intellectual breadth they combined the skill of hand which wrought results deemed at the time almost marvelous.

Doctor Peck belonged to the very limited number of surgeons whose field of operations has been the "Great West, who have achieved national and international renown. All the years of his professional life were devoted to practice in this western field, but in birth and education he was the product of an eastern State and an eastern school.

Washington Freeman Peck was born in the town of Galen, Wayne County, New York, January 22, 1841. His father was William H. and his mother Alida ( Hawes) Peck, both natives of the Empire State, but of differing antecedents as to nationality, the father being of Scotch, and the mother of Dutch lineage. Doctor Peck's early education was of the kind ordinarily termed a good English education, and the bent of his mind was so fully toward medicine that he began the systematic study of this science when but eighteen years of age. Entering Bellevue Medical College of New York, he enjoyed the distinction of being the first student to matriculate in the first medical college of this country, which successfully combined clinical with didactic teaching. In 1863 he graduated from this institution with the highest class honors, having served during two years of his course as house surgeon of Bellevue Hospital, where he laid the foundation for his skillful practice of later years.

Immediately after completing his college course he entered the government military service as surgeon, and during the eighteen months next following he was stationed most of the time at Washington, where his skillful operations in Lincoln General Hospital attracted attention and won for him official commendation.

In 1864 he located at Davenport, Iowa, and while engaging in general practice sought as far as possible to give special attention to surgery. His intense activity and evident capacity soon gained for him substantial recognition in his new field , and he at once became a prime factor in elevating and improving the character of the medical profession in the State of Iowa. In 1866 he was made secretary of the Scott County Medical Society, a few years later became its president and in 1876 was advanced to the presidency of the Iowa State Medical Society. These recognitions served to show the impress which he made upon the medical profession of Iowa early in his career, and the rapidity with which he moved forward to a commanding position among his associates.

Within a year after his location in Iowa he returned to New York State and married Miss Maria Purdy, of Wayne County, and this union was one happily entered into, not only in a domestic sense, but in contributing to his professional advancement. Mrs. Peck brought into the family circle not only the.grace and intelligence which make a happy home, but a capacity for the practical conduct of affairs which left her husband free to devote himself entirely to his chosen calling without detriment to those business interests upon which the acquisition of fortune, along with fame, must always be dependent. From the beginning of his career he was absorbed in his profession, and gave to his work the best thought, the closest study, the widest range of reading and the most careful investigation of which a broad intellectuality is capable, and the results of this earnest, persistent and undivided effort were apparent in what he accomplished.

To the educational work of the profession Doctor Peck at once addressed himself with the ardor of an enthusiast, and to him the State of Iowa is indebted for the medical department of its State University, an institution which reflects credit on its founder and upon the great State by which it is fostered and supported. In 1868 he conceived the idea of building up a medical college in Iowa, which would afford facilities for the first-class education of young men desiring to enter the medical profession, and in order that the institution might be established upon a permanent basis, he determined to make it a department of the State University at Iowa City. He first laid his plans before Judge John F. Dillon, now of New York, then a distinguished citizen of Davenport, and secured his hearty co -operation. Then, in June of 1869, a comparatively unknown young man , he presented himself before the trustees of the university, and proposed the creation of a medical department. He came before the board unheralded, but full of the subject with which he had to deal, enthusiastic in his expectations and eloquent in his appeals for liberal treatment of his profession by the officials of what should be a university in fact as well as in name. Surprising as it may seem , he carried the board with him , and the preliminary steps were taken toward the establishment of the medical school. In those days, however, the university was poor, and from the day it was founded the medical department was in financial straits. An organization was not effected , or at least perfected, until 1870, and this was accomplished in the face of difficulties of the most discouraging and perplexing kind. When the organization was finally completed, Doctor Peck was made professor of surgery , became dean of the faculty and the executive head of the department of medicine. Then came the struggle to secure the needed assistance from the State Legislature, to overcome hostility engendered by professional rivalry, and to carry on at the same time a work which would compel recognition and approval of the project. At another city in the State a medical college had been established at an earlier date, calling itself a department of the State University and with an ambition to be recognized as such . The charter of the university, however, precluded such recognition of an institution not located at Iowa City, and the plan proposed by Doctor Peck was the only feasible proposition for connecting a medical course with the university course. Nevertheless, new antagonisms and sectional jealousies were aroused to such an extent that at times the advancement of the project seemed almost hopeless. Year after year the struggle continued and the indomitable will-power, the high courage and ceaseless effort of Doctor Peck contributed more than anything else to final success. Supported by a loyal and competent faculty, he made the medical department an institution which commanded the respect and admiration of all those who were interested in the general upbuilding of the university, and by and by the opposition to it ceased, appropria tions for its maintenance were freely made and its founders realized the full fruition of their hopes.

Soon after he came to Davenport Doctor Peck was made local surgeon of the Rock Island Railroad Company. At that time the company had no organized medical department, nor is it probable that any such department was connected with a western railroad, if indeed any of the railway corporations of the country had progressed to that extent. The work which came to Doctor Peck, however, as local railway surgeon was well done ; so well that it commended him to the great and constantly growing corporation, and in 1875 he was designated to act as surgeon- in-chief of the company ; and to him was assigned the task of organizing its medical and surgical department. To this task he addressed himself with an energy and tenacity of purpose which precluded the possibility of failure, evincing executive ability of as high character as his professional attainments, and the result was the organization of a medical department of the Rock Island Railway Company, which is to -day pronounced by competent judges the best and most efficient organization of its kind in the United States. As chief of this department, Doctor Peck had on his surgical staff, during the later years of his life, nearly one hundred surgeons, located at different points on the lines of the railway company, and his personal attention was given to a vast amount of surgical work. His labors in this field gained for him wide distinction, and when he summed up the results of his experience and observation in a paper read before the American Medical Association, while acting as chairman of the surgical section of the association, his paper was published in all the leading medical journals of America, and also in the principal medical journals of Europe, translated in numerous foreign languages.

With the extension of his practice, with surgery as his specialty, the character of the operations successfully performed by Doctor Peck attracted attention and made him famous not only among his professional brethren, but among the people at large. As early as 1882 he had successfully performed the operation for the relief of appendic itis, which consists in the removal of the vermiform appendix. It is not known that Doctor Peck (whose modesty was a distinguishing characteristic) ever made any claim of originality of method in this operation , but the statement of other eminent physicians is to the effect that the operation was the first of the kind performed in the United States.

An active member of the American Medical Association, in addition to being honored with the chairmanship of the surgical section, he served as vice- president of the association. He was also elected without his knowledge or solicitation a member of the American Surgical Association (an organization so exclusive in its character that its membership is limited to one hundred) . In 1886 he went abroad to find that his fame had preceded him, and that physicians, scientists and public officials in the old world were by no means unfamiliar with his name and achievements. At this time he spent six months in study and travel on the Continent, and in England, Scotland and Ireland, and in 1890 he again went abroad as a delegate to the International Medical Congress, held in Berlin, and to the British Medical Association, which met at Birmingham.

With the inception and building up of the local charitable institutions of Davenport Doctor Peck was hardly less conspicuously identified than with the building up of the State Medical College of Iowa City. He originated the idea of establishing a hospital in Davenport, and set on foot the movement which resulted in the evolution of an institution which has now no superior of its kind west of Chicago. In 1867 Father Palamorgnes purchased the buildings and grounds of the former Academy of the Immaculate Conception, and later, at Doctor Peck's suggestion, the building was converted into a hospital . It was placed in charge of the Sisters of Mercy, was christened Mercy Hospital, and with Doctor Peck as physician and president of the board of managers it developed into the splendid institution of the present time. He was one of the founders of Mercy Hospital at Iowa City, and the Orphans' Home of Davenport, now a noted State institution, admirably managed and splendidly equipped for the noble work of caring for homeless orphan children, is also largely a creature of Doctor Peck's kindly sympathy and intelligent effort, and for twenty- four years it was under his fostering care as physician - in - charge.

Busy as he was with the exacting duties of his profession, driven hither and thither by the demands of an extensive practice, he found time to do a vast amount of charitable and educational work, but the strain which he thus put upon himself was too great, and the breaking down of his health, and death, came at a comparatively early age. From an illness which began in 1888 he never fully recovered , and in the summer of 1891 he was compelled to retire in part from educational, and largely from professional work.

He tendered his resignation as professor of surgery in the medical department of the State University of Iowa, and on the sixteenth of June, 1891 , the following resolutions were unanimously adopted by the board of regents :

Whereas, on account of illness Doctor W. F. Peck has found it necessary to tender his resignation as professor of surgery in the medical department, and

Whereas, it has seemed absolutely necessary that said resignation be accepted ; therefore

Resolved, that we take this occasion to express our deep regret that the time has come when Doctor Peck must sever his active relations with the university. We recognize that to his untiring industry, his keen , practical good sense, his great reputation in the State and Nation as a surgeon, the department owed the largest measure of its success. He it was who organized the medical department nearly a quarter of a century ago , under circumstances that would have daunted one less courageous; he has watched it and nurtured it with rare devotion through all its vicissitudes, and it has grown with the years under his earnest and wise care, until it stands as a fitting monument to his ability and devotion.

Resolved, that Doctor W. F. Peck be appointed Emeritus Professor of Surgery, and that he be requested to retain his connection with the university and give us the benefit of his advice, and when health will permit, that he will still give instruction by lecture or otherwise in that department, with the hope that his days may be long in the land to aid and counsel us.

Resolved, that this resolution be spread on the minutes, and that an engrossed copy thereof be forwarded to Doctor Peck .

During the summer and fall of 1891 his health steadily failed, and on the twelfth of December of that year the end came.

His death occasioned general grief throughout the State of Iowa, and from all portions of the western States distinguished physicians, educators, public officials and members of the Knights Templar organization ( of which he had been an Eminent Commander) came to Davenport to attend the obsequies and pay tribute to his worth and public services.

His only son, Robert Peck, is following in the footsteps of his father in the medical profession. His only surviving daughter is the wife of Hon. Henry Volmer, a brilliant young lawyer, who has been Mayor of the City of Davenport. Another daughter, who had just reached a most attractive and promising young womanhood, died in 1888. *

*Sketch reprinted from " National Magazine."


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