Hammond, William Alexander

At a Glance:

Surgeon General of the US, neurologist, amateur naturalist



Bird names: 1


Western North America

General William Alexander Hammond, ca 1861-64. [link]

Content note: This profile includes descriptions of desecration of human remains, defenses of slavery, and medical racism, ableism, and misogyny, including quotes from the subject.

The Bird:

Hammond’s Flycatcher (Empidonax hammondii)

Hammond’s Flycatcher [link]

The Name:

William Alexander Hammond (1828-1900) seems somewhat out of place in a series of profiles that heavily feature ornithologists, naturalists, and explorers. He certainly wrote about the flora and fauna he encountered in the course of his army career, but his foremost mark on the world was undoubtedly in the medical field. He was a well-known military doctor who was appointed Surgeon General during the Civil War, only to lose the position when he took the radical and unpopular step of banning a ubiquitous mercury-based “remedy” that did more harm than good. He was likely the first person in the US to specifically specialize as a neurologist, and did early experiments in using lithium to treat bipolar disorder.

His glowing list of medical achievements leaves out much, though. Like many medical trailblazers of the 19th century, his discoveries and innovations came via exploiting the vulnerable and marginalized.

After receiving his MD at age 20– medical education being rather different in the 1800s– Hammond became an army doctor, mostly stationed in the western US. This was the period of westward expansion and brutal genocide against Indigenous people. Hammond seems to have not dwelt on the moral implications of what the army was doing. But, ever obsessed with his scientific pursuits, he set his eyes on a goal that he and his friend Joseph Leidy shared: obtaining the brain of a Native person for comparative anatomy studies. While in Kansas, Hammond’s macabre quest led to him asking the leaders of multiple groups in the area to send anyone who died to him, as long as they were of “absolutely pure” Indigenous ancestry. Understandably, those chiefs who didn’t outright refuse (which may have been difficult, seeing as Hammond had the army backing him up) promised him they would while not intending to follow through. Desperate, Hammond apparently went around the fort asking anyone who had a lead for, again, the brain of a human being who almost certainly had no wish to be dissected for the cause of scientifically rationalizing racism. Several soldiers heading into Oceti Sakowin (Sioux) territory promised that they’d try to find and fight with them so they could send the bodies back “preserved in whiskey”.

More or less asking soldiers under his command to kill Indigenous people so that he dissect them was the most disturbing part of Hammond’s career, but unfortunately there were many others that were . Much of Hammond’s time in the west was spent in Kansas as tensions over slavery were building to the coming civil war. Kansas was a particular flashpoint in these pre-war tensions. Kansas was to vote on whether it would join the US as a free or slave state, and between 1854 and 1861 the territory was inundated in violence as pro- and anti-slavery settlers fought each other in a conflict that became known as Bloody Kansas. As part of the army, Hammond was tasked with trying to keep everyone from killing each other. He dismissed both sides as extremists, but he was hardly a neutral, opinion-less observer:

“I came out here a moderate pro-slavery man, yet because I am not in favor of hanging every man with free state sentiments I am denounced as an abolitionist. If my mind was a little weaker than I flatter myself it is, I might probably be drawn over to the abolitionists body and soul…[but] the whole contest is ridiculous…[that] white men should set to work and murder each other for the sake of the real or apparent benefit of a set of miserable negroes little elevated in mental or physical faculties above the monkey of an organ grinder”

Hammond in an 1856 letter, quoted in Blustein 2002, p 28.

Unsurprisingly, Hammond, who had grown up in the free state of Pennsylvania, had, on moving to Kansas, purchased several enslaved people.

Hammond nevertheless fought for the Union in the Civil War. It can be easy to think of the Civil War as a fight between people who were racists and those who were not, but, as Hammond demonstrates, there were plenty of profoundly racist people on the Union side. It was during the Civil War that he was made Surgeon General, then was court-martialed for forbidding military doctors from using the mercury-based substance calomel on sick and injured soldiers.

After this, Hammond switched his focus to private practice, and distinguished himself by being the first specialist in neurology. He published numerous books in this period, many focusing on mental illness. Although he was forward-thinking in his recognition that mental illness was an issue of the brain and not of the moral defects of the soul, many of his descriptions of his patients read as callous and devoid of empathy:

“Even if actual cerebral disease be the cause of the irresistible impulse, it does not materially detract from the right of society to protect itself against injury from those in whom it exists. A dog afflicted with hydrophobia, going about snapping at those who come in its way, is destroyed in order that it may not bite us, and may not poison other dogs, who, in their turn, might bite us. The dog is suffering from a disease of its brain, which gives it an irresistible impulse to bite. We kill it without the slightest hesitation. We would be almost equally justifiable in killing the insane with irresistible impulses to commit homicide, if we did not possess places in which we could confine them safely.”

Hammond 1873, p 73

Hammond built a reputation for skepticism, and in the heyday of spiritualism, he found ample ground for his debunking efforts. One phenomenon that he had a particular issue with were the “fasting girls”: girls and young women who claimed to be able to survive without food for months or years. This was often accompanied by religious visions and the appearance of stigmata, wounds without apparent cause on the hands, feet, side, and forehead that are held within some strains of Christianity to be the result of remarkable religious faith. He denounces the fasting girls almost universally as frauds. While it is certainly true that the afflicted were sneaking food and not truly fasting, it’s Hammond other main explanation that is troubling: hysteria.

Hysteria was a common diagnosis of the day, but today is viewed as having been a catch-all term for any undesirable emotional behavior from female-coded people, from mental illnesses like bipolar disorder or borderline personality disorder to simply rebellious or independent behavior. Attributed to somehow being connected to the uterus (hence the root of the word), it was usually considered to exclusively affect women. Today, it’s viewed as an example of medical misogyny and a tool of control. It’s not surprising that Hammond views fasting girls and other spiritualist phenomena to be a result of fraud and hysteria, especially when one reads his views on the differences between men and women’s brains:

“The female brain, however, is not only smaller than that of man, but it is different in structure, and this fact involves much more as regards the character of the mental faculties than does the element of size…It is not necessary, therefore, in order to the advancement of the view to be presented in this connection, that we should insist upon the fact that as man has more brain than woman he must possess more mind. The question we design to submit is not so much of quantity as it is of quality. The brain of woman is, as we have seen, different from that of man, and difference of structure necessarily involves difference of function. Doubtless, it is perfectly adapted to the proper status of woman in the established plan of nature, and for that very reason it is not suited to the work which is required of man’s brain.”

Hammond 1883, pp 141-142

These views are damaging enough when they are used in a medical context, but the above quote isn’t from one of Hammond’s many medical texts: it’s from an article arguing against women’s suffrage, rights to a career, and rights to participate in civic life. Medical racism, ableism, and misogyny are dangerous enough, but the views forged in the hospital or medical textbook do not stay there.

Hammond’s career did untold harm to both those who crossed his path and to those who have been harmed by the systems he helped build. We know from dozens of studies at this point that female-coded people and people with uteruses are taken less seriously in their reports of pain than cis men are. We know that there are huge disparities in healthcare availability and outcomes for racial minorities, particularly Black and Indigenous populations. These problems do not come from nowhere, or from a handful of bad healthcare providers at work today. They were baked in from the start, as people like Hammond– a slaveowner who wanted people to be killed so he could dissect their brains to prove the inferiority of anyone who was not a white man– built the outlines of what we would recognize as modern medicine. The ripples are still a part of our society today.

J.F. McLaughlin


Blustein, Bonnie Ellen. 2002. Preserve your love for science: life of William A. Hammond, American neurologist. Cambridge University Press. [link]

Freemon, Frank R. 1996. The first career of William Alexander Hammond. Journal of the History of Neuroscience 5(3). [link]

Hammond, William Alexander. 1863. Physiological memoirs. Lippincott. [link]

Hammond, William Alexander. 1873. Insanity in its relation to crime: a text and commentary. Appleton. [link]

Hammond, William Alexander. 1879. Fasting girls: their pathology and physiology. [link]

Hammond, William Alexander. 1883. Woman in politics. The North American Review 137(321), pp. 137-146. [link]