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:
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."
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:
And on Sept. 14:
The following spring, with Caroline most probably in North Carolina, Halsted was in Baltimore, twittering once again to Randall (May 22, 1921):
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:
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:
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:
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:
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.