Library Purchases George Huntington Papers

by Stephen E. Novak
Head, Archives & Special Collections
Augustus C. Long Health Sciences Library

Columbia University’s Augustus C. Long Health Sciences Library has purchased an extensive archive of George Huntington (1850-1916), an 1871 graduate of the University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons for whom Huntington’s disease is named. When added to George Huntington papers donated to the library last year by a descendent of Dr. Huntington, the purchase brings together in one place the largest known body of papers of George Huntington.

thesis by George HuntingtonThe collection includes 14 volumes of Huntington’s student notebooks from his time at P&S; 13 daybooks and ledgers from his medical practice in Dutchess County, N.Y.; manuscripts of two talks he gave later in life; his medical school graduation thesis (pictured); numerous sketches (Huntington was a talented amateur artist); and dozens of photographs of him and other Huntington family members. The purchase complements the George Huntington papers donated to the library last year by the Lominska family and known as Jean Ketcham Lominska Collection of George Huntington Family Papers in honor of Huntington’s granddaughter, who preserved them.

In 1872 Huntington, at age 22, published a paper describing a degenerative nervous disease that was prevalent in one family in his hometown of East Hampton, N.Y. Drawing on the casebooks of his father and grandfather, both physicians in East Hampton, and his own observations, Huntington correctly deduced the hereditary nature of the disease. He noted especially that

“when either or both the parents have shown manifestations of the disease, and more especially when these manifestations have been of a serious nature, one or more of the offspring almost invariably suffer from the disease, if they live to adult age. But if by any chance these children go through life without it, the thread is broken and the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the original shakers may rest assured that they are free from the disease.

Although others had described the disease before him, Huntington’s clinical description of it was so clear, accurate, and concise that the disease soon became known as “Huntington’s chorea” and later “Huntington’s disease.”

Largely because of chronic ill health, Huntington spent most of his career as a country physician in upstate New York, but he lived to see his article regarded as a medical classic. Sir William Osler commented that “in the history of medicine, there are few instances in which a disease has been more accurately, more graphically, or more briefly described.”

The newest papers were purchased from the family of Huntington’s great-grandson, Charles G. Huntington III, a prominent physician’s assistant who at his death in 2009 was associate dean for community and continuing education and assistant professor in the Department of Community Medicine and Health Care at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine.

See related article here.