The Dr. John Frissell Collection
Courtesy of the Archives of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, artifacts from the fascinating Dr. John Frissell Collection of Civil War era medical implements are now on display for the first time anywhere at the Ohio County Public Library. The collection was acquired from a local antiques dealer, who purchased the estate of a descendant of Dr. John Frissell, circa 2009.
For nearly a century, members of the Frissell family occupied a humble brick home on Monroe Street (now 14th), now one of the oldest extant structures in downtown Wheeling. Within the walls—both a residence and office—a small clinic was opened, and as late as the 1970s, medical instruments and supplies could still be found in the basement.  Instruments, such as those found in the 70s, are now part of the Diocese’s Frissell Collection.
A “a brilliant and highly respected Wheeling surgeon,” Dr. John Frissell, born in Peru, Massachusetts in 1810, was a graduate of Williams College and the Berkshire Medical School.
As a young man, he came to Wheeling in 1836. In 1850, he married Elizabeth Ann Thompson, of Moundsville. The two had three sons together: John (who died young); Charles (who also became a physician); and Walker.
Several years after arriving in Wheeling and establishing himself as a skilled surgeon, Dr. Frissell opened a small infirmary with Dr. Simon Hullihen. Soon growing out of the original infirmary, Frissell and Hullihen partnered with Bishop Richard V. Whelan to found what is now the oldest medical institution in West Virginia. The doors to the fledgling Wheeling Hospital opened on March 12, 1850.
With a growing population, demands on the once humble instutition for greater staff and larger space rapidly arose. When six Sisters of St. Joseph arrived from Missouri in April 1853, Wheeling Hosptial quickly grew, and by 1856, had expanded into a larger building in North Wheeling. Five years later, the Civil War exploded and it wasn’t long before Wheeling Hospital was drawn into the conflict.
Restored Virginia Governor Francis Pierpont appointed Dr. Frissell Medical Superintendant to care for the sick and wounded soldiers being brought to Wheeling Hospital as well as military prisoners housed at the Athenaeum, the Union prison located on the southeast corner of 16th and Market Streets in Wheeling. In March, 1864, 47 ill soldiers from the Athenaeum were transferred to Wheeling Hospital, and as superior Mother de Chantal observed, “were all prostrated with disease.”
During the bloody year of 1864, Union and Confederate wounded had to be sent farther from the front for care, and Wheeling on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, began receiving hundreds of soldiers. On July 26, 1864, some 200 invalids arrived unexpectedly and the entire building was commandeered. Soon Wheeling Hospital was designated a United States Army General Hospital. There, several of the survivors of Andersonville Prison were treated.
Following the war, Dr. Frissell resumed his role of chief surgeon at the hospital, where over the years he accomplished many surgical firsts in West Virginia. The first in the state of West Virginia to use chloroform for surgical purposes, he also lead the way in surgical procedures to treat club foot, harelip, strabismus, gall bladder stones and plastic procedures for eye enulceations. Dr. Frissell also served as physician for the Sisters of the Visitation at Mount de Chantal, the Sisters of St. Joseph at Wheeling Hospital and Orphan Asylum, and the St. Vincent Home for Girls, and was a charter member and first president of the West Virginia Medical Association.
Dr. John Frissell died peacefully on November 16, 1893 at his home on 14th Street at age 84. He is buried in Greenwood Cemetery, Wheeling.
Contents of the Frissell Collection
Medical Splints: The collection contains more than two dozen wooden splints, prosthesis and medical devices stenciled “A.M. Day Co. 1850 – Wheeling, VA” These splints likely represent an initial order of medical material upon the opening of Wheeling Hospital. The splints are believed to be made of maple wood and were created by The Dr. Absolom M. Day Co. in Bennington, Vermont. They are believed to have been machine cut and then smoothed, finished and stenciled by hand.
Double Incline Leg Splint: Used to treat simple or compound fractures of the leg not deemed necessary for amputation. Canvas straps would secure the leg to the incline, with an adjustable footrest.
Miss Greene Ear Trumpet: Civil War veterans often suffered from hearing loss as a result of the deafening cannon and musket fire of battle. The “Miss Greene Ear Trumpet,” ca. 1900, is identical to the style used by Civil War veterans following the war.
These artifacts and more from the Dr. John Frissell Collection can be viewed in the library’s tabletop display case near the parking lot entrance. On Tuesday, June 23 at noon, Margaret Brennan will present a Lunch With Books program on Wheeling Hospital during the Civil War.
This post was written from information provided and collected by Jon-Erik Gilot, Director of Archives at the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, Margaret Brennan, and Sean Duffy and Erin Rothenbuehler of the Ohio County Public Library Archives.
 “Dr. John Frissell House.” Survey (photographs, written historical and descriptive data, reduced copies of measured drawings), Historic American Buildings Survey, National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, 1977. From Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (HABS WVA,35-WHEEL,32-; accessed June 8, 2015). See pdf.
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