Finding Aid
William S. Forbes
1831 - 1905
(Art/Photo Collection, AP-026)

William S. Forbes Collection
1790 - 1969
3 linear ft. (6 boxes, 1 bound volume)

Biographical Note
William S. Forbes (1831-1905) was born in 1831 at Falmouth, Virginia. He attended Fredericksburg Academy and Concord Academy during his early life. He began his study of medicine under the direction of Dr. George Carmichael. In 1850/51 he attended lectures at the University of Virginia. In November 1851 he moved to Philadelphia and entered Jefferson Medical College. He graduated from Jefferson in 1852 and soon after attended lectures in medicine, surgery, and diseases of the chest at Pennsylvania Hospital. He also attended E. Parrish’s School of Practical Pharmacy. He became Resident Physician at Pennsylvania Hospital in 1853 and served until March 1855. In 1854/55 he attended lectures in anatomy at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1855 Forbes was certified as a physician by the British Consulate and offered his services as an American Volunteer Surgeon to the British Army during the Crimean War. During his service he met and served with Florence Nightingale, who gave him her instrument kit in memory of their association. Before returning to Philadelphia after the close of his service in 1856, Forbes took a course in surgery and anatomy in Paris.

Forbes began his medical career in Philadelphia in 1857 when he open the College Avenue Anatomical School. Serving primarily dental students, the school closed 1871. In 1859 he married Celanire Bernoudi Sims, commonly called Cellie. He life was soon complicated by the Civil War. Even though he was a southerner and his brothers sided with the south, he chose to support the north and in 1862 the War Department appointed him Surgeon of Volunteers. Forbes also served as Medical Director of the Thirteenth Army under General Grant. He resigned in 1863 and returned to Philadelphia where he received his MD from the University of Pennsylvania in March 1866.

In 1867 Forbes was instrumental in obtaining the passage of the Anatomical Act, which regulated the attainment of bodies for anatomic dissection. However, the law was ineffective and limited to only Philadelphia and Allegheny Counties. In 1879 he was appointed Demonstrator of Anatomy at Jefferson with the responsibility of obtaining bodies for dissection. In 1882 Forbes was arrested and charged with conspiracy to despoil graves, but was acquitted of the charges in 1883. As a result of Forbes trial and the subsequent publicity, in 1883 a new Anatomical Act was passed. This Act required that coroners turn over all unclaimed bodies to a state-wide board that would distribute the bodies equally among the medical institutions.

In 1886 Forbes was appointed Professor of Anatomy at Jefferson. The following year he was appointed to conduct the general surgical clinic in addition to his duties in anatomy. While he retired as Professor of Anatomy in 1894, Forbes continued to teach five clinics yearly. In addition, he became honorary president of the student organized W.S. Forbes Anatomical Society. In 1905 the Medical Alumni of the University of Pennsylvania presented Forbes with a loving cup in recognition of his achievements in medical science. The same year, members of Jefferson’s classes of 1905-1908 commissioned Thomas Eakins to paint a portrait of Forbes, which was presented at the 1905 commencement. Forbes died six months later on 17 December 1905, after suffering from successive attacks of angina pectoris and only five days after delivering his last lecture to Jefferson students.

Scope and Contents
This collection contains materials by or about William S. Forbes and numerous members of his family including his grandparents, Francis and Sally (Innes) Thorton; his parents, Murray and Sally Forbes; his siblings, Alfred, Kate, David, and Elizabeth; and his wife, Cellie from 1790-1969. The materials include correspondence (1792-1936) of William S. Forbes, his grandparents, parents, siblings, children, wife, and various other relatives. The correspondence details Forbes' early life in Philadelphia while in school and working, his experiences during both the Civil War and the Crimean War, his appointments by Jefferson Medical College as Demonstrator of Anatomy and Professor of Anatomy, and his arrest and acquittal of grave robbing charges. The collection contains Forbes’ notebooks (1850-1851) while a student at the University of Virginia and his matriculation cards (1851-1855) from the University of Pennsylvania and Jefferson Medical College. The collection contains his medical manuscripts (1860-1898) and a few of his lectures and presentations. The materials also include member lists and bylaws of the W.S. Forbes Anatomical League (1895-1905). Also contained in the collection are various financial, legal, and business documents (1789-1891) of a number of Forbes relatives. The collection contains newspaper clippings (1800-1906) that discuss the trial of Forbes and his death. Also contained in the collection are genealogical and biographical material of Forbes and his family.

Organization and Arrangement

  1. Correspondence (1792-1936)
    Arranged in alphabetical order by name of receiver or sender

  2. Education (1850-1856)
    Arranged in chronological order

  3. Military Service (1855-1863)
    Arranged in chronological order

  4. Medical Career (1855-1886)
    Arranged in chronological order

  5. Lectures and Presentations (1902-1905)
    Arranged in chronological order

  6. Manuscripts (1860-1898)
    Arranged in chronological order

  7. Forbes Anatomical League (1895-1905)
    Arranged in chronological order

  8. Religion (1868-1875)

  9. Financial Documents (1789-1887)
    Arranged in chronological order

  10. Legal and Business Documents (1790-1891)
    Arranged in chronological order

View and print the full finding aid (including box and folder list) in PDF format (88KB)

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