Edward Charles Spitzka, M.D. (1852-1913)
Edward Spitzka was an eminent neurologist and anatomist during the late nineteenth century in the United States. He was a major witness for the defense in the trial of Charles Guiteau, the assassin of President James A. Garfield in 1881.
Spitzka was born in New York City, the son of a watchmaker who emigrated from Germany. He was educated in the New York public schools, studied at City College, and received his medical degree in 1873 from the University of the City of New York. From 1873 to 1876, he studied medicine, history, and philosophy in Europe, first in Leipzig, Germany then in Vienna, Austria. In Vienna, Spitzka studied under Theodor Meynert, a leading anatomist and psychiatrist, and assistant to the holder of the chair of embryology.
Spitzka returned to New York to establish his medical practice in neurology. Soon after, he founded the New York Neurologic Association (president, 1883-1884) and he joined the recently established American Neurological Association (president, 1890). He was a professor of Comparative Anatomy at the Columbia Veterinary College, and professor of Nervous and Mental Disease and Medical Jurisprudence at the New York Post Graduate Medical College (1882-1887). He was a founder of the American Anthropometric Society.
After his return from Europe, Spitzka began to collect neurologic, pathologic, and comparative anatomical materials from asylums for the insane. His investigations led to the discovery of the inter-optic lobes of the iguana, post-optic lobes of birds and mammals, the auditory tract in cetacean, and a new tract in the human spinal cord. His work led to the award of the Hammond Prize of the American Neurologic Association in 1876, and the Tuke Prize of the British Medico-Psychological Association in 1878 for his essay titled, “The Somatic Etiology of Insanity.” He published over 200 papers on vertebrate brain anatomy, comparative anatomy, neurology, and psychiatry. His textbook titled Insanity, its Classification, Diagnosis and Treatment published in 1883 (second edition in 1887) received wide use as a textbook and in medical-legal issues. He wrote in the Preface to the second edition of Insanity that “the province of the physician in medico-legal cases was to be an advisor and not an advocate,” and that insanity applied to “certain results of brain disease …. was due to many different morbid conditions which involve the organ of the mind.”
Spitzka’s reputation in neurology and psychiatry led to his selection as a key witness for the defense in the trial of Guiteau, the assassin of President Garfield. He had examined the accused and considered him insane. His opinion was opposed by Dr. John P. Gray, the chief witness for the prosecution. Dr. Gray was then the superintendent of the Utica State Hospital in New York and a leading forensic psychiatrist. Gray maintained that Guiteau was sane. Public opinion in the United States clamored for Guiteau’s execution. The jury found him sane and guilty, and he was hanged. Later, psychiatrics’ opinion agreed with Spitzka that Guiteau was insane.
Spitzka was concerned with the care of patients in American asylums. The neurologists, especially in New York, voiced their differences with the mental hospital superintendents and their professional organization, the Association of Medical Superintendents of American Institutions of the Insane. Spitzka was an active advocate for the short-lived National Association for the Protection of the Insane and Prevention of Insanity in the 1880s.
Spitzka developed necrosis of the jaw soon after 1900. He died in 1913 of apoplexy. An obituary in the New York Medical Journal, written by Dr. N.E. Brill, described the high regard for Spitzka held by his colleagues for his brilliance, creativity, and productivity despite his over powering personality. Dr. C.L. Dana, in his Hughling Jackson lecture in 1928, called Spitzka “a red-headed, hot-headed man … finely trained … very scornful of American work, violently antagonistic to [the level] of care of the insane. His critical attitude was of benefit to American neurology.”
Spitzka’s son, Edward Anthony, became an anatomist and was appointed to the chair of Anatomy and Embryology at the Jefferson University Medical School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Spitzka, Edward C. Insanity, its Classification, Diagnosis and Treatment: A Manuel for Students and Practitioners of Medicine. New York: Bermingham & Co., 1883. Second edition, 1887.
Spitzka, Edward C. “The Legal Disabilities of Natural Children Justified Biologically and Historically,” The Alienist and Neurologist (1899-1902).
Spitzka, Edward C. “Mental Disease, Forensic Medicine,” The Medical Critic (1902).
Spitzka, Edward C. “Political Assassins: Are They All Insane?” The Journal of Mental Pathology 2(2) (1902): 69-82 and 2(3) (1902): 121-139.
Brill, Nathan Edwin. “In Memoriam Dr. Charles Edward Spitzka,” New York Medical Journal 99 (May 9, 1914): 935-937.
Dana, Charles L. “Early Neurology in the United States,” Journal of the American Medical Association 90(18) (1928): 1421-1424.
Denny-Brown, Derek, ed., et al. Centennial Anniversary Volume of the American Neurologic Association, 1875-1975. New York: Springer, 1975.
Rosenberg, Charles E. The Trial of the Assassin Guiteau: Psychiatry and Law in the Gilded Age. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1968.
Garraty, John A., and Mark C. Carnes, eds. American National Biography. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1999.
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