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The Life of JACOB BIGELOW

Jacob Bigelow was a polymath with expertise in medicine, botany, technology, and architecture. He served as a physician at Massachusetts General Hospital while teaching at Harvard, writing pioneering works on plants, and creating a new field of study that he called “the useful arts” (we know it as engineering). He also was a founding leader of Mount Auburn and designed several significant cemetery landmarks.

 

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A Portrait of Jacob Bigelow

This photograph was taken around 1860. From the Harvard University Portrait Collection The stereoscope image in the banner above shows a gathering at Bigelow Chapel at Mount Auburn. Bigelow designed the chapel. After his death, the Cemetery named it after him. From the Boston Public Library
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1787.02.07
Born in Sudbury, Massachusetts

Jacob Bigelow, Jr., was the son of Elizabeth and Jacob Bigelow, a Congregational minister and farmer. Young Jacob had an older brother, Henry, and a half sister, Elizabeth, from his father’s first marriage. A minister’s salary is meager, so the small farm was the primary source of the family’s income. The family’s financial situation may have been tough, but they were an affectionate unit—as their correspondence demonstrates. Reverend Bigelow, who served his congregation for four decades, was remembered by an acquaintance as “a large man with a large face, very pleasant and full of jokes.” Jacob Bigelow described his mother as “a most excellent and sensible lady.” –––––––––––––––– Reverend Bigelow’s parsonage and Sudbury Center around 1800 From “The History of Sudbury, Massachusetts: 1638–1889” by Alfred Sereno Hudson. Published by the Town of Sudbury, 1889 Letters written to big brother Henry Bigelow from his father, sister, and little brother Jacob in 1801; a letter written by Jacob’s mother in 1810 congratulating him on an academic prize. Letters from the Boston Medical Library in the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine
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1806.08.27
Graduates from Harvard College

Since Bigelow did not come from a wealthy family, he grew up, as he wrote, “attending a country school five or six months of the year.” He augmented his education by teaching himself Latin and inventing handy gadgets for the family farm like traps for catching rats and squirrels. When he was 13, he was sent to study with Reverend Samuel Kendall of Weston so that he would be “fit for college.” At the young age 15, Jacob Bigelow matriculated to Harvard. At Harvard, Bigelow founded a poetry journal, joined the Theological Society, and some social clubs. He was also a member of Phi Beta Kappa. “I have often looked back on my collegiate career as embracing a very happy portion of my life,” he later wrote. ______________________ Harvard campus, around 1828 From the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. Letter written by Harvard President Samuel Webber verifying that Bigelow had completed his studies and had “a respectable character for scholarship and propriety of conduct.” From the Boston Medical Library in the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine Program for 1806 Harvard commencement. Bigelow recited a poem at the event. From the Library of Congress
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1810.01.01
Receives M.D.

College graduates of Bigelow’s day “were mostly limited to the three then-called ‘learned professions,’ Divinity, Law, and Medicine,” he later wrote. Bigelow chose medicine. While attending medical school at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, Bigelow studied under Dr. Benjamin Smith Barton, who had an ardent interest in botany, particularly plants with medicinal benefits. Bigelow grew to share his mentor’s passion. ––––––––––––––––––– University of Pennsylvania, early 1800s The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library
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1810.06.06
Bigelow on procrastination

In this letter, addressed to an unknown “Mr. Aureus” (Mr. Gold), Bigelow claims that he is one of the many “who have yielded to the charms and enticements” of the “writhing siren” of procrastination. He blamed “the multitude of my avocations joined to the natural indolence of my disposition.” While Bigelow certainly did have a multitude of interests, it is hard to imagine him as lazy or indolent. ______________________________ Letter to Mr. Aureus, around 1810 Boston Medical Library in the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine
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1811.01.01
Begins Medical Career

After a less-than-successful year trying to get his own practice off the ground, Bigelow joined the practice of Dr. James Jackson (also buried at Mount Auburn)—a “most amiable and intelligent of men” in Bigelow’s estimation. The partnership flourished for decades. Bigelow eventually took over Jackson’s practice, and also succeeded Jackson as president of the Massachusetts Medical Society. Dr. Jackson was also a founder of Massachusetts General Hospital (incorporated in 1811 and opened in 1821). Bigelow served on the staff of the new hospital from 1836 to 1856, in addition to continuing his private practice. _______________________ Charles Bulfinch Building (still standing today), Massachusetts General Hospital, around 1821 From Massachusetts General Hospital Archives Illustration of Dr. James Jackson From the National Library of Medicine archives
Posted by Sarah M on 9/13/2017

1814.01.01
Publishes "Florula Bostoniensis," a book cataloging Boston-area plant life

"Florula Bostoniensis" was the standard manual of New England botany until the publication of Asa Gray’s "Manual of the Botany of the Northern United States" in 1848. (Asa Gray is also buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery.) Bigelow’s many contributions to the field include simplifying and clarifying the scientific names of many species. In recognition of his work, he received the ultimate honor in: a genus of flowering plants that bears his name. Bigelowia species are belong to the daisy family and are native to the United States. _____________________ Frontispiece of "Florula Bostoniensis" “Phleum pratense” (herd’s grass), an excerpt from "Florula Bostoniensis" Photo of Phleum pratense by JanetandPhil https://flic.kr/p/6Y9MvP Bigelowia nuttallii, or Nuttall's rayless goldenrod (a plant named after Bigelow) Image by Jeff McMillian, hosted by the USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database
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1815.01.01
Appointed professor at Harvard

Bigelow had actually been lecturing on botany at Harvard since 1812, but in 1815 assumed the role of professor of “materia medica”—the study of medicines or pharmaceuticals—at Harvard Medical School. He served in this post until 1855. From 1816 to 1846, the majority of Bigelow’s tenure, the school was known as the Massachusetts Medical College and was situated on Mason Street in Boston. The school moved two more times—next to Massachusetts General Hospital and then to Copley Square—before 1906, when it arrived at its current location in the Longwood area. ____________________________ A ticket to one of Bigelow's lectures From Harvard University archives Massachusetts Medical College on Mason Street, around 1824 Harvard University, Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine
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1816.12.11
Becomes Rumford Professor at Harvard

Bigelow was a lifelong tinkerer, with a keen interest in mechanics. As a young boy, he built rat and squirrel traps for his family’s farm. As a botanist, he generated detailed drawings of the inner workings of plants. When Harvard received funding for a professorship that would teach “the application of science to the useful arts,” Bigelow was the obvious choice. As Rumford Professor, a position he held from 1816 to 1827 (in addition to his responsibilities as a Medical School professor and practicing physician), Bigelow designed a curriculum that combined what we now call engineering, industrial design, and physics. He built his own models—miniature steam engines, windmills, factories, stoves, and printing presses—for in-class demonstrations. ____________________________ A copy of Bigelow oath promising to “advance the interests of general science literature” as Rumford Professor and a note tallying four years of Bigelow’s Harvard salary From the Boston Medical Library in the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine
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1817.01.01
Publishes first volume of "American Medical Botany"

The three-volume "American Medical Botany," published between 1817 and 1821, won Bigelow international acclaim. As the full title explained, the intent and scope was to present an in-depth study of “native medicinal plants of the United States, containing their botanical history and chemical analysis, and properties and uses in medicine, diet and the arts.” In addition to the invaluable scientific information, "American Medical Botany" was also the first book in the U.S. to be printed in color. Bigelow most of the 60 illustrations and invented a color aqua-tint process to reproduce them. This slideshow features some of the most colorful examples. ____________________________________________________ Reproductions of color plates from "American Medical Botany" Frontispiece of "American Medical Botany"
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1817.04.17
Weds Mary Scollay

Mary Scollay was the daughter of Catherine and Colonel William Scollay, a veteran of the American Revolution. In 1795, the colonel purchased a building at the corner of Cambridge and Court Streets. The neighborhood soon became known as “Scollay Square,” a name that lasted until the 1960s, when the city transformed the area into Government Center. Jacob and Mary Bigelow enjoyed a long marriage. In 1867, the couple celebrated their “golden anniversary” by receiving visitors at their Boston home. Notes from the occasion reveal that gifts included a dog and a pat of butter for the “golden breakfast.” __________________________________________________________ Letters congratulating Jacob and Mary Bigelow on their 50th anniversary From the Boston Medical Library in the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine The Scollay Building, around 1865 From the Bostonian Society Scollay Square, late 1800s From the Boston Public Library
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1818.03.11
Son Henry Jacob Bigelow is born

Henry Jacob was the first of five children born to Jacob and Mary Bigelow, followed by William in 1819, Mary in 1821, and twins Catherine and James in 1827. Tragically, William died before he was even one, and James only lived to be seven. The family lived on Summer Street, in what is now Downtown Crossing. Although the neighborhood is now a bustling commercial district, it was tranquil and residential in the Bigelows' day. Henry Jacob Bigelow’s biographer described the predominant feature of the neighborhood as “spreading elms and horse-chestnuts … embowering the yards of detached and spacious dwellings.” Private yards and quiet streets “afforded excellent play-grounds and abundant opportunities for enterprising and restless boys.” _____________________ Washington Street, Corner of Summer and Winter Streets, around 1822 From the Boston Pictorial Archive, Boston Public Library Summer Street, 1843 From the Boston Pictorial Archive, Boston Public Library
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1818.04.18
A letter from Thomas Jefferson

"American Medical Botany" made Bigelow an in-demand expert. He received botany-related inquiries and observations from scholars from around the world. In the spring of 1818, former president Thomas Jefferson, a man of many intellectual pursuits, wrote Bigelow, complimenting him for “the comparative statement of the climates of the several States, as deduced from observation on the flowering of trees in the same year.” Jefferson enclosed his own carefully detailed notes on the flowering trees of Virginia, “with the assurance of my high respect and esteem.” _____________________________________________ “Portrait of Thomas Jefferson” (1800) by Rembrandt Peale From the Boston Pictorial Archive, Boston Public Library Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Jacob Bigelow Library of Congress
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1820.12.15
The first “American Pharmacopeia” is published

In 1817, Dr. Lyman Spalding, cofounder of Dartmouth Medical School and an expert on infectious diseases, proposed the creation of a national, standard manual for the preparation and administering of medicines. He organized a series of regional and national conferences to develop the standards, and then asked Jacob Bigelow to help him produce the manual. Spalding knew Bigelow from their days at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, and felt that his knowledge of publishing and medical botany would be invaluable for the project. In just three years, “Pharmacopeia” was complete. It detailed nearly 300 drugs and was 263 pages. It would be revised every 10 years until 1970, when the gap between revisions was shortened to five years. Since 2002 it has been revised annually. The 2017 edition is four volumes and features nearly 5,000 drugs. ____________________________________ Shipping records for the distribution of “American Pharmacopeia” to retailers. From the Boston Medical Library in the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine Portrait of Dr. Lyman Spalding from “Dr. Lyman Spalding: Originator of the U.S. Pharmacopeia” (1916) by his grandson, Dr. James Alfred Spalding. Bigelow’s handwritten draft of the preface to “American Pharmacopeia.” From the Boston Medical Library in the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine
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1825.01.01
Introduces the idea that would become Mount Auburn Cemetery

Concerned that overcrowded urban burying grounds and cemeteries could pose a public health risk, Bigelow hosted a meeting “of a few gentlemen” at his Summer Street home to propose a bucolic, “rural cemetery.” His vision, as he later recalled in his “History of Mount Auburn” (1860), was a cemetery “composed of family burial lots, separated and interspersed with trees, shrubs, and flowers, in a wood or landscape garden.” This concept merged Bigelow’s expertise as a physician and botanist. His interests in engineering and architecture would also shape the cemetery, since Bigelow personally designed several Mount Auburn landmarks.
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1829.06.12
Massachusetts Horticultural Society founded, with Bigelow serving as corresponding secretary

The Massachusetts Horticultural Society played an important role in the founding of Mount Auburn Cemetery. The Society successfully negotiated authorization of the cemetery and purchased the parcel of real estate that would become Mount Auburn. The Society’s general, or president, Henry Dearborn designed the cemetery’s landscape. 1835, the cemetery incorporated as its own entity separate from Massachusetts Horticultural Society. Bigelow played a leadership role in many other Boston-area institutions, such as the Boston Athenaeum and Boston Society for Medical Improvement. He was invited to join such prestigious organizations as the American Philosophical Society and Franklin Institute, and also served as president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and was on Harvard University’s Board of Overseers. _____________ Massachusetts Horticultural Society logo Courtesy of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society Various notices of induction into societies and organizations From the Boston Medical Library in the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine
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1829.07.09
Publishes "Elements of Technology," a collection of lectures

After ending his tenure as Harvard’s Rumford Professor in “Useful Arts” in 1827, Bigelow compiled his lectures into this book. Bigelow was optimistic about the possibilities of the Industrial Age and believed that a practical education combining mechanics, “chemistry, mineralogy, engineering, architecture, domestic economy, and fine arts” would benefit the next generation of Americans. The book is also notable for its contemporary use of the term, “technology,” which Bigelow revived “from older dictionaries.” For him, the word represented “the principles, processes, and nomenclatures of the more conspicuous arts, particularly those which involve applications of science, and which may be considered useful” for society. _____________ Frontispiece comparing the scale famous buildings, title page, and excerpts from "Elements of Technology" (1835)
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1832.02.01
Promotes temperance

Bigelow is one of 75 physicians lending their names to a broadside condemning alcohol. As the text admonishes, “men in health are never benefitted by the use of ardent spirits … the use of them is a frequent cause of disease and death.” _____________ Broadside from the Boston Society for the Promotion of Temperance Library of Congress
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1835.05.27
Delivers “Discourse on Self-Limited Diseases”

In an impassioned lecture at the annual meeting of the Massachusetts Medical Society, Bigelow criticized extreme, or “heroic,” medical practices like administering large doses of drugs or bloodletting. He argued that many diseases cure themselves if left alone. The lecture was later published as a book. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., the esteemed physician, professor, and writer (also buried at Mount Auburn) praised “Discourse,” calling it Bigelow's chief contribution to the field of medicine. _________ Title page of published copy of “Discourse on Self-Limited Diseases” (1835), with an inscription by Bigelow Daguerreotype portrait of Wendell Holmes, Sr. (1853) by Josiah Johnson Hawes From the Harvard University Library
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1844.01.01
Henry Jacob Bigelow follows in his father's footsteps

Jacob Bigelow’s only surviving son chose to become physician, earning his M.D. from Harvard University in his early twenties. Henry Jacob went onto become a prominent surgeon and an important early champion of anesthesia. The Gray/Bigelow Building at Massachusetts General Hospital is named after him. Henry Jacob’s own son, William Sturgis Bigelow, continued the family tradition by becoming a surgeon. He was also fascinated by Japanese culture. He converted to Buddhism and was an avid collector of Japanese art, eventually donating 40,000 objects to the Museum of Fine Arts. _____________________________________ Henry Jacob Bigelow, around 1854 From the Harvard Art Museum/Fogg Museum on loan from the Massachusetts General Hospital Archives and Special Collections Three generations of Bigelows: Jacob (left), his son Henry Jacob (right) and Henry Jacob’s son, William Sturgis. Grandfather, son, and grandson are all buried at Mount Auburn HUP Bigelow, Jacob (2), olvwork531941. Harvard University Archives Letter from 19-year-old William Sturgis Bigelow to his grandfather, describing a trip to Switzerland. From the Boston Medical Library in the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine Henry Jacob Bigelow, around 1872 From Wellcome Trust Limited
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1845.01.01
Becomes second president of Mount Auburn

Since Bigelow came up with the idea for Mount Auburn, tirelessly fought for its creation, and led its development, he was the natural choice to succeed the cemetery’s first president, Judge Joseph Story. In fact, by 1845 Bigelow had already designed the Cemetery’s distinctive Egyptian Revival front gate. Upon becoming president, Bigelow designed and oversaw the construction of two more landmarks: Bigelow Chapel (originally built in 1846 and rebuilt in the 1850s) and Washington Tower (built between 1852 and 1854), the observation tower at the center of the Cemetery. _____________________ Stereoscope views of Mount Auburn Cemetery front gate and Bigelow Chapel From the Boston Public Library Drawing of Washington Tower From “A History of Mount Auburn Cemetery” (1860) by Jacob Bigelow
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1850.05.13
Daughter Catherine Marries an Up-and-Coming Writer

Three of Jacob and Mary Bigelow’s children lived to adulthood: Henry Jacob, Mary Anna (1821–1910), who is buried with her parents at Mount Auburn; and Catherine (1827–1858). Catherine was wed to historian Francis Parkman. When they first met, Parkman (1823–1893) was recovering from an illness. He said later, “looking for peace and rest, I found happiness.” The dashing young historian was working on “History of the Conspiracy of Pontiac” (1851), a sweeping survey of Native American conflicts during the colonial era. He had already published the wildly popular “The Oregon Trail; Sketches of Prairie and Rocky-Mountain Life” (1849), an account of his youthful adventures in the West. The young couple soon became parents. Daughter Grace was born in 1851 and son Francis in 1854. Then, tragedy struck. Little Francis died in 1857 at the age of three. He soon was followed by his mother, who died in 1858 after giving birth to her namesake daughter, Katherine. Parkman was heartbroken, plunging into a long depression. When he emerged, he wrote his masterwork, a seven-volume series known collectively as “France and England in North America.” He was also a devoted father to Grace and Katherine, who both grew up to have families of their own. Parkman never remarried. ________________________________ Catherine Bigelow Parkman and her daughter, Grace. The carte de visite by John Adams Whipple was taken around 1855. Massachusetts Historical Society An illustration that accompanied the serial publication of Parkman’s “Oregon Trail” in “Knickerbocker Magazine,” between 1847 and 1849. The magazine misleadingly added “California” to the title. Massachusetts Historical Society Francis Parkman, around 1861. A carte de visite by Black and Batchelder. Massachusetts Historical Society The Parkman House at 5 Bowdoin Square in Boston Massachusetts Historical Society Sisters Grace (left) and Katherine Parkman, around 1866 or 1867. A carte de visite by John Adams Whipple. Massachusetts Historical Society Francis Parkman in his later years, an illustration from “Harper’s Weekly,” v. 37, 1893. Library of Congress
Posted by Sarah M on 9/21/2017

1855.01.01
Publishes "Eolopoesis"

Bigelow showed his lighter side with "Eolopoesis, American Rejected Addresses," a humorous book that parodied Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, William Cullen Bryant, and other popular poets of the day. ____________________________________ “Address to a Bookworm,” a poem from "Eolopoesis, American Rejected Addresses" (1855) by Jacob Bigelow
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1860.01.01
Publishes “A History of the Cemetery of Mount Auburn”

Bigelow traced the first 35 years of the Cemetery’s history, from the initial meeting that he hosted in 1825 through the cemetery’s consecration in 1831 and its ongoing growth and development. “Having been a witness and an agent in most of the movements which have taken place in regard to Mount Auburn Cemetery from its commencement to the present time, I have felt it a duty to leave on record some account of the more noticeable occurrences connected with the inception, progress, and management of the first enterprise of its kind in the United States.” _____________________ Illustrations from “A History of the Cemetery of Mount Auburn” (1860)
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1862.01.01
Runs for Office

In his one foray into politics, Bigelow ran for Massachusetts State Senator on the pro-Union, anti-Confederacy Republican ticket. He lost. ________________ Election ticket Library of Congress
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1865.11.16
Gives a memorable speech at MIT

Bigelow was among the Boston-area leaders who helped found the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—not surprising, given his interest in technology and practical education. His name is listed as a “member” of the institution in some of its founding documents. During its very first semester of classes, Bigelow delivered a speech at MIT entitled “An Address on the Limits of Education.” He marveled at the pace of industrialization, or technology, believing that it enables “certain intellectual and practical improvements of mankind, in supplying the wants, overcoming the difficulties and increasing the elegances of life.” ___________________ MIT seal MIT Archives MIT's early years, when the university was located in Boston: the Rogers Building, its exact location in Back Bay, and a metallurgy lab. MIT Archives
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1871.01.01
Translates “Mother Goose” into Latin and Greek

Although Bigelow continually advocated the advantages of a practical education over a traditional, classical education, he still loved Greek and Latin. In his later years, he had great fun translating “Mother Goose” poems into classic languages. __________________________ “Jack and Jill” from "The Classical Mother Goose" (1871) by Jacob Bigelow
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1872.01.01
A last contribution to Mount Auburn

In March 1865, Bigelow first proposed that the Cemetery commission “a public monument in memory of the heroes who have fallen in the present war for the preservation of the Union.” He commissioned the Irish-born sculptor, Martin Milmore, to create a granite sphinx, which represents the strength of the lion and the beauty and benignity of woman.  Approved by the trustees in 1871, the sphinx was moved to its location in front of Bigelow Chapel in 1872. Sadly, Dr. Bigelow never actually saw the monument in place. By 1872, cataracts had ruined his eyesight. He was led to the site to feel his monument. __________________________ The inscription on the sphinx, written in Latin and English, reads “American Union Preserved; African Slavery Destroyed; By the Uprising of a Great People; By the Blood of Fallen Heroes.” From the Library of Congress As he stressed in two-page letter to the cemetery’s trustees, Bigelow refused to have his name inscribed on the sphinx—although he doesn’t specify why. From the Boston Medical Library in the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine
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1879.01.01
Dies in Boston

The Latin inscription on Bigelow’s monument describes his devotion to Mount Auburn Cemetery, concluding that “his bones should be placed under this marble at last with peace, faith and hope.” Mary Bigelow, who died in 1882, is buried with her husband. In recognition of Bigelow’s enormous contributions to the cemetery, Mount Auburn’s trustees sent a letter to his family saying: “We recognize the loss of one with whom originated the idea of our Cemetery as a place of repose for the departed far removed from the city noise and turmoil, amid trees and flowers and the beauties of nature.” ______________________ Obituary from an unknown source From the Boston Medical Library in the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine Letter from Mount Auburn trustees to Bigelow’s family From the Boston Medical Library in the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine
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