October 31, 2017

From the circus to the School of Medicine

James Tayloe Gwathmey, M.D., was a circus performer and Vanderbilt doctor who wrote popular books on both anesthesia and circus acrobatics

James Tayloe Gwathmey, center in the white shirt, was coach of the Vanderbilt Gymnasium Team in 1899, the year he graduated from the Vanderbilt School of Medicine.

If you made a list of all the unusual characters who have been associated with Vanderbilt University Medical Center, James Tayloe Gwathmey, M.D., would be on it. He might even have a star by his name.

Gwathmey was a leading anesthesiologist in the U.S. in the early 20th Century, and was arguably the first shining light on the national stage who graduated from the Vanderbilt School of Medicine. In his spare time, he was a circus acrobat. Gwathmey earned his medical degree in 1899, and in 1914, after practicing medicine for years in New York City, wrote Anesthesia, the first complete text on the subject to be published in the U.S., and for years the standard work in the specialty.

But it’s worth noting that Gwathmey was also the author of a standard work on acrobatics called Tumbling for Amateurs, and, before attending medical school, had actually dropped out of Virginia Military Institute to join a circus as part of a traveling acrobatic troupe.

It would be a pleasure to report at this point that some current Medical Center employees or graduates are also circus performers, but we appear to have no acrobats, freaks, bearded ladies or trapeze artists among us. Alas.