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William Smith Ely


William Smith ElyWilliam Smith Ely, M.D. (1842-1911) was a physician practicing in Rochester, New York from 1867 until his death in 1911. The bulk of the collection contains photographs and memorabilia pertaining to Dr. Ely's service as a surgeon during the American Civil War. It is unknown when the collection was acquired. The boxed surgical instrument kit in the collection was donated by Dr. Ely's widow in September, 1929. It is unknown whether the other items came to the Library at this time, or at a later date. The Ely materials were re-processed in April, 1989. The collection is contained in three boxes occupying two linear feet.


William Smith Ely was born at Rochester, New York in 1842. He was one of twin sons born to William Watson Ely (1812-1879), a native of Fairfield, Connecticut and an 1834 medical graduate of Yale University. The elder Ely had migrated to Rochester circa 1840 following service as a military surgeon, and was one of the more esteemed members of the local medical community.

The younger Ely received his A.B. from the University of Rochester in 1861, and immediately began a medical preceptorship with his father. With less than a year's medical training, Ely enlisted as an assistant surgeon with the 108th Regiment of New York State Volunteers (1862). He served with the army hospital at Antietam in 1862-63; and in September 1863 was mustered out of the 108th to accept an appointment with the War Department. Until the war's end, Ely was attached to the U.S. General Hospital at Annapolis. Ely was mustered out of the Army with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

Upon completing his military service, Ely enrolled in the College of Physicians and Surgeons of New York, where he received his medical degree in March, 1867. Dr. Ely immediately returned to Rochester, where he joined his father in medical practice. Like his father, W.S. Ely was also one of Rochester's more highly esteemed physicians. He was to become a recognized authority on tubercular disorders; and throughout his career was closely associated with the development of the City Hospital (Rochester General Hospital).

In 1894 Dr. Ely married Helen Gamwell of Providence, Rhode Island. They had one son, William. W.S. Ely died at home of heart failure on January 15, 1911 while recuperating from a minor illness.

Organization of the Collection

The most important part of the Ely collection are the six mounted photographs taken of the field hospital at Antietam, and the fourteen mounted photographs taken of the U.S. General Hospital at Annapolis circa 1863-65. The nine large photographs of Annapolis were probably taken by A.H. Messinger (photographer's tag on verso of print 3/4). The photographer of the other prints is unknown. Other materials in the Ely collection include miscellaneous family documents (1694-1816); several documents pertaining to his father (box 1, folder 8); Civil War memorabilia; and newspaper obituaries.

A boxed surgical kit belonging to Dr. Ely has been removed to the Rare Books & Manuscripts Section's museum collection (l7.M.l0). This beautiful (and complete) set of cased instruments was presented to Dr. Ely by B.A. Vanderkieft, M.D., Ely's commander at Antietam and Annapolis. Dr. Vanderkieft died in Ely's Rochester home after an illness in 1866.

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