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The story of the New England Journal of Medicine

by Nancy Ryerson, Staff Writer | January 01, 2013
From the January 2013 issue of HealthCare Business News magazine

The story of the New England Journal of Medicine

It’s hard to imagine that the New England Journal of Medicine was once purchased for $1. The oldest continuously published medical periodical, the prestigious journal celebrates its 201st birthday on January 17, 2013. Since its founding in 1812, the journal has published a wide array of influential and groundbreaking articles, from early anesthesia to today’s latest cancer treatments.

The NEJM was a relative latecomer to the medical publishing scene in the northeastern United States; medical journals had already cropped up in New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore. The journal was introduced as the New England Journal of Medicine and Surgery and Collateral Branches of Sciences – not a particularly catchy name – by a Boston physician named John Collins Warren in 1812. Its first issue included reviews of general progress in the sciences, essays on clinical problems and an account of an attempt to decipher a secret French remedy for gout. In 1828, it merged with the Boston Medical Intelligencer, after that magazine ran into financial troubles just five years after its launch. Together, they formed the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal.
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A boom in medical journals, many of them short-lived, took place over the next half century. In an 1879 issue of BMSJ, Surgeon General John Shaw Billings commented, “It is as useless to advise a man not to start a new journal as it is to advise him not to commit suicide.” Many prominent journals struggled and folded during the Civil War era, and even the BMSJ asked readers for financial support. It managed to stay afloat and was published weekly for almost 100 years, until the Massachusetts Medical Society purchased it for $1 in 1921. In 1928, it was renamed the New England Journal of Medicine. The journal’s logo represents the founding of its previous incarnations with the dates those publications began.

Notable articles cropped up early in the journal’s history. In 1846, it chronicled the first public demonstration of ether anesthesia. According to the article, it was first performed at a hospital using an agent created by a Boston dentist, Dr. Morton [for more on Morton, read December 2008’s This Month in Medical History ]. At first, patients who were put under retained some consciousness, but soon patients reported complete oblivion during the operation. After speaking with a woman who had a tumor removed while “insensible,” the writer notes: “No doubt, I think, existed, in the minds of those who saw this operation, that the unconsciousness was real; nor could the imagination be accused of any share in the production of these remarkable phenomena.”

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