An image from a 1915 book coauthored by Chevalier Jackson, titled "Peroral Endoscopy and Laryngeal Surgery." (University of California Libraries via Wikipedia)

💡 Get Philly smart 💡
with BP’s free daily newsletter

Read the news of the day in less than 10 minutes — not that we’re counting.

Chevalier Jackson was a groundbreaking medical scientist in early 20th century Philadelphia who helped pioneer new techniques in surgery and cancer diagnosis.

He was also an avid collector — to the point that he was sometimes called a “fetishist.”

Let’s explore with a headline from The Inquirer in 1930: “Temple to Provide Cancer Laboratory.”

By the time of this article, Jackson was already a medical luminary.

But let’s go back to his beginnings in Pittsburgh…

A bookish child from a family that had little money, Jackson learned woodworking to put himself through college.

He did his medical training in Philadelphia, graduating from Jefferson Medical College (now Jefferson University) in 1886. And he spent much of his professional life here.

Jackson’s field was laryngology, a field dedicated to diseases of the larynx. And within that field, he focused on foreign-object removal.

Back then it was *really* hard for doctors to find and remove swallowed objects. Children, for instance, could suffer lifelong consequences from a simple mistake.

Surgery was risky. And the instruments used to locate objects lacked much-needed refinement.

Chevalier Jackson invented or improved several devices used for endoscopies.

He helped modernize the bronchoscope, an instrument inserted into a patient’s airways to help doctors poke around.

And instead of relying on outside lights for illumination, Jackson attached a small light to his probing instrument so he could better see into patient passageways.

Our article is about the expansion of his work into oncology. Temple gave Jackson a lab to experiment with bronchoscopes as a tool for early cancer detection.

He was an insanely prolific scientist, but he’s remembered today for more than just his medical expertise.

Jackson, you see, was a collector — a collector of the things that he removed.

The doctor kept a carefully cataloged collection of 2,000+ inhaled or swallowed objects that he removed from his patients over his career.

More than 80% came from children under the age of 15.

Jackson’s extractions included nails, safety pins, fake teeth, and even a “perfect attendance” pin.

Today, the collection is held by the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia.

As Jackson biographer Mary Cappello told the New York Times, Jackson’s collection was a manifestation of obsession.

“He was a fetishist, no question,” she said, noting that some painted him as a “socially phobic, friendless loner.”

But Jackson’s compulsion also saved lives…driving him to create safer surgical procedures that reduced the risk of pain or deadly infection.

“That’s kind of amazing,” said Capello, “and lucky for us that his madness made possible forms of rescue.”

Originally tweeted by Avi Wolfman-Arent (@Avi_WA) on March 23, 2023.

Avatar photo

Avi Wolfman-Arent

Avi Wolfman-Arent is co-host of Studio 2 and a broadcast anchor on 90.9 FM. He was previously an education reporter with WHYY, where he's worked since 2014. Prior to that he covered nonprofits for the...