Dr. John Frissell
Founding Physician and Civil War Surgeon
A “a brilliant and highly respected Wheeling surgeon,”Dr. John Frissell was born in Peru, Massachusetts in 1810. He was a graduate of Williams College and the Berkshire Medical School. As a young man, he came to Wheeling in
1836. In 1850, he married Elizabeth Ann Thompson, of Moundsville. The two had three sons together: John (who died young); Charles (who also became a physician); and Walker. For nearly a century, members of the Frissell family occupied a humble brick home on Monroe Street (now 14th), now one of the oldest extant structures in downtown Wheeling. Within the walls—both a residence and office—a small clinic was opened.
Several years after arriving in Wheeling and establishing himself as a skilled surgeon, Dr. Frissell opened a small infirmary with Dr. Simon Hullihen. Soon growing out of the original infirmary, Frissell and Hullihen partnered with Bishop Richard V. Whelan to found what is now the oldest medical institution in West Virginia. The doors to the fledgling Wheeling Hospital opened on March 12, 1850.
With a growing population, demands on the once humble instutition for greater staff and larger space rapidly arose. When six Sisters of St. Joseph arrived from Missouri in April 1853, Wheeling Hosptial quickly grew, and by 1856, had expanded into a larger building in North Wheeling. Five years later, the Civil War exploded and it wasn’t long before Wheeling Hospital was drawn into the conflict.
Restored Virginia Governor Francis Pierpont appointed Dr. Frissell Medical Superintendent to care for the sick and wounded soldiers being brought to Wheeling Hospital as well as military prisoners housed at the Athenaeum, the Union prison located on the southeast corner of 16th and Market Streets in Wheeling. In March, 1864, 47 ill soldiers from the Athenaeum were transferred to Wheeling Hospital, and as superior Mother de Chantal observed, “were all prostrated with disease.”
During the bloody year of 1864, Union and Confederate wounded had to be sent farther from the front for care, and Wheeling on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, began receiving hundreds of soldiers. On July 26, 1864, some 200 invalids arrived unexpectedly and the entire building was commandeered. Soon Wheeling Hospital was designated a United States Army General Hospital. There, several of the survivors of Andersonville Prison were treated.
Following the war, Dr. Frissell resumed his role of chief surgeon at the hospital, where
over the years he accomplished many surgical firsts in West Virginia. The first in the state of West Virginia to use chloroform for surgical purposes, he also lead the way in surgical procedures to treat club foot, harelip, strabismus, gall bladder stones and plastic procedures for eye enulceations. Dr. Frissell also served as physician for the Sisters of the Visitation at Mount de Chantal, the Sisters of St. Joseph at Wheeling Hospital and Orphan Asylum, and the St. Vincent Home for Girls, and was a charter member and first president of the West Virginia Medical Association.
Dr. John Frissell died peacefully on November 16, 1893 at his home on 14th Street at age 84. He is buried in Greenwood Cemetery, Wheeling.
In June 2015, courtesy of the Archives of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, artifacts from the fascinating Dr. John Frissell Collection of Civil War era medical implements were on display for the first time anywhere at the Ohio County Public Library.