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His Life and Services

Abram Sager
The Michigan Alumnus 197-205

Abram Sager, A.M., M.D.: His Life and Services

By G. Carl Huber, 87m

(A paper read on
 “Founders’ Day”, February 22, 1902)

I deem it a privilege and pleasure 
to write of the life and services of 
Abram Sager, one of the founders
 of the Department of Medicine and
 Surgery of the University of Michigan. The story of his life has never 
been fully written. I have been able 
to find only brief obituary notices, and 
here and there still briefer laudatory
 sketches, setting forth his high at
tainments as scientist and teacher. 
 His writings, though not numerous, 
 show some phases of this remarkable 
man worthy of consideration, and 
give us an insight into his deep learn
ing and broad scholarship. From
 such insufficient data, I have gathered
 the facts to be presented. 

The department of medicine of the 
University of Michigan was organized
 and established in 1850, nearly eight 
years after Dr. Sager became connected with the University. Records 
show that he and Dr. Douglas played 
an important role in the organization 
and establishment of this department. 
It seems, therefore, eminently fitting
 that their participation in the founding 
of this department and their many
 years of cooperative service should 
form the subjects of our consideration. 
Drs. Sager and Douglas, with Dr.
 Zina Pitcher, who, during the early 
history of the University, was for
 many years a member of the Board of 
Regents, and was especially urgent in 
the matter of the establishment of the
 department of medicine, should, above
 all others, be honored as the founders 
of this department. 

The story of the life of Abram 
Sager is replete with interest and 
presents many instructive lessons. It
 was a life given up almost wholly to 
labor, and devoted to the well being
 of the profession, which he adorned. He himself has written: "From
 my professional baptism forward, for
 forty years, and in common with all 
true and loyal men in the profession, 
I have ever held that fealty to my 
profession was primary and paramount to all other considerations; 
and acceptance of the position in the 
University was mainly as a means of 
advancement of a cause to which my 
loyalty and affection were due."

Abram Sager was born at Bethle
hem, Albany County, New York, December 22, 1810. His father, Wil
liam Sager, was of Dutch descent, and
 settled as a farmer in the central part of New York at an early date, where 
he was married to Miss Hannah 
Brook. The subject of our sketch
 was the youngest of five children, two
 sisters and three brothers, and the 
only one to adopt a learned profes
sion, his brothers following the occu
pation of their father. The existing 
records give us no insight into his
 early life and schooling, and I have 
been unable to ascertain whether, at
 this period, he showed any fondness 
for natural history, a subject to which 
in later years he devoted so much atten
tion. In 1831 he was graduated from
 the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute at
 Troy, New York, in which institution 
he had spent two years as pupil and 
instructor. While at the Rensselaer 
institute, he was under the instruction 
of Professors Torrey and Eaton, men
 of note in the fields of botany and
 zoology. Their influence and guid
ance did much to direct his attention 
to these subjects. In this connection, 
 I may add that on the death of 
Professor Eaton, Dr. Sager was tendered the presidency of the Rensse
laer polytechnicum, but found it
 necessary to decline. 

Subsequent to his graduation he
 continued his studies at Albany, and
 later at New Haven, Conn., where his 
work was under the supervision of 
Professors Marsh and Ives, names
 well known to American science. 
 While at New Haven, he attended
 medical lectures, later at Albany, and
 still later at Castleton, Vermont; from
 this last medical school he was grad
uated in April, 1835. 

I regret that necessity compels me 
to speak thus briefly of the first 
twenty-five years of the life of this
 man, but the data at my disposal do
 not allow of more extended treat

After graduating in medicine, Dr.
 Sager came to Detroit, Michgan, and
 engaged in general practice. That 
this was not so extensive as to occupy 
all his time and command all his
 energy, we may learn from the fact 
that while in Detroit, no doubt 
separated from all stimuli to scientific
 research, away from laboratories, and
 without the inspiration of scien
tific literature, other than that which
 he himself may have possessed, we
 find him engaged in investigations, 
 the results of which were worthy of 
publication, and to his European co-
workers seemed worthy of translation. 
 After some years of residence in Detroit, how many I cannot say, during
 which period he was married to Miss
 Sarah Dwight (1838), he removed to 
Jackson, the home of the parents of 
Mrs. Sager. Here he remained until 
1842, at which time he entered on his 
work in the newly established Univer
sity of Michigan.

In the obituary notices which I was 
able to consult, brief mention is made 
of the fact that in 1837 Dr. Sager was 
appointed chief in charge of the bo
tanical and zoological departments of 
the Michigan state geological sur
vey. My attempt to verify this statement gave me the following informa
tion: —

In February 1837, Governor Mason 
approved an act for the organization of 
a geological survey of the state of 
Michigan. It provided for a geologi
cal, zoological, botanical, and topo
graphical survey. Under this act 
were appointed, among others, Doug
las Houghton, geologist, and Abram
 Sager, principal assistant in charge of 
the botanical and zoological depart
ments. In February 1838, Dr.
 Houghton presented his first annual
 report, which deals mainly with the 
topography of the state. In March 1838, the Governor approved a new 
act, reorganizing the survey and making more detailed provisions. In 
February 1839, appeared Dr. Houghton's second annual report, which 
contained a report on Zoology, en
titled, "A Systematic Catalogue of 
the Animals of the State, so far as 
Observed," signed "Abram Sager, 
 State Zoologist." In the senate docu
ments containing this report, I find a
 report on botany, signed ''John Wright, 
 Botanist of the Geological Survey."
 There seems no doubt that on the re-
organization of the state survey, as 
above-mentioned, Dr. Sager was re
lieved from the immediate charge of 
the botanical department. In March, 
1840, a house committee recommend
ed the repeal of that portion of the act
 establishing the geological survey, 
 which pertained to botany and zoology, which was carried, Prior to this 
time these two departments were sus
pended on account of the resignation
 of the officers in charge.

I cannot refrain from presenting the
 following certified statement found in 
the senate documents for 1838, and
 signed by Dr. Sager: "I hereby 
certify that I have received from Dr.
 Houghton, for the state of Michigan, 
 the sum of $524.12, and that the
 whole sum has been faithfully ex
pended for traveling expenses, while
 in the service of the state, and for 
other general purposes enumerated in 
the first item of the accompanying
 account, and also that no part of said 
sum has been applied in the shape of
 salary or otherwise for my private
 use." Let us hope that his salary, 
 while in this service of the state, was 
more lucrative than this statement
 would lead us to infer. 

As has been stated, Dr. Sager be
came a member of the faculty of the 
University of Michigan in 1842, as
suming the duties of professor of 
zoology and botany. This position 
he filled until 1850. During the 
greater portion of this period, he was 
associated with Dr. Douglas. It is no
 disparagement to their colleagues of 
this period to say that these two phy
sicians represented science and scien
tific thought at the then infant University, and the University as a whole
 might well honor them for putting its 
scientific activities on a firm founda
tion. We of the medical profession 
may well be proud of our achieve
ments during the century we have 
just completed, especially proud of 
those achievements which have advanced the science and art of medi
cine; let us not forget, however, that 
our influence on science has been
 still broader, and that the pages of
 scientific literature, at home and
 abroad, contain many notable obser
vations in pure science, penned by 
medical men, which the hand of Time 
will not efface. 

That Drs. Sager and Douglas were
 especially interested in the establish
ment of the Department of Medi
cine and Surgery has been stated. My endeavors to ascertain to what
 extent they were participants in this
 work have not been so fruitful as I
 should wish, as the earlier records of 
the University touching on this point, deal mainly with results, and not with
 the causes which engendered these 
results. In 1847, the Board of Regents 
appointed a committee, of which Dr. 
Zina Pitcher was chairman, whose
 duty it was to consider the expediency
 of organizing a medical department, 
 and also to ascertain the expense that
 would of necessity be incurred, should 
such a step be taken. The records 
speak of communications received
 from the faculty, and the appointment
 of this committee may have been in 
response to such communications. In
 January of 1848, Dr. Pitcher made a 
favorable report, which, did time per
mit, might well be given in full. I 
trust I may be pardoned for making 
the following extract, which, I venture to say, expressed Dr. Sager's 
sentiments: —"Without the establish
ment of a medical department, our
 professorship in zoology cannot ad
equately perform its functions. The
 human form, the highest in physical
 organization as well as in mental endowments, is made the standard to
 which comparative anatomists constantly refer.''

A further report touching on the or
ganization of a medical department
 was made to the Board of Regents in 
January 1849, by a committee con
sisting of three regents, with Drs. 
Sager and Douglas. This very full
 report, which deals with the subject
 of entrance requirements, length and
 character of the proposed course, and
 the requirements for graduation, is the
 only report seen to which the names
 of others than regents are added. 
 Mention is here made of a printed re
port received from the faculty; this I
 regret to say, has evaded my search. 
 The above mentioned report was adopt
ed by the Board of Regents; the erection
 of a medical building was determined 
upon, and Drs. Sager and Douglas
 were transferred to the medical
 school, the former as professor of the 
theory and practice of medicine, the
 latter as professor of materia medica. 
In July 1849, Dr. Moses Gunn was 
appointed professor of anatomy and
 surgery, and in January, 1850, J. 
Adams Allen was appointed profes
sor of pathology and physiology, and
 Dr. Samuel Denton, professor of the
 theory and practice of physic, where-
upon Dr. Sager was transferred to the 
professorship of obstetrics and diseases of women. In May 1850, the
 medical faculty organized, choosing
 Dr. Sager as their president. On the 
first Wednesday in October, this
 school was opened by an address by 
the president. 

Dr. Sager's connection with the
 Department of Medicine and Surgery
 covered a period of twenty-five years. 
He was thus in the University from
1842 to 1875, a faithful labor of 
thirty-three years. The late Profes
sor Ford, for many years his col
league, has stated that "Dr. Sager's 
wealth of learning and wide medical
 scholarship, and his eminent service
 in his department of instruction, did
 much to give character to the institu
tion and to qualify many to do work
 which has largely blessed humanity
 and reflected honor upon his Alma 
Mater." A brief statement of the 
numerous positions occupied by Dr.
 Sager, and so ably filled, while in the
 service of the University, will bear 
testimony to his wealth of learning
 and untiring industry. He was pro
fessor of zoology and botany from 
1842 to 1850; professor of obstetrics, 
 diseases of women and children, and 
professor of botany and zoology, 1850-
1854; professor of obstetrics, physiology, botany, and zoology, 1854-
1855; professor of obstetrics and 
physiology, 1855-1860; professor of
 obstetrics and diseases of women and
 children, from 1860 to 1875. Surely 
this was sufficient employment to 
occupy the energies of the most as
siduous of workers. And yet we find 
that before coming to the University, 
 and while in its service, he prepared 
an herbarium, which he gave to the 
University, and which is now known, 
 or should be known, as the Sager 
herbarium, containing about twelve
 hundred species and twelve thousand 
specimens; he collected and prepared
 many zoological preparations, the 
nucleus of the present University 
museum; he collected and prepared 
many specimens, illustrating com
parative neurology, embryology and
 craniology, at one time in the medical 
museum. A collection of parasites 
found in man and other vertebrates, was made by him; this formed the 
nucleus and represents the greater 
portion of the collection now in the 
pathological museum. Of the excellent collection of monstrosities now 
in the same museum, including human 
and other vertebrate forms, the greater 
portion, I am informed, date from
 Dr. Sager's time. I must add that, 
 while doing all this, he was a busy 
practitioner, and still found time to 
prosecute original investigations. 

It is stated that many of his students, 
 and it seems that the same might 
truthfully be said of some of his col
leagues, did not fully appreciate this
 man who was truly imbued with the 
scientific spirit. By some of his stu
dents his classroom lectures were not
 valued as they should have been. 
In his lectures, Dr. Sager gave testi
mony of his broad scholarship and
 wide reading, and we may readily
 comprehend the truth of the state
ment that now and then he was prone 
to dwell longer than necessary on de
tails, which may have been and no
 doubt were, irrelevant to the subject 
matter under discussion. I engaged 
in conversation, several years ago, with 
an old alumnus of the Department 
of Medicine and Surgery of the
 University. In our conversation 
I asked him to tell me some
thing of his old teachers. In 
speaking of Dr. Sager, he dwelt
 especially on a series of lectures, ex
tending through a period of about two
 weeks, in which his teacher spoke in
 great detail on observations he and 
others had made on the segmentation
 of frogs' eggs. He added: "At that
 time some of us did not see what 
that had to do with obstetrics and 
gynecology; but let me say,"he con
cluded, "those lectures, and many 
others which he delivered, gave us
 the only idea many of us had of what
 was going on in the animal world
 around us."

I dare say that, could the testimony
 of other pupils of Dr. Sager be obtained, we should find that the influ
ence of this quiet, modest man, has 
been like a benediction to them 
through their many years of labor. Truth, it matters not how gathered
 and how presented, will ever exert an 
influence for good. 

Time does not permit an extended
 consideration of the contributions to 
scientific and medical literature made
 by Dr. Sager, nor could I consider it
 just merely to refer to them by title. 
I have permitted myself, therefore, to
 give you gleanings from certain of his 
published articles, and shall refer the 
interested reader for a fuller account 
of them to the original sources. 

While in Detroit, in general prac
tice, he published an article on Am
erican amphibia, (American Jour. Sc. Vol xxxiv, 1839) which was trans
lated and republished in Isis, a Ger
man publication founded by Oken. In
 this article he treats of the generic
 value of the arrangement and location
 of teeth in amphibia, and describes 
more fully certain American salamanders, noting several new species. In
 the Proceedings of the Academy of Na
tural Sciences of Philadelphia, (Vol. viii, 1856 I find 
brief descriptions of three myriapoda. 
In a paper entitled "Notes and Obser
vations on Hirudenei observed in 
Michigan, (Peninsula Jour. Of Med. Vol. iv. 1857) he describes somewhat 
fully several species of the two genera,
 nephilis and clepsine, observed in the
 vicinity. Of sufficient interest to bear 
repetition, appeared tome the follow
ing statement found in the article: —
"The ova of both genera, but espe
cially of clepsine, afford to the young embryologist a fine opportunity of
 studying segmentation of the yolk, 
the gradual histogenetic transforma
tion and the final development of the organs, the stages of the process 
occupying three to four weeks.'' He
 tells us that in consequence of their
 transparency, these changes can be 
observed without the necessity of dif
ficult anatomical manipulations. In an
 article entitled, "Notes on the Anatomy of the Gymnopus Spiniferus," (Peninsular Jour. of med, Vol iii, 1856) 
he gives the records made while dis
secting this species of tortoise. This 
brief paper gives testimony of his wide knowledge of comparative an
atomy and of his acquaintance with
 scientific literature; numerous refer
ences are given and critically dis
cussed. Of the contributions seen, 
only one gives results of physiological 
experimentation. In this article, (Experiments on the Respiration of Various Gases. Mich. Univ. Med. Jour. Vol. 1, 1870) he
 records the observations made in a
 somewhat extended series of experiments carried on in the physiological
 laboratory, on the respiration of cold 
and warm blooded animals, when 
caused to inhale "exciting, indiffer
ent, and directly noxious gases."
 After detailing his experiments, he 
states that his results agree in the
 main with those obtained by Claude 
Bernard, although he questions the 
interpretation which this observer 
places on his results.

Dr. Sager's more strictly medical
 contributions are not numerous, al
though they might well be taken as 
examples worthy of emulation in their
 conciseness, clearness, and purity of

Time and space do not permit a 
consideration of his contributions to
 medical literature, (A Report on Obstetrics, read before the Mich.
 State Med. Soc, published in Ann Arbor, 1869. A
 case of simultaneous Intra-and Extra-uterine Preg
nancy. —Mich. Univ. Med. Jour. vol. 1.1870. A Case
 of Delivery by Caesarian Section. —Ibid. Vol. II. 
 1871. Spasms of the Urethra, —. Ibid. Vol. III, 
 nor could this publication be deemed a suitable me
dium for their discussion. His account
 of an operation of Caesarian section is
 of special interest since it shows that 
Dr. Sager was not only a scientist and 
teacher, but also a skillful surgeon.
In glancing through the volumes of 
the medical periodicals of the beginning of the last half century, I fre
quently met with translations and
 abstracts from foreign periodicals 
signed by Abram Sager. The subjects thus reviewed embraced nearly 
every department of medicine. There 
is an Arabic expression which says: 
 "Each foreign tongue equals a man"; 
 that is to say, if an individual knows
 three tongues, then he is worth three 
men knowing one tongue. That in 
his reading Doctor Sager was equal to
 three men is evident from his frequent
 references to foreign literature as well 
as from the reviews and abstracts 
above referred to. Reading was his
 delight and recreation. That he read
 critically we may learn from the fact 
that the margins of his books and 
monographs were full of queries and 

It is to be regretted that many of 
his researches, especially those bear
ing on comparative anatomy, were
 never published. That he left much 
unpublished work; I gather from
 statements made by one of his family. 
 For many years after his death, a 
large number of note books, filled with 
closely written pages and containing
 many drawings, were periodically 
taken from their silent resting place, 
 freed from the dust, which, like a
 shroud, enclothed them; after this 
they were allowed to await another 
resurrection. Now their abiding place
 is unknown. We are thus impover
ished by the fact that even he, who 
used the hours to such good purpose, 
 did not find time to complete all that 
he had undertaken. 

Dr. Sager was a member of the
 American Association for the Advancement of Science; of the Academy 
of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia; 
of the Academy of Sciences of New 
Orleans; of the Academy of Sciences 
of Chicago. He was one of the first
 of Michigan physicians to become a
 member of the American Medical
 Association; he was a member of the 
New York State Medical Society; of 
the Michigan State Medical Society, 
 and of the Obstetrical Society of Phil
adelphia. His modesty and retiring
 disposition were incompatible with
 his becoming a prominent factor in
 any of the societies of which he was 
a member. It is said, that when 
present at any such gathering, he was
 usually found occupying an incon
spicuous place in the rear of the room, 
few members becoming aware of his 
Dr. Sager was, however, not only 
an investigator and teacher, but also a
 most skillful practitioner. His wide 
reading, his scientifically trained mind
 and his cautious temperament, com
bined to make him a skillful diagnos
tician, and to give him versatility of 
resources in treatment. For many
 years he had a large general practice in Ann Arbor and vicinity, and many 
of the older residents speak reverently 
of his skill, and of his kindly manner
 with the sick. His learning and his 
ability as a diagnostician were recog
nized and appreciated by his professional brethren, who often sought his 
services in consultation and in these 
relations he was an exemplar of professional honor, devotion, fidelity and 
learning. One of his professional 
brethren writes as follows: —"Dr.
 Sager was, to those who enjoyed that 
privilege, a model consulting physician," who apparently did not deem 
such an occasion the opportunity for 
airing his erudition in a clinical lec
ture to a lay audience, nor that the 
interest of either attending physician
 or the patient need be injured in pro
tecting both." The esteem in which
 he was held by his fellow citizens is 
shown by the fact, that for many years 
he was a member of the board of edu
cation of this city, and for a number
 of years its president. During the
 last few years of his life, Dr. Sager
 was afflicted with pulmonary tubercu
losis. In 1873, he obtained leave of 
absence and spent the winter in Flor
ida and South Carolina, returning in 
the spring temporarily relieved, and
 looking forward to several years of
 active strife. These hopes were, how
ever, not realized. In 1874, by reason
 of illness, he found it necessary to lay 
aside the harness which he had worn 
so long, and to give up all attempts at

The regents conferred upon him the 
title of emeritus professor, and he re
mained as dean of the medical faculty
 until June 1875, when he felt obliged 
to sever all connection with the University. "He had recognized the 
character of his illness and was left
 without the hope of recovery, with
 which the unprofessional patient may
 beguile himself. Yet, while he awaited 
the inevitable encroachment of the
 disease in cheerful resignation, his 
characteristic industry in the study of 
general and medical science and liter
ature was exhibited to the last, and
 his interest in all that pertained to the 
good of the profession remained una
bated." (Dr. William F. Breakey) Renal disease with albuminuria de
veloped during the last years of his
 life, and his death, which occurred
 August 6, 1877, was precipitated by
 an attack of dysentery. 

It has just been stated that Dr. Sager 
felt compelled to sever all connection
 with the University in June 1875. This
 was owing to the fact that in that year 
a department of homeopathy was 
established in connection with the De
partment of Medicine and Surgery. It 
is not my purpose to condemn, nor to 
condone, his attitude toward this 
question which was freely discussed 
in lay and medical periodicals at that
 time, nor would this occasion seem 
fitting for a consideration of this 
chapter of University history. My 
brief allusions to the subject are 
prompted solely by a desire to place
 before the reader one phase of Dr.
 Sager's character, not generally men
tioned. His modesty and his gentle
ness toward all with whom he came in
 contact are worthy of commendation; 
that he was positive and self-assertive
 when his principles were at stake is, 
I believe, equally true. His letters 
bearing on this subject, published 
before and after his resignation, as 
well as his letter of resignation, which 
appeared in the Detroit Review of Med
icine (1875), give evidence of this 
fact. In the letter of resignation, he
 clearly and with dignity states his 
position; this is expressed in the fol
lowing paragraphs taken from the let
ter: —"I have ever held, that fealty to
 my profession was primary and para
mount to every other consideration"
 and again, "It becomes me to show 
that the question where my paramount 
allegiance is due is not controlled by
 dollars and cents, but rests upon much 
higher considerations."

Dr. Sager was unanimously elected
 president of the Michigan State Medical Society in 1876. The minutes of 
the May meeting in 1877, show that 
he was unable to perform this duty by 
reason of severe illness.
Such in brief was the life of the
 man, whose industry, scholarship, love
 of truth, and devotion to his profession
 we commemorate. The lessons of
 such a life are often taught, yet often 
unheeded. May I, in closing, ask 
attention specially to one of these 
lessons. That we of today have a 
science and art of healing, and not a
 mass of superstition, is owing to the 
persistent toil and patient labors of
 many men: men, who with test tube 
in hand, with the scalpel or with the
 microscope, with battery and induction 
coil, have spent many hours in search
ing after truth. The facts thus gath
ered form the foundation—the scien
tific basis—upon which has been built 
the art of healing. Many are the stones, 
 often gathered from distant and un
known quarries, which have found a
 useful place in this structure, seem
ingly nearing completion, but yet in 
process of erection, and never to be 
finished. The builder we are here
 considering, has shown us that build
ing material worthy of a place in this
 structure will be found about us, if we 
are but faithful in our search, it mat
ters not where our location, nor how 
unpromising the field; and that every 
quarry, though long in use, perhaps 
even abandoned, contains some stone, 
 which, when subjected to skillful 
treatment, will fill a niche awaiting its 
It has been my purpose to show
 that in every department engaging Dr.
 Sager's attention, he found time and 
means to extend the then known: —
and we must remember that as student 
he had not the training and opportu
nities at the disposal of the present, 
 and as teacher no equipped laborator
ies and no library facilities. "The
 fact that he accomplished so much 
under great difficulties, may cheer
 some of us in carrying our burdens, 
 which at times grow exceedingly 
heavy, and may lead some of our 
younger members to realize that it is 
the duty, as it should be the pleasure 
of every medical man, however limited 
his facilities may be, to add something 
to the sum of that knowledge which
 surpasses all others, in as much as it is
 utilized in the saving of human lives.''
 This quotation, so applicable here, is
 from a presidential address, delivered
 by Dr. Victor C. Vaughan, (Transact. Mich. State Med Soc., 1896) "On the 
Life and Services of William Beaumont," another of Michigan's pioneer 
scientists, whose great services in the
 development of physiological knowl
edge will ever be remembered.
May I in conclusion make use of 
the closing sentence of one who wrote 
briefly of Dr. Sager's life many years
 ago, one who was permitted to know 
him and who delights to honor him, 
—Dr. William F. Breakey. "His life
 teaches us that the success and fame
 most desired and enduring are achieved 
by straightforward, honest means, 
and by persistent effort; that devotion
to truth, to scientific research, to the 
development of rational medicine, with
out pretentiousness, without quackish
 art, with fidelity to obligations, brings 
its rewards in the esteem and com
mendation of professional brethren, 
 the confidence and honor of the public, 
 and the gratitude of patients."