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Schmidt, Louis E. (Louis Ernst), 1869-1957



  • Existence: 1869-1957


Louis Ernst Schmidt was born in Chicago January 18, 1869. His father, Ernst Schmidt, a Union Army surgeon, was Cook County’s first elected coroner and a friend of Joseph Medill, founding editor of the Chicago Tribune. Schmidt received his Ph.G from the Chicago College of Pharmacy in 1889 and his BS from the University of Michigan in 1892. He earned concurrent MS and MD degrees from Northwestern in 1895. He went on to study medicine in Vienna, Breslau, Berlin, Paris and London from 1896 to 1898.

Schmidt had a distinguished career as medical educator and surgeon. He specialized in dermatology and later in urology, uro-genital surgery and venereology and was an attending physician in urology at many Chicago hospitals over the years. His contributions to medicine and Northwestern University were numerous and vast. He was an instructor at Northwestern in clinical dermatology and syphilogy from 1898 to 1902 and in genito-urinary surgery from 1902 to 1939, serving as head of the department of urology from 1916 to 1939. Schmidt is often referred to as “the father of urology,” conducting his practice as a training ground for urologists. He held a professorship at Northwestern in urology from 1939 until moving to emeritus status in 1946. Schmidt contributed his personal stock of radium, worth $175,000, to Northwestern in 1935 and gave an estimated $100,000 to the Illinois Social Hygiene League to fight venereal disease. Because of his expertise in fighting venereal disease Schmidt held many local civic appointments, including Chicago Vice Commission 1910, and director of VD Control for the Chicago Department of Health from 1923 to 1928. A tireless fighter against VD and for affordable medical care, Schmidt advocated the free and open discussion of venereal disease as the only way to stem what was at that time an epidemic. He was instrumental in the formation and passing of the Illinois marriage laws requiring the tests for venereal disease.

Schmidt is best known as the center of a stormy controversy involving the Illinois Social Hygiene League. Since 1922 Schmidt had served as president of the League, an organization of physicians and local philanthropists dedicated to the fight against venereal disease, which counted among its board members Jane Addams. At this time, the subject of venereal disease was taboo conversation even among doctors. The ISHL ran a low-cost/free clinic for the treatment of VD and other ailments, eventually spinning off the separate Public Health Institute to take over the clinical part of its mission. The ISHL contributed $1,000 per month to the operating expenses of the PHI. The PHI ran a similar low-cost clinic and was supported by pro bono work by local physicians and philanthropists. It listed Marshal Field III, Harold McCormick, A. B. Dick and John Pirie on its board. In order to publicize the existence of low cost treatment of VD and other ailments and to combat the prevailing “conspiracy of silence,” the PHI advertised its existence and services via posters and in the press.

The trouble began in 1928 when the American Medical Association was struggling to rid the profession of quack doctors who used advertising to promote their false claims. The Chicago Medical Society and the AMA attacked Schmidt on the grounds that he was connected to the PHI which advertised, even though Schmidt was only directly connected to the ISHL. Schmidt was “tried” by the Judicial Council of the AMA for “unethical conduct” and was expelled from the Chicago Medical Society in 1930.  The expulsion automatically disqualified him from membership in the AMA and the Illinois Medical Society. Dr. Herman Bundesen, chairman of the Chicago Board of Health resigned in protest. The controversy was highly publicized in national and local papers, generating many letters of support for Schmidt from members of the medical profession and the general public.

From today’s vantage point it appears that Schmidt may have been censured more on the basis of  his advocacy and delivery of low cost and free medical care to the poor and publicizing the suppressed subject of venereal disease than on any transgressions of medical proscriptions against advertising.  The ISHL and the PHI may also have been viewed as threats to the lucrative nature of American medicine. Schmidt went on to become a leading agitator for subsidized health care and an expert on the subject. 

Louis E. Schmidt married Marie Mansfield in 1906. She died on March 5, 1932. They had one son, Mansfield born in 1911, who died on September 27, 1951, and a daughter, Hildegarde, who died March 5, 1932. Schmidt married Lillian D. Stevens, Dr. Bundesen’s secretary, on August 6, 1942. Their marriage lasted until Lillian’s death in 1956. After Schmidt’s retirement, he moved to Wausau, Wisconsin, in 1949 and remained there until his death on July 7, 1957. Schmidt was made a member of the Wisconsin Medical Society in 1954 and thus automatically reinstated into the AMA.

Found in 1 Collection or Record:

Louis E. Schmidt (1869-1957) Papers

Identifier: 18/3/21/1
Abstract Dr. Louis E. Schmidt had a distinguished medical career as a medical educator and surgeon, but is best known for a stormy controversy involving his Illinois Social Hygiene League and medical advertising, which resulted in his expulsion from the Chicago Medical Society and the American Medical Association. The bulk of the papers relate to the expulsion controversy (1929-1930) but the collection also includes clippings, biographical files, and subject files reflecting Schmidt's interest in...
Dates: 1894-1957