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COLLECTION Identifier: H MS c239

James Bourne Ayer papers


The James Bourne Ayer papers, 1788-1960, document the professional and personal life of the James Jackson Putnam Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School, and Chief of Neurology at Massachusetts General Hospital. Also included are diaries, correspondence, financial ledgers and notes of father and grandfather, James Ayer and James Bourne Ayer, both physicians.


  • 1788-1960.


Conditions Governing Access

Collection is open for research. Access requires advance notice. There are restrictions on access to portions of this collection. Access to personal and patient information is restricted for 80 years. These restriction are noted where they appear in Series II and VII. Researchers may apply for access to restricted records. Consult Public Services for further information.

Conditions Governing Use

The Harvard Medical Library does not hold copyright on all materials in the collection. Researchers are responsible for identifying and contacting any third-party copyright holders for permission to reproduce or publish. For more information on the Center's use, publication, and reproduction policies, view our Reproductions and Use Policy.


3.5 cubic feet (3 record cartons, 1 document box, and 1 half legal document box)
The James Bourne Ayer Papers, 1788-1960, include the professional and personal records resulting from JBA's work as an academic physician and neurologist at HMS and MGH. The collection contains correspondence, memoranda, notes and writings that document his administrative, teaching, and research activities, including his research on human cerebrospinal fluid. JBA's correspondence with colleagues, staff meeting minutes, reports, writings and notes record his research and administrative responsibilities. JBA’s professional activities are documented his correspondence with and about medical societies, particularly the American Neurological Association of which JBA was the president.

The collection also contains the records of JBA's father and grandfather who were both physicians. Biographical papers including trip journals, and family and professional correspondence document the life of James Ayer. Financial ledgers, diaries, and medical notes are the product of the the professional activities of James Bourne Ayer. Correspondence and a diary describe the lives of other members of the Ayer family.


James Bourne Ayer (JBA), 1882-1963, James Jackson Putnam Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School (HMS), and Chief of Neurology at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), received the AB from Harvard College in 1903 and the MD from HMS in 1907.

JBA's contributions to the field of neurology included new laboratory methods, standardization of test procedures, and the establishment of the first neuropathology laboratory at MGH. He developed the cisternal puncture during WWI and invented a tool for measuring cerebrospinal fluid pressure. His scientific work was published in many articles on neurological topics including meningitis, multiple sclerosis, spinal subarachnoid block, and brain tumors.

JBA’s training in neurology began in 1908 with a year of study under Dr. Myrtelle Canavan, a neuropathologist at Danvers State Hospital in Danvers, Massachusetts. JBA was appointed a fellow in pathology at HMS in 1910, and assistant physician to outpatients at MGH in 1911. After serving in the Army Medical Corps during WWI, he returned to MGH and became assistant neurologist, neurologist, and finally chief of neurology in 1926. He was the James Jackson Putnam Professor of Neurology from 1926 until his retirement in 1946.

JBA became president of the American Neurological Association in 1931. He was a member of the American Medical Association, the Massachusetts Medical Association, and the Boston Society of Psychiatry and Neurology.

JBA married Hannah Gilbert Palfrey and they had six children. JBA’s father and grandfather were also physicians. His grandfather, James Ayer, 1815-1891, received the AB in 1834 and the MD in 1839 from Bowdoin College. In 1843 he married Martha Bourne; only one son, James Bourne, survived to maturity. JA was a practicing physician in Boston and a member of several medical associations, including the Boston Society for Medical Improvement, the Obstetrical Society of Boston, the Massachusetts Medical Society, and the American Medical Society.

James Bourne Ayer, 1849-1910, was the son of James and Martha Ayer. He received the AB in 1869 from Harvard College and the MD in 1873 from HMS. He studied in Europe in 1875. JBA specialized in nervous disorders. He was a member of the American Medical Association and the Massachusetts Board of Insanity.

Series and Subseries Arrangement

  1. Series I. Biographical and Personal, 1898-1958
  2. Series II. Personal and Professional Correspondence, 1923-1957
  3. Series III. Harvard College and Harvard Medical School Student and Alumni Records, 1904-1955
  4. ___ Subseries A. Student Notes, 1904-1907
  5. ___ Subseries B. Alumni Activities, 1928-1955
  6. Series IV. Harvard Medical School Administrative Correspondence, 1939-1946
  7. Series V. Massachusetts General Hospital Administrative Records, 1926-1954
  8. Series VI. Professional Organization Records, 1924-1960
  9. Series VII. Writings, 1901-1951
  10. Series VIII. James Ayer, 1832-1887
  11. ___ Subseries A. Biographical, 1838-1885
  12. ___ Subseries B. Correspondence, 1835-1870
  13. ___ Subseries C. Professional Activities, 1832-1887
  14. Series IX. James Bourne Ayer, 1857-1910
  15. Series X. Ayer Family Correspondence and Papers, 1788-1956
Arrangement The collection is arranged in ten series. There are no photographs in the collection. Box 4 contains oversize folders. There is patient and personal information interfiled in Series II and VII; these records are restricted for 80 years.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The James Bourne Ayer Papers were donated to the Harvard Medical Library in the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine by Mrs. Nancy Ayer Saltonstall, daughter of James Bourne Ayer, in 1966.

Related Materials

Related materials in the Center for the History of Medicine include:
  1. James Bourne Ayer's (1882-1963), Faculty publications. (1.Mh.1907.A)
  2. James Bourne Ayer's (1882-1963), Second year clinical lectures. (CB 1933.59 )
  3. James Ayer. In memoriam. Born October 4, 1815. Died December 31, 1891. (1.Mw.1892.A)
For further information on related materials, consult the Public Services Librarian.

Processing Information

Processed by: Shaina Marrus, March 2001.

Processing Note: When surveyed in 2000, parts of the collection were in alphabetical order. Patient records and unrelated material were discarded. Items within folders were not reorganized.
Link to catalog
Ayer, James Bourne, 1882-1963. Papers, 1788-1960: A Finding Aid.
Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine. Center for the History of Medicine.
Preservation and description of the James Bourne Ayer papers was supported by the Colonial North America at Harvard Library Project.

Repository Details

Part of the Center for the History of Medicine (Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine) Repository

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