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COLLECTION Identifier: H MS c538

William T. Bovie papers


The William T. Bovie papers, 1890-1953, are the product of Bovie’s activities as biophysicist, researcher and author, and professor.


  • 1890-1953 (inclusive)


Language of Materials

Papers are in English.

Conditions Governing Access

Collection is open for research. Some restrictions apply (see below).

Access requires advance notice. Contact Public Services for further information.

Access to personal and patient information is restricted for 80 years from the date of creation. These restrictions appear in Series II. 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.


15.85 cubic feet (14 records center cartons, 1 half legal size document box, 1 half letter size document box, 2 oversized boxes)
The William T. Bovie papers, 1890-1953, are the product of Bovie’s activities as biophysicist, researcher and author, and professor. The papers include: notes, correspondence, and collected publications produced by Bovie’s research activities; lecture notes from courses in biophysics and social technology given by Bovie at Harvard University and Northwestern University; speeches on a variety of topics given by Bovie to public audiences and professional societies; films showing surgeries ulitizing Bovie's electrosurgical device; drafts and notes related to his professional writings; and personal correspondence and biographical records.

The William T. Bovie papers consist of six series: I. Research Records, II. Teaching Records, III. Speeches, IV. Films, V. Writings, and VI. Personal Records.

Papers are entirely in English.

Biographical Note

William T. Bovie (1882-1958), B.A., University of Michigan, 1905, A.M., University of Missouri, 1910, Ph.D., Harvard University, 1914, was a biophysicist, inventor, researcher, and professor. Bovie developed an electrosurgical unit and, in collaboration with surgeon Harvey Cushing, advanced the field of surgical electrocautery.

Bovie was born in Augusta, Michigan on September 11, 1882, the son of William Bovie and Henrietta Barnes Bovie. After working as a stenographer to earn money for enrollment, Bovie entered Albion College, Albion, Michigan, in 1901, studying biology. Three years later he transferred to the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan, earning a degree in biology in 1905. In 1905-1906, Bovie taught geology and biology at Antioch College, Yellow Springs, Ohio before entering the University of Missouri, Columbia, Missouri, earning his A.M. in 1910. Bovie then entered Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1910, earning a Ph.D. in plant physiology in 1914. He then moved to the Harvard Cancer Commission as a research fellow and assistant to William Duane (1872-1935) Professor of Physics. While a fellow, Bovie developed a potentiometer for measuring and recording reactions in chemical solutions and worked with radium bromide, using it to develop a therapeutic treatment for cancer. In 1920, Bovie became Assistant Professor of Biophysics at Harvard University.

While at Harvard, Bovie developed his electrosurgical device, a scalpel that could cut and seal using high frequency current, thereby minimizing blood loss, infection, and tissue damage. This work was done in collaboration with surgeon Harvey Cushing (1869-1939), Surgeon-in-Chief at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital, Boston, Massachusetts. The device was first used at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital on October 1, 1926, when Cushing used it to remove a tumor from the head of a 64 year-old patient. Cushing had attempted to remove it a few days earlier, but had to end the surgery early because of the vascularity of the tumor. The second surgery using Bovie’s device was a success. After further development, Cushing began to recall patients he had previously considered inoperable.

In 1927 Bovie moved to Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, as Professor of Biophysics and Chairman of the newly-formed Department of Biophysics. However, Bovie resigned in 1929 and moved to Bar Harbor, Maine to work at the Roscoe B. Jackson Memorial Laboratory, on cancer research. He joined Colby College, Waterville, Maine as a lecturer, from 1939 to 1948. Bovie was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1920, received the John Scott medal from the city of Philadelphia in 1928, and was awarded an honorary Doctor of Science degree from Albion College in 1929. While studying at the University of Missouri, Bovie met and married Martha Adams in 1909. They had one son. Later in his life Bovie struggled with financial difficulties, as well as the loss a finger and pain in his hands due to his work with radium. He suffered from additional health issues and as a result died in Fairfield, Maine in 1958.

Series and Subseries in the Collection

  1. I. Research Records, 1912-1953
  2. II. Teaching Records, 1920-1942
  3. III. Speeches, 1916-1948
  4. IV. Films, undated
  5. V. Writings, 1922-1928
  6. VI. Personal Records, 1890-1951

Processing Information

Processed by Bryan Sutherland, 2017 October.

Processing staff in the Center for the History of Medicine analyzed, arranged, and described the papers, and created a finding aid to improve access. photocopied to acid-free paper.
Link to catalog
Bovie, William T., 1882-1958. Papers, 1890-1953 (inclusive): Finding Aid.
Bryan Sutherland
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description

Repository Details

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

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Boston MA 02115
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