"Doctors" of Destruction
The Life and Death of a 19th Century Secret Society
The culprits were a covert group who dubbed themselves the “Medical Faculty Society.” The society—consisting of patricians in lieu of physicians—wreaked havoc at Harvard for much of the 19th century.
None of today’s most elite societies have managed to maintain the secrecy that veiled the Med. Fac. from its first days, though many seem to have inherited traces of the group’s peculiar taste in campus pranks.
That style was set the first day of the group’s founding in 1818, according to an account in B.H. Hall’s “A Collection of College Words and Customs.” Four members of the class of 1820—James F. Deering, Charles Butterfield, David P. Hall, and Joseph Palmer—were gathered in Hollis 13 when one suggested Deering should lambast his professors by delivering mock lectures in broken Latin. Hilarity ensued, and soon Deering suggested that the friends should invite others to join their revelry.
The Med. Fac. Society—a playful abbreviation of “medical faculty”—was born. The name was chosen to reflect the medical benefits of a society whose embrace of the absurd diverted the mind from pain and sadness.
Legend had it that in order to become a member of the Med. Fac., interested undergraduates had to pull a prank serious enough to risk expulsion from the College. In the early days of the society, the club’s pranks included mocking college administrators and granting fake degrees, painting the John Harvard statue red, and locking unpopular tutors in their studies. The society issued honorary degrees—fake diplomas written in pidgin Latin—to notable contemporaries, such as the prince of Haiti, a pair of Siamese twins known as Cheng and Heng, a sea serpent rumored to frequent Massachusetts Bay in 1830 (awarded “M.D. et peculiariter M.U.D. Med. Fac. Hon”), and Tsar Alexander I—long before either the Hasty Pudding named a man of the year or the Lampoon inducted an honorary member.
Trouble first struck the group in 1824, in fact, when Alexander I took his honorary Med. Fac. degree a bit too seriously, donating a set of sterling silver surgical instruments to the actual Medical Faculty of Harvard as a sign of gratitude.
Harvard’s administration could no longer ignore the wild pranksters. Then-University President Josiah Quincy targeted the group as an example of rebellious student behavior. In Quincy’s son’s book “Figures of the Past,” the younger Quincy writes, “Among college clubs the place must be reserved for the Med. Fac., a roaring burlesque upon learned bodies in general and the college government in particular.”
Perhaps due to Quincy’s hostility, in 1834 the Med. Fac. Society entrusted some of its artwork and artifacts to the Hasty Pudding Institute. But the history of the Med. Fac. was far from over.
AND SO IT DIES
On the night of May 20, 1905, Benjamin Joy, class of 1905, a popular senior from a prestigious New York family, was caught stealing a 200-pound bronze plaque from Phillips Brooks House. Joy confessed his involvement with the Med. Fac. society, and headlines about the secret society raged across Boston newspapers.
The Boston Sunday Herald reported the following:
“The rooms of the society are said to contain a bloodcurdling set of torture instruments, much like that of a Spanish Inquisition chamber. The initiations are reported to be spectacular in the extreme, one ordeal through which the candidates are put being a brand on the left hip with the initials ‘M.F.’” The headquarters of the society were rumored to be in basement quarters along Mass. Ave.
Harvard’s administration was put in a delicate position. Though the Med. Fac. had plagued its college for nearly a century, its members were often also part of the Porcellian and A. D. Clubs and enjoyed powerful positions in Northeastern society.
“We have found this Med. Fac. Society to be made up of a good type of men, some of the best in the college,” said then Dean Byron S. Hurlbut, class of 1889. Several members of the Harvard administration were even rumored to be Med. Fac. men themselves. So Hurlbut struck a delicate bargain with the club: he would grant amnesty to Joy and his Med. Fac. compatriots—if they would agree to abandon the club forever.
Surprisingly, dozens of Med. Fac. alumni urged their fellow “Doctors” to abandon the society. The alumni felt the Med. Fac.’s puerile destruction no longer had a place in the serious academic environment of an evolved Harvard University.
The exorcising of the Med. Fac. Society appears to have been successful, but its tradition of pranks continued. In 1936 a group of freshmen attempted to blow up Memorial Hall with a homemade bomb, and later that year a group of revivalists blew up a well in front of Hollis Hall.
Though the Yard is no longer rocked with dynamite, Harvard students continue to occasionally play pranks on each other and the school, as evidenced during final club and sports initiations and Lampoon spoofs of Harvard publications. Though it may be dead, the Medical Faculty Society’s legacy lives on, proving that laughter really is the best medicine.
Some of the pranks attributed to the Med. Fac. Society, as recorded by the Boston Globe.
1. Explosion of infernal machine during lecture by Professor Channing
2. Explosion of bomb during address of the Reverend Edward Everett Hale in Sanders Theatre
3. Painting Grays Hall
4. Hoisting missiles to the top of the Cambridge Common flag pole
5. Hoisting a live cow to the top of Memorial Hall
6. Stealing the tongue of the college bell
7. Stealing two of Harvard’s bibles and sending them to Yale as a gift
8. Stealing Arabic manuscripts from the Semetic Museum
9. Painting busts in Gore Hall
10. Throwing rotten eggs and paint around the college library