Nathan Cooley Keep and the Parkman-Webster Murder Trial

By , March 31, 2020

In 1846, Nathan Cooley Keep, a dentist, fashioned a set of false teeth for his patient George Parkman. A renewed focus was recently placed on the casts used to create these false teeth as part of an inventory project for the artifact collection of Harvard Medical Library. When he made these casts, Keep had no idea that a few years later, this work would lead to him testifying in a murder trial and giving the first piece of forensic dental evidence. 

Photograph of a plaster cast of inferior dentition

Inferior dental cast. From the Harvard Medical Library in the Center for the History of Medicine, Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine (a002.031)

George Parkman (1790-1849) was a doctor from a wealthy family and a well-known part of the Boston elite. Parkman graduated from Harvard Medical College in 1813 and traveled to Europe to continue his studies. While Parkman remained a medical philanthropist throughout his life, he turned his career to real estate and developed his fortune even further. Parkman had bought up so much land in Boston that he donated some of it to the Medical School at Harvard so that they could relocate from Cambridge to Boston. Parkman also began to lend money and was known for his long walks around the city to collect his debts as he was too thrifty to buy a horse. He was on one of these walks on November 23, 1849, when he was seen entering Harvard Medical College to speak with John Webster.  

John White Webster (1793-1850) was a lecturer of chemistry and geology at Harvard Medical College. Webster was also a part of Boston high society, but his salary could not cover his expenses and his family was forced to give up their Cambridge mansion. Webster began borrowing money from a number of friends in order to deal with his financial difficulties. One of these friends was George Parkman. Webster began borrowing from Parkman in 1842 and continued to borrow large sums without paying Parkman back. By 1849 he owed Parkman so much money that he took out a loan from another friend to repay him but had used the same mineral cabinet as collateral that he had used with Parkman. The two agreed to a meeting at the Medical College on November 23, 1849, in order to come to an agreement regarding Webster’s debt. Parkman was seen entering the building at 1:45.  

Later that day the janitor, Ephriam Littlefield, was surprised to find that Webster’s laboratory was locked from the inside. He could hear water running inside, although Webster was not there. Littlefield’s suspicions began to grow when news spread that Parkman, who he had seen entering the building on the 23rd, was reported missing. Prior to Parkman’s visit, Webster had asked Littlefield a number of questions regarding the dissection vault. A few days after the meeting Webster had asked Littlefield if he had seen Parkman and appeared agitated when Littlefield said he had. Webster had also given him a Thanksgiving turkey, which seemed strange to Littlefield as Webster had never given him a gift before.  

Floor plan of Webster’s laboratory from Trial of Professor John W. Webster for the Murder of Doctor George Parkman

Littlefield began to watch Webster closely. On November 28, 1849, he spied on Webster through the space underneath his door and watched Webster go back and forth between the furnace and the fuel closet several times. When Webster left, Littlefield broke into the laboratory through a window. He noticed that the kindling was nearly gone and there were strange spots of what looked like acid around the room. Over the Thanksgiving break, Littlefield began to excavate the wall underneath Webster’s private privy. After two days of digging, he uncovered a foul stench and what looked like a human pelvis. He called the police, who began a search. Eventually, a human pelvis, right thigh, and left calf were found in the privy. A jawbone and teeth were found in the furnace. John White Webster was arrested and put on trial for the murder of George Parkman.  

Because Parkman was such a well-known figure, the public was already obsessed with the case by the time of Webster’s arrest. When they learned the details of the charges against Webster, the case became even more salacious. Not only had Parkman been killed by another doctor, but he had also been dismembered and the pieces of his body had been hidden in the medical school. Newspaper headlines all revolved around Parkman and Webster, and tickets to the trials were so popular that spectators were being allowed in for a short time and then ushered out to make room for newcomers. It is estimated that thousands of people witnessed at least part of the trial.  

Because of the state in which the remains were found, the prosecution had to prove that the body was, in fact, that of George Parkman and that his death was a result of homicide. Multiple witnesses were called to the stand to confirm the identity of the body and the manner of death. Many of these people were Webster’s colleagues from the Medical College, including Jeffries Wyman (1814-1874), who testified that the remains matched the height and general size of Parkman, and Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894), who testified that a small wound on the chest could have been a fatal stab wound. Ephriam Littlefield also testified, describing the events of the days leading up to and following Parkman’s disappearance.  

One of the most important pieces of testimony came from Parkman’s dentist, Nathan Cooley Keep (1800-1875). Keep, who later became the founding dean of the Harvard School of Dental Medicine, was a prominent dentist with high aspirations to unite dental and medical education at the time of the trial. He testified that the jawbone found in the furnace contained false teeth that he had made specifically for Parkman. Keep then showed the jury that the jawbone from the furnace fit perfectly into the plaster impression he had created of Parkman’s jaw in 1846 when he was fitting Parkman for the false teeth. Keep also showed them that loose teeth found in the furnace fit into the plates he had created. This convinced the jury that the body found in Webster’s laboratory was indeed George Parkman.  

Photograph of the underside of a dental plaster cast. "Dr. Parkman" is carved into the cast and "Oct 1846" is written on it.

Bottom of superior dental cast showing Dr. Parkman’s name. From the Harvard Harvard Medical Library in the Center for the History of Medicine, Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine (a002.031)

John White Webster was found guilty of the murder of George Parkman on March 30, 1850, and was sentenced to be hanged. Although some still doubt his guilt, Webster confessed to the murder in June of 1850 and was executed on August 30, 1850.  

Although the case was famous at the time for its association with Boston high society, there is another reason that the trial of John Webster has lived on. This was the first time that dental evidence was accepted as part of a murder trial. These plaster casts were a vital part of the prosecution’s case, as they were the only piece of evidence or testimony that could confirm without a doubt that the body Littlefield had found was George Parkman’s. Over a century and a half after Keep introduced these plaster casts into evidence, dental evidence has become a key part of forensic science. Dental records are used to confirm identity today in much the same way that Keep used his plaster casts. The field has expanded over time, and when matching dental records cannot be found, teeth can be used to estimate identifying traits such as age and ancestry. George Parkman was the first person to be identified through forensic dentistry, but he was far from the last. 

The Parkman-Webster case was not only a media sensation. It was a landmark case in the history of forensic medicine. 

Providing Remote Services and Support

By , March 24, 2020

The Center for the History of Medicine’s Holmes Hall reading room is currently closed due to COVID-19 precautions, but staff continue to provide remote support. Please contact for more information.

Incunabula volume, 1496

Conciliator differentiarum philosophorum et medicorum, 1496

Center staff provide the following services:

  • Schedule comprehensive consultations online (Zoom) or phone
  • Provide support for students, researchers and faculty during online office hours. (Please sign up in advance and a link will be provided.)
  • Assist in making arrangements for future visits and projects.

Online Resources:

Start your research remotely with the help of our collections’ online finding aids, and LibGuides. Other useful digital resources include:

  • OnView: the Center’s primary portal to digitized content and exhibits
  • Medical Heritage Library: online access to thousands of rare books, journals, pamphlets, and other items digitized as part of the Medical Heritage Library, Inc.’s consortium
  • Dataverse: Research data available from Center collections
  • Colonial North America: A Harvard Library project involving manuscript materials that relate to 17th- and 18th-century North America including items relating to science, medicine and health
  • Fredrick Stare papers: In collaboration with the University of California, San Francisco, the professional collection of Fredrick Stare, founder of the Department of Nutrition at the now T.H. Chan School of Public health, is digitally available.
Warren Anatomical Museum Gallery

Warren Anatomical Museum Gallery

For even more open access resources provided through Harvard Library, please check this evolving list.


Follow us for further information and updates on Twitter and Instagram @HarvardHistMed

Now Accepting Applications for the 2020-2021 Women in Medicine Legacy Foundation Research Fellowship

By , March 24, 2020

The Women in Medicine Legacy Foundation Research Fellowship

Application deadline is May 31, 2020


The Women in Medicine Legacy Foundation is pleased to provide one $5,000 grant to support travel, lodging, and incidental expenses for a flexible research period between July 1, 2019 and June 30, 2020. Foundation Fellowships are offered for research related to the history of women to be conducted at the Center for the History of Medicine at the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine. Preference will be given to:

  • projects that engage specifically with the history of women physicians, other health workers, or medical scientists; proposals on the history of women’s health issues will also be considered
  • those who are using the Center’s Women in Medicine collections; however, research on the topic of women in medicine using other material from the Countway Library will be considered
  • applicants who live beyond commuting distance of the Countway; however, all are encouraged to apply, including graduate students

In return, the Foundation requests a one page report on the Fellow’s research experience, a copy of the final product (with the ability to post excerpts from the paper/project), and a photo and bio of the Fellow for web and newsletter announcements. The Fellow will also be asked to present a lecture at the Countway Library.

Women in Medicine Legacy Foundation logo

Women in Medicine Legacy Foundation logo

Application Requirements

Applicants should submit a proposal (no more than five pages) outlining the subject and objectives of the research project, length of residence, historical materials to be used, and a project budget (including travel, lodging, and research expenses), along with a curriculum vitae and two letters of recommendations by May 31, 2020. The fellowship proposal should demonstrate that the Countway Library has resources central to the research topic.

Applications and supporting documentation should be emailed to the Center for History of Medicine via Please include “Women in Medicine Legacy Foundation Research Fellowship” in the subject line. Questions may be directed to or (617) 432-7702.


Partnering Organizations

The Women in Medicine Legacy Foundation, formerly the Foundation for the History of Women in Medicine, was founded with the strong belief that understanding our history plays a powerful role in shaping our future. The resolute stand women took to establish their place in these fields propels our vision forward. We serve as stewards to the stories from the past, and take pride in sharing them with the women of today. Our mission is to preserve and promote the history of women in medicine and the medical sciences, and we look forward to connecting you to our collective legacy that will empower our future.

The Archives for Diversity and Inclusion, formerly the Archives for Women in Medicine, is a program of the Countway Library’s Center for the History of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. The program’s goal is to ensure the Center’s collections reflect the diversity of the Harvard Medical School community by acquiring the research, teaching, and professional records of underrepresented faculty, including women. Learn more about collections open to research on our Women in Medicine Collections page.

Established in 1960 as a result of an alliance between the Boston Medical Library and the Harvard Medical Library, the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine is the largest academic medical library in the United States. The Countway Library maintains a collection of approximately 700,000 volumes. The Center for the History of Medicine’s collection of archives and manuscripts, numbering between 15-20 million items, is the largest collection of its kind in the United States. Collections include the personal and professional records of physicians from the medieval and Renaissance periods through the twentieth century, including the professional papers of many renowned Harvard faculty members as well as physicians and scientists from New England and around the country.

The 2019-2020 Foundation for the History of Women in Medicine Research Fellow is Heather Munro Prescott, Ph.D. Previous fellows include Carla Bittel, Maria Daxenbichler, Jordan Katz, Kate Grauvogel, Louella McCarthy, Rebecca Kluchin, Ciara Breathnach, Carrie Adkins, and Hilary Aquino.


The BackBlog: Color Perception and Cards of Wool

By , March 19, 2020

This object came up in one of the first boxes we took off the shelf for our backlog project, while a group of Center staff was still trying to figure out exactly what our sorting process was going to be like. When we first opened the box and saw all of the yarncovered cards we were confusedThis looked more like a crafting set than a medical device. We were even a bit concerned that this box might have been donated to the museum in order to display a set of toxic dyes. But when we saw the name “B. Joy Jeffries” on the stationary in the box, we knew that it must be some sort of color blindness test. 

Photograph of a wooden box containing 24 wooden cards. Each card is wrapped in a different color of yarn with varying striped patterns.

Donders’ test for color blindness. From the Warren Anatomical Museum in the Center for the History of Medicine, Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine (WAM 22251)

Benjamin Joy (B. Joy) Jeffries (1833-1915) was a 19th century ophthalmologist. His work focused primarily on the causes and identification of color blindness. He even wrote a book titled: Color Blindness: Its Dangers and Its Detection. His writing on the subject is extensive and passionate. At the time that Jeffries was writing, color blindness was not commonly identified. It was a seriouhazard for railroad workers and people in similar occupations. A misinterpreted signal due to not seeing the right colors could result in a dangerous or even deadly situation. Jeffries’ work on the subject and advocacy for testing resulted in a much deeper understanding of color blindness and a safer railroad system. 

Identifying this particular test, however, was a bit of a challenge. It was labeled as “Holmgren’s Worsteds” in our accession record and on a label accompanying the objectHolmgren’s method of identification was Jeffries’ preferred method, and he wrote about it extensively. But while that test uses the same type of yarn, it involves matching small yarn bundles of the same color. Jeffries’ description made it clear that the object we found was not Holmgren’s test. 

Photograph of a piece of stationery with handwritten notes describing Donders' test for colorblindness. B. Joy Jeffries' name is imprinted at the top of the paper.

Description of test written on B. Joy Jeffries’ stationery, found with WAM 22251

Based on the methods listed in Jeffries’ book, this is most likely Donders’ test. This test was developed in 1879 by the ophthalmologist Franciscus Cornelis (F. C.) Donders (1818-1889). Jeffries describes Donders’ test as being made up of a set of wooden cards with different colors of wool wrapped around them. On some of the cards, a second color—one that a person who was color blind would not be able to differentiate from the firstwas wrapped over the first, and the subjects were asked to identify which cards had multiple colors. Like Holmgren’s test, Donders’ test involved a fairly simple procedure that wouldn’t have needed the complicated equipment like colored lights and spinning disks that some other methods required.  

Although he preferred Holmgren’s method, it is not surprising to find another type of testing amongst Jeffries’ collection. It is clear from his book that Jeffries tried every method for testing colorblindness that was available to him. We do have a few other color blindness tests in the museum, but as far as we know, this is the only one that belonged to B. Joy Jeffries. This simple wooden box with different colors of yarn—an object that I had originally thought looked like crafting supplies—turned out to be a fundamental piece in the history of color blindness research.

Center Reading Room Closed Until Further Notice

By , March 16, 2020

Due to coronavirus (COVID-19), starting Tuesday, March 17 and until further notice, the Center reading room is CLOSED to all researchers. We are able to provide limited online reference service.

Please contact us to schedule a remote consultation or ask a reference question at



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