Irving S. Cutter: Lost Baker Street Irregular or Found Hound?

Let's pull a book off the shelf and have some fun.

The inscription to Dr. Irving Cutter from a copy of Vincent Starrett's The Case-Book of Jimmie Lavender.

The book is Vincent Starrett's The Case-Book of Jimmie Lavender, published in 1944 by Gold Label Books, Inc. of New York. (Yes, the ‘Jimmie’ is misspelled as ‘Jimmy’ on the dust jacket. We’ll look at this phenomenon in a future post.)  In the upper right corner of the front free endpaper of this particular book is an inscription.

If I was Sherlock Holmes, I could tell you the type of pen that was used, the location where the book was signed and the number of people in the room at the time.  But I am far more Dr. Watson than Holmes.

What I can state is this: Having looked at numerous Starrett inscriptions, this one appears to have been done with particular pleasure.

Can we learn more? 

Let us proceed carefully. These are deep waters.

The inscription reads:


Irving S. Cutter, MD, B•S•I•

–"You know my methods, Watson!"

in gratitude & admiration

Vincent Starrett

Chicago: 19 May, 1944

The dust jacket cover for The Case-Book of Jimmy (sic) Lavender)

When I first looked at this several months back, I assumed that Dr. Irving Cutter was one of those early Irregulars I had not heard about before. And I did what I too often do: I set the book aside for “another day.”

A few weeks back I found it again (while searching for something else, naturally) and began to wonder about Dr. Cutter. In hunting around through various archives, I began to have my doubts about whether Dr. Cutter was indeed a member of the Baker Street Irregulars. His name didn't show up on Peter Blau's list of invested irregulars. An email to Peter confirmed Cutter’s name was unknown to him. The BSI's archival series does not have him attending any BSI dinners, so far as I can tell.

So I widened the search to Starrettian associations. Starrett’s book of memoirs, Born in a Bookshop, does not mention him. And Karen Murdoch's exhaustive look at all Sherlockian references in Starrett's "Books Alive" column does not index the man either.

So who was this man that Starrett referred to as a BSI? And what was his affiliation, if any, with the Irregulars?

The game, as they say. . . .

Dr. Irving S. Cutter, enjoying his books. A man after my own heart. Courtesy of the Galter Health Science Library Special Collections, Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University, Chicago, Ill.

Finding information about Irving Cutter was pretty easy. A web search produced a quick reference to the good doctor, who had strong associations with Northwestern University in Chicago, and its medical library in particular.

While visiting the website of the Galter Health Sciences Library, I sent a quick email to Ronald Sims, Special Collections Librarian. I described my curious find and expressed an interest in learning more about Cutter. 

Ron Sims could not have been more accommodating. He sent along a treasure trove of biographical materials, photographs and related materials. I am pleased to note that these photographs are reproduced here Courtesy of the Galter Health Science Library Special Collections, Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University, Chicago, Ill. Many thanks!

Let me say this loud and clear: While there is a world of information available online, it takes a good librarian to sort it all out and make it conveniently available. All hail librarians!

The very handsome bookplate of Dr. Irving S. Cutter. Courtesy of the Galter Health Science Library Special Collections, Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University, Chicago, Ill.

Armed with this information, I nosed around a bit more online and in some old volumes, and was able to put together what I think is a reasonable explanation for this mystery. As I've said, I’m more Dr. Watson than Sherlock Holmes, so it’s possible I have made a pretty hash of it. But here goes.

Irving S. Cutter was born in Keene, New Hampshire on 5 December, 1875. He received his bachelor’s and master’s in science and his M.D. from the University of Nebraska. After several jobs, he came back to the University of Nebraska and eventually became dean of the college of medicine there from 1915 to 1925. Cutter was named dean of the Northwestern University Medical School in 1925, and then also became medical director of Passavant Memorial Hospital in 1928.

A prolific writer, he also had a great respect for the history of medicine and helped Northwestern build one of the great collections of the day in that area.

A history of the Galter library and its Archibald Church History of Medicine Collection notes that:

A portrait of Dr. Irving S. Cutter. Courtesy of the Galter Health Science Library Special Collections, Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University, Chicago, Ill.

"Cutter began his working life as a book salesman for the Ginn Company and remained a "bookman" all his life. Not surprisingly, Dean Cutter saw the Medical Library as his personal project, and during his tenure expanded its holdings from 13,000 to nearly 92,000 volumes.

"Most importantly for the historical collections, Cutter capitalized on the Great Depression by buying up European rarities for the library at bargain prices. Dean Cutter was a noted rare book collector in private life, specializing in obstetrics and gynecology and William Harveyiana, and was a correspondent of another noted medical bookman, Harvey Cushing of Yale. Cutter's friendly rivalry with Cushing, another Harvey collector, was indirectly responsible for Yale and Northwestern possessing two of the most complete collections of William Harvey in the country; Cutter and Cushing bequeathed their private collections to their respective employers upon their deaths."

That would appear to be Connection No. 1 between Starrett and Dr. Cutter: A passionate interest in books and collecting. Starrett knew, or at least knew of, most of the book dealers and collectors in the Chicago region during the first three-quarters of the 20th century. Surely someone of Dr. Cutter’s impressive acquisitiveness would have made it onto Starrett’s radar screen at some point.

Do we progress?  Yes, I think we are on the scent.

The second connection came after reading in several obituaries that Dr. Cutter had become a syndicated columnist after being named health editor for The Chicago Tribune’s “How to Keep Well” column, starting in June 1934.

In a style that was blunt and direct for its time, Dr. Cutter wrote regular columns in everything from diet to kleptomania, from sunbathing to blood pressure. For example, in “Yes! Let’s Discuss it,” Dr. Cutter dives into the delicate subject of the rectum.

“We brush our teeth, use gargles and mouth washes, and give a substantial amount of attention to the upper end of the alimentary tract. But somehow we shun every reference to the rectum, despite the fact that the lower end of the bowel is just as subject to disease.”

No less a leading light than Dr. Charles H. Mayo endorsed Dr. Cutter’s work. “I was glad when he assumed, among his many duties, the additional one of conducting the HOW TO KEEP WELL column in the Chicago Tribune,” wrote Mayo in the foreward to the first of three collected volumes of Dr. Cutter’s columns. “None has been better qualified for the task.”

So there is it: The Chicago Tribune is connection No. 2. With Starrett writing his “Books Alive” column at the same time, it’s likely the two men crossed paths.

There are a few more points to make before we conclude.

The Baker Street Journal from April 1946 which states that Dr. Cutter was an early member of Chicago's The Hounds of the Baskerville (sic).

On page 211 of the second issue of The Baker Street Journal (April 1946), Starrett reported on the founding and early days of the Hounds of the Baskerville (sic). There were four members in the original group that met in January 1943, and by the next year, an even dozen had gathered to keep green the master’s memory.

“By January 1944, when the first state dinner was held at Schlogl’s (with Richard, the literary waiter, in attendance), the Hounds numbered an even dozen enthusiasts, including W. H. Gallienne, British consul-general at Chicago; Dr. Irving S. Cutter, syndicated physician …”

And there we have it: Dr. Cutter was an early member of the Hounds. Since most of these early members were either friends of Starrett, or friends of friends, it is easy to see why he was so friendly in his little dedication. And, since the Hounds was a scion of the Baker Street Irregulars, it’s not unsurprising to see Starett identify Cutter as both an MD and BSI. (Starrett appears to have done this kind of thing more than once during this period, when membership in the BSI was still rather informal.)

Sadly, we will never know just what type of contribution Dr. Cutter might have made to our literature. Just 13 months after that seminal dinner at Schlogl’s, Dr. Cutter passed away. On Feb. 3, 1945, the Chicago Tribune reported that:

“Dr. Cutter, who was 69, had been ill for several weeks, but had continued almost up to the day of his death to discharge his duties as health editor of The Tribune and medical director of Passavant hospital.”

A photograph of Arthur Davenport Black, dean of Northwestern's dental school (left) with Dr. Irving S. Cutter, taken in the 1930s. Courtesy of the Galter Health Science Library Special Collections, Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University, Chicago, Ill.

So there it is. Dr. Irving S. Cutter was an early member of the Hounds, a newspaper colleague of Vincent Starrett’s and a dedicated bibliophile. With his abilities as an excellent writer and passion for books, it is clear the Sherlock Holmes world lost a great potential contributor with his untimely death.

But there is one more footnote to add, before we conclude.

The invaluable librarian Ron Sims notes that among the acquisitions made by Dr. Cutter for the Northwestern medical library was an original letter by Arthur Conan Doyle. Like so many of Conan Doyle’s letters in later life, this 1928 letter concerns Spiritualism and the messages that he has received from the “other side” through his wife’s spirit guide. Written from Conan Doyle’s Windlesham home in Crowborough, he tells of the warnings his wife’s guide gives about an impending world disaster.

There may be other connections between Dr. Cutter, Vincent Starrett and Sherlock Holmes, if we only know where to look.

So many books.

So little time.