David Orr Edson, MD

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David Orr Edson

Birthdate: (61)
Birthplace: Albany, NY, USA
Death: February 27, 1923 (61)
at home, 49 West 72nd Street, New York, NY, USA
Immediate Family:

Son of Franklin Edson, Mayor of New York and Frances "Fanny" Cameron Edson
Brother of Cyrus M. Edson, MD; Franklin Edson, Jr.; Henry Townsend Edson; Edith Edson; Robert Stewart Edson and 1 other

Occupation: Physician
Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:

About David Orr Edson, MD

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David Orr Edson related an account of an episode in his childhood which reveals some of his inner life as a child, as well as aspects of his relationships to his mother and to his brothers. He placed this anecdote at the very beginning of his book, "Getting What We Want: How to apply psychoanalysis to your own problems." This was published in 1921, when David was 59, two years before his death. The four brothers David says were present at this event could only have been once the youngest of them had been born. That was Robert, who came along in 1873. When Robert was two, David was 15 (seems a little old for this episode, so maybe the account is not as strictly factual as David represents it), his mother, Frances "Fanny" Edson (Wood), was 41, Cyrus was 18, Franklin Jr. was 16, and Henry Townsend was 13. David's sisters Edith and Ethel do not figure into David's account. Ethel would not have been born, but Edith was 5 at the time.


A LITTLE boy stood with his four brothers on the steps of their home, waiting and eager. A carriage was coming up the driveway, bringing back from a long absence his beloved mother.

The boy's mind looked forward to the immediate future when his mother would hug him tight and kiss him. Behind him, though the child knew nothing of this, stretched a corridor, a billion years long. Through this his mind and body had journeyed slowly up from First Things to what they were that day.

The five boys ran forward as the carriage stopped and their mother alighted, but between them and their desire an unexpected factor intervened momentarily: the gardener stepped forward and spoke to the mother, and for a moment she conversed with him before turning to her children.

In the heart of the little boy something woke and stirred and spoke. Gone for the moment was the love and desire that had filled him. Instead the lad thought: "Rotten old fool! If I could, I'd kill him."

Remember, he knew nothing of the corridor of evolution that reached far back behind him, but already he had slipped back down its length millions of years.

The mother had turned to her sons now and they were pressing about her, clamoring for love and recognition. The little boy, who worshiped her as ardently as the others, was on the outskirts of the group. He saw what was going to happen. He was going to be kissed last!

He looked about him. A few yards away a big rooster was walking sedately across the grass. Jealousy and mortification had thrust the child's mind from the unendurable present far back into the past, and the primeval voice that had spoken to his forbears, millions of years before, now sounded in his ears.

"Come," said Nature to the temporary cave man, "there is your game. Here is a stone. There is strength in your good right arm. Kill it! Kill it!"

The boy picked up the rock and threw. There was a squawk and a whirl of feathers as the rooster toppled over with a broken leg.

"Why, David!" exclaimed the mother, and at her voice the lad's mind came hurtling back out of the corridor of the past into the present. "That poor rooster! See what you have done! The poor, harmless bird! And you deliberately went and hurt it."

Back into the fold of civilization came my mind — for I was that boy. For the rest of that day I hovered about while they set splints on the rooster's leg and cooped him up so that the shattered bone might knit again. Only strong parental dissuasion kept me from taking the bird I had injured to bed with me that night. I was sorry, genuinely sorry, yet when I had flung that stone I had devoutly hoped to slay the creature for whom I now grieved.

This is what happened. Through the accident the mind of David Edson had been flooded with emotion — jealousy. In his nineteenth-century experience there was no outlet for the impulse that had gripped him. There was no gratification in the present for a demand that must be gratified. Therefore, David Edson's mind drove him back across the whole span of human history into the darkness from which he had painfully emerged, and there in the primeval, in the age where the strong arm was law, emotion expended itself in action. Within one moment he had leaped the mighty span from the present to the Archaic and back again to the present.

My mind — anyone's mind — was and is a mechanism, as distinct, as fully governed by laws (which are only beginning to be recognized) as any physical organ.

Not so long ago, when his stomach revolted against what he had placed in it, man gripped his abdomen and moaned that God or the devil had smitten him. Later, certain of his fellows discovered laws to which man's stomach reacted. The sufferer learned that when he followed these laws the outraged or vindictive Deity that had hitherto tortured him straightway lost all interest in his internal arrangements. So, through the upward drift of the centuries man came to know his digestive apparatus as a machine.

As humanity struggled ever toward higher civilization, the impact of science drove organ after organ out of the realm of a displeased Deity and into machine classification. Stomach and ears, teeth and eyes, heart and liver — all have been thrust into the jurisdiction of science.

One further step, however, man has been unwilling to take. Only now he is hesitating on the brink. Throughout the ages he has continued to regard his mind as a free agent, ungoverned by any law, responsible only to his God.

"My private judgment coincides with God's; therefore let no man dispute me lest he be sacrilegious," is a feeling quite as dominant in man's nature to-day as it was five hundred years ago.

"Your private judgment," the psychoanalyst insists," is as much of a machine as your private stomach. It has developed through evolution with the remainder of your organs. It is governed by laws as irrefragable as those controlling your physical well-being."

That is the parting of the ways at which mankind now stands, and each year sees him turning more definitely to the truth.

If the little boy, when he ran to greet his mother, had been smitten suddenly with cramps, she would instantly have assumed a scientific attitude of mind. The laws governing digestion would have been appealed to and the trouble discovered and remedied.

But because the lad's mind machine had been disturbed instead of his stomach machine, he was "naughty." He had offended against the divine will.

Yet the impulse that lifted the stone, flung it, and broke the rooster's leg was as much the product of certain laws, working through a machine developed by the evolution of a billion years, as a stomach ache would have been.

It was not as though the little boy had conducted himself quite apart from the conduct of other children or quite free of the bias of some kind of influence—child conduct is too much alike to warrant such a conclusion. In fact, the resemblance is so striking that it seems as though the conduct of children would lead us to believe that it was the result of former common experiences. On the other hand, no child has yet hit upon twentieth-century conduct from the first, wherein no "bringing up" seems necessary. It appears to me that on rare occasions, at least, such a thing might have happened if child conduct came out of chaos. Apparently, at this period of mental exploitation, this quality of reasoning seems justifiable, at least until it can be disproved.

Out of the blackness of the beginning man's mind machine has developed, wheel by wheel, piston by piston, lever by lever, through the same endlessly patient, undeviating force that has brought up his body from a unicellular being to the tremendously complicated, delicate mechanism it is to-day.

By resorting to the quality of pragmatism, by searching for truth through the medium of hypotheses known to be theoretical, the psychoanalyst of to-day is striving to learn the construction of the mind machine and how it responds to the touch of this lever or the turning of that wheel.

For the most part, he must work back from the effect to the cause, even as the physician of earlier times learned of the nature of the human stomach, heart, and other organs from the external symptoms which their disorders caused, but with an added handicap. The ancient chirugeon was able to examine the structure, shape, and texture of the organs that he pretended to be able to cure, through the process of dissection. The mind cannot be placed upon a laboratory table and be weighed, measured, and charted.

Hence the resort to pragmatism, even as the geometrician has turned to it. "A straight line is the shortest distance between two points," he says. "There is no such thing as a straight line," replies the physicist. Yet on this pragmatical doctrine rests one of the great truths of mathematics.

So, in similar fashion, through pragmatism,

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Dr. David Orr Edson was among the witnesses to the first automobile accident resulting in death to an American pedestrian.

The following article reporting this incident appeared on the front page of "The New York Times," September 14, 1899:

   Vehicle Carrying the Son of ex-Mayor Edson 
   Ran Over H.H. Bliss, Who Was
   Alighting from a Trolley Car.
   H.H. Bliss, a real estate dealer, with offices at 41 Wall Street and living at 235 West Seventy-fifth Street, was run over last night at Central Park West and Seventy-fourth Street. He was injured fatally.
   Bliss, accompanied by a woman named Lee, was alighting from a south-bound Eighth Avenue trolley car, when he was knocked down and run over by an automobile in charge of Arthur Smith of 151 West Sixty-second Street. He had left the car, and had turned to assist Miss Lee, when the automobile struck him. Bliss was knocked to the pavement, and two wheels of the cab passed over his head and body. His skull and chest were crushed.
   Dr. David Orr Edson, son of ex-mayor Edson, of 38 West Seventy-first Street, was the occupant of the electric cab. As soon as the vehicle was brought to a standstill, he sent in a call to Roosevelt Hospital for an ambulance, and until its arrival did all he could to aid the injured man.  
   When he was taken to the hospital Dr. Marny, the house surgeon, said that Bliss was so seriously injured that he could not live.
   Smith was arrested and locked up in the West Sixty-eighth Street Station.  
   It is claimed that a large truck occupied the right side of the avenue, making it necessary for Smith to run his vehicle close to the car. Dr. Edson was returning from a sick call in Harlem when the accident happened.
   Mr. Bliss board at 235 West Seventy-fifth Street. The place where the accident happened is known to the motormen on the tolled line as "Dangerous Stretch," on account of the many accidents which have occurred there during the past Summer."
   The following story was printed the next day, September 15, 1899:
   Henry H. Bliss Succumbs to His Injuries in Roosevelt Hospital
   Henry H. Bliss, who was struck by an automobile at Eighth Avenue and Seventy-fourth Street on Wednesday night as he was alighting from a surface car, died from his injuries in Roosevelt Hospital yesterday. Arthur Smith, the man who was in charge of the automobile, was arraigned before Magistrate Flammer in the West Side Court yesterday afternoon and was held in $1,000 bail for a hearing on Monday.
   Mr. Bliss was a native of Vermont, and was born about sixty-eight years ago. He had been a resident of this city for thirty-five years, for the greater part of which time he had been in the real estate business, both as a broker and as an operator for his own account. His offices were at 41 Wall Street. Mr. Bliss was the step-father of Mrs. Mary Alice Almont Livingston Fleming, who was tried about three years ago on a charge of having poisoned her mother, who was Mr. Bliss's second wife. Mr. Bliss leaves a son, Herbert, and a daughter, Florence."
   Here's an account taken from an individual witness:

On 13 Sep 1899, Henry H. Bliss, 68, a real-estate broker returning home from a trip to Harlem, alights to help his companion, Miss Lee, out of a streetcar at 74th Street & Central Park West, NYC, and is hit by an electric-powered taxicab, Automobile No. 43, driven by Arthur Smith who swerved to avoid a (motorized?) truck. Cab passenger, Dr. David Orr Edson, son of former NYC Mayor, Franklin Edson, tries to give aid, but Bliss has a crushed skull.

Dying on 14 September, he becomes 1st pedestrian killed by an automobile in the US.

Driver Smith is arrested, charged with manslaughter, but later acquitted on grounds the accident was unintentional. (American Heritage (September, 1899), pp 97-98).

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David Orr Edson was the author of an article that appeared in "The New York Times", June 22, 1916, page 10. The US would not declare war on Germany and Austria until 1917, but during 1916 the conflict was drawing the US into preparedness for involvement.



One Is to Lock Out the Offending Nation, Thereby Pronouncing Upon It a Terrible and Indeterminate Sentence.

By DR. DAVID ORR EDSON Psychologist.

New York, June 21, 1916.

To the Editor of The New York Times:

   Civilization, which is but the question of mental procedure vs. physical force, is now before us for a final determination — at least so far as our generation is concerned. One force or the other is about to be restandardized for perhaps another century. Which?
   I do not prognosticate dire results to follow either this or that line of procedure. I only call to mind materials of thought which escape the average thinker. It seems almost impossible for the individual to see new material in a new event. Just as soon as he is thrust into a situation which threatens his own welfare, he becomes so prejudiced in favor of the old materials with which he achieved his survival in the past that he is utterly blinded to the new materials which are ever coming to the front for the reason of the law of progress.
   If we are to prepare physical force to back our desires we should bear in mind that though we do this with the most commendable spirit, the end we seek to achieve may not eventuate. The winning of a fight is still determined by the materials of the fight. What then? Well, we may lose! That is exactly what may befall any undertaking. Nevertheless I find that the average "preparedness mind" has given this possible alternative not the slightest thought. To be prepared — to him — is actually to win, without the fight. Nor will he give the slightest consideration to the thought of the other fellow's preparedness. What about our physical preparedness when the other fellow is willing to prepare right down to personal and family poverty? This is, indeed, the path which preparedness must be ready to travel, once it is established as a method of procedure.
   On the other hand, within the last one hundred years or so, there has grown into civilization, through peaceful procedures, materials which in having been exercised to mutual advantage have become necessities, and compulsive necessities at that, namely international relationships. They have been so utterly elaborated as to leave nations utterly inadequate to cope with their own necessities. International relationships are compulsory.
   Also, within these last one hundred years or so, there has been elaborated in the mind of man, in consequence of these international compulsions, a punishment more intolerable than can be inflicted by any means of physical torture. It is a form of automatic reaction — mental in procedure — and the offender is powerless against it. It not only fastens its tentacles upon the disadjuster, but pray become a thing of inheritance. Heretofore, to be "locked up" for violations of the rules of the game of life was considered the very end product of social punishment. But now there is a greater one — elaborated out of international co-ordination, to wit: To be "locked out." To be "locked out" is indeed an indeterminate sentence, and one which may not be brought to any court for readjustment or liberation.
   It was with this quality that President Wilson forced Germany to abandon her submarine procedure. This is the quality of material that has been standardized in the halls of learning. Along these lines I could enumerate hundreds of like compulsions with which the human mind is unable to contend. To give the death thrust to an adversary fighting with these materials is, first of all, to destroy one's self. The pacifist is no coward, nor is he a laggard. he merely says that to fight along these lines may be to lose.  That is a result, however, quite as possible with physical preparedness, while to win would be an achievement worthy of the twentieth century, and not at all beyond the realms of possibility.
   Civilization has been achieved my the few over the many. It must not be forgotten that the propagation of civilization in this twentieth century of ours depends utterly upon a drafting from the many a sufficient number of recruits each year, to swell the ranks to a greater proportion. In short — in this period of 1916 — this means that the profits derived from civilized procedures must be extended yearly to include a greater number. And this in turn means policing the game, by all means, but not by physical prowess alone. Physical force must gradually be shunted from muscle to brain cells, for the reason that the division of spoils is then more equitably distributed. This leads to greater achievements.
   This is not a country of blood-strain, as are England and France and Germany and Russia and Italy. This is a land of escape from physical arbitration — a land where mental achievement may claim its reward unhampered by such hereditary prejudices. The war now being waged in the old country, no matter the complex reasons of cause, is producing effects of tremendous dissatisfaction. The reward is bound to be infinitesimal when compared with the loss. It is almost a foregone conclusion that the influx of aliens into this country following the return of peace will be enormous, owing to the desire to escape the suffering which will fall upon those who have to pay the price of war.
   It seems to me quite stupid for the United States to prepare for physical war in the face of the fact that Europe is destroying her war materials — men, wealth, and the desire for war. In doing this we are but shifting the balance, see-saw fashion, to this continent. It requires a great deal of courage for a man to enter a room unarmed where gun-play holds forth, yet it is a well-known fact that he who does so holds more dynamic weight for the settlement of the dispute than one who enters bristling with armament.
            DAVID ORR EDSON.

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David Orr Edson is the author of a book, "Getting What We Want; How to Apply Psychoanalysis to Your Own Problems," published in 1921, New York, Harper Brothers, 286 pages. There are several services that will print a reproduction of this book on demand. It is also available (2010) as a free download from books.google.com

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David Orr Edson, MD's Timeline

February 17, 1862
Albany, NY, USA
February 27, 1923
Age 61
New York, NY, USA