Nelson Cook and Dr. Bemis (ca 1888-ca 1897)

It is very possible that, late in life, Nelson Cook may have suffered, at least temporarily, from a problem fatal to the career of any graphic artist: blindness. This is suggested by the strange saga of Cook and a Doctor Bemis.

A New Englander by birth, Edward Herbert Bemis came to Glens Falls, New York, not far from Saratoga, in 1872 and established a reputation as a skilled specialist in the treatment of eye afflictions (see the Bemis “portrait”). His practice was wildly successful, and in the 1890s he opened the Bemis Eye Sanitarium complex, attracting countless patients from many states and several foreign nations suffering from cataracts, glaucoma, detached retinas and other ailments; patients requiring multiple treatments over a period of time could lodge at the Sanitarium in a multi-building, hotel-like setting.

At some point Nelson Cook himself may have been a patient of Doctor Bemis. This is suggested by an advertisement that ran in Harper’s Monthly magazine in 1897 (see below); it may have appeared in other periodicals at other times also. The ad reproduced an alleged “masterpiece” portrait of Dr. Bemis painted by Cook “upon recovering his eyesight”; Cook, said the copy, had been “blind in one eye and nearly so in the other, with cataracts complicated by paralysis.”

Did Cook, in fact, have eye problems? The issue is complicated by the apparent “mixed success” of Dr. Bemis and his allegedly curative techniques. These included the “absorption method,” a process used by a number of practitioners of the day who claimed that it removed harmful elements from the eye without surgery. Dr. Bemis went so far as to develop and eventually to market a so-called “Magnetic Vaporizer,” used in concert with the “absorption” technique. While some patients must have benefited from Bemis’s ministrations, others surely saw him as a charlatan and a quack – after all, this was the era of “snake oil,” patent medicines,” and “miracle cures.”

It is possible that Cook suffered eye problems in old age and that he was cured by Dr. Bemis – indeed, the ad might be a genuine endorsement from a satisfied patient. Cook’s portrait output did decline in his later years, yet his wonderful rendering of LB Pike in 1890, just two years before his death, suggests that his talent had not suffered at all. Could diminished vision or even blindness account for a dearth of commissions in the years after the Civil War, with his eyesight recovered by 1890? To date there is no support beyond the ad for such a scenario.

What is one to think of Cook’s “masterpiece” portrait of Dr. Bemis? Did such a painting exist, and if so was it done by a “satisfied customer” to pay for his treatments or to show his gratitude or admiration (remember how easily Cook was swept along by the “inventor” of a “perpetual motion machine” decades earlier in Canada; see Letters from Canada.)? Or did Bemis commission the portrait and then exploit it and his association with the artist? Besides his health, a constant obsession of Nelson Cook as revealed in his letters was his financial situation, rarely described as satisfactory. Cook’s brother and long-time supporter, Ransom, had passed away in 1881, and while Cook had a stipend bequeathed to him, it was a small one. Income from a contrived “endorsement,” like a commission from a portrait, would have been welcome, indeed.

Genuine or contrived, it is encouraging that the “endorsement” ad was published at all, for it suggests that Cook was a known and respected figure even late in life. One can assume such notoriety in the Glens Falls-Saratoga area of upstate New York, but publication in a magazine with the reach of Harper’s suggests his reputation may have extended further. Dr. Bemis surely had his shortcomings, but marketing savvy was not one of them – it is unlikely that he would have had an “unknown” represent his business. In the end, whatever the truth of Cook’s eye ailment, this incident does suggest a perfect nexus between a physician who exploited his patients’ most worrisome afflictions and an artist obsessed with his health and eager for funds and for recognition.