The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

Sammy Tubbs, the Boy Doctor, and "Sponsie," the Troublesome Monkey (1874-1875)  

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

Sammy Tubbs, the Boy Doctor, and “Sponsie,” the Troublesome Monkey was written by Edward Bliss Foote. Foote (1829-1906) was a New York physiologist, medical journalist, entrepreneur, social activist, and promoter of a variety of unorthodox treatments.

Sammy Tubbs is proof of the age-old adage that “everything is improved by the judicious application of primates” (more informally, “everything’s better with monkeys”). Sammy Tubbs was a five-volume series, over 1200 pages long, on anatomy and physiology, with the fifth volume written as a sex education manual. Sammy Tubbs was aimed at children and young adolescents and was intended to educate them about the “wonderful mechanism” of their bodies. Although the books are full of detailed illustrations of the human body and numerous medical lectures by Foote, Sammy Tubbs is fiction, what Foote called “Science in Story.” Sammy Tubbs is a bildungsroman (a coming-of-age story) about Sammy Tubbs, an emancipated slave. After the Civil War he, his father (a whitewasher) and his mother (a washerwoman) move to New York City, where the twelve-year-old Sammy is hired by Doctor Samuel Hubbs as a “door-tender.” Doctor Hubbs sees that Sammy, though untutored, is intelligent and resourceful, and Hubbs takes Sammy on as a student. Hubbs teaches Sammy medicine, anatomy, physiology, and hygiene, all of which Sammy picks up quickly after overcoming his own fear of human corpses. Sammy begins lecturing to the black community of the city and becomes their hero, offering them medical information and treatment which the white medical community had denied them. Sammy follows a strict program of gymnastics and muscle building and becomes both mentally and physically superior. He delivers a speech on human sexuality and reproduction to a racially and sexually mixed crowd. At the end of Sammy Tubbs Sammy has been accepted to medical school on a full scholarship and is romancing Julia Barkenstir, the white daughter of a cotton manufacturer.

In the series Sammy has two pets, both monkeys. Both are named Sponsie, and both are mischievous and misbehaving to the point of being berserk. The first Sponsie develops “a taste for malt liquors while living in Hoboken” and becomes an alcoholic. He eventually tries to hang himself. After he recovers, he turns to crime and works as a pickpocket, a kidnapper, and a carriage thief in Central Park. He is shot in the head and killed during a duel with his successor, Sponsie the Second. Sammy, who has affection for his pets but is not sentimental about them, overcomes any qualms about mishandling Sponsie’s body and removes his brain and spine, using them as props for a lecture on the brain and nervous system. Sponsie the Second lacks common sense, and is trapped under some floorboards (thus giving Foote the opportunity to teach the reader about the digestive system), has his rectum shot off while playing with a gun (which Foote uses to discuss incontinence), and is killed in a conveyor belt accident.

Edward Bliss Foote had a variety of eccentric views. At a time when eugenicists’ standard idea of interracial breeding was between the English and Irish, Foote favored blacks and whites producing children. Doctor Hubbs is Foote’s “Me” character, and Sammy Tubbs is in large part a vehicle for Foote to expound upon his favorite topics, including the dangers of alcohol, tobacco, and tight-fitting clothes and the benefits of phrenology and animal magnetism. Sammy Tubbs was extraordinarily advanced as a sex ed manual compared to its contemporaries. But although Foote was in some ways progressive and the character of Sammy Tubbs is a remarkably enlightened one, Sammy Tubbs is uneven with regard to race. Sammy himself is an übermensch, but other black characters are racist stereotypes, conniving, lazy, and shiftless, and Irish and Italian characters are shown to be little better. Sammy Tubbs also includes illustrations of Sammy and Sponsie introducing a minstrel show and Sammy’s family imitating a minstrel show. At the same time, the racist Doctor Winkles, Doctor Hubbs’ professional enemy, is humiliated for trying to embarrass Sammy, and Sammy himself is allowed to romance Julia, a white woman, and even, in one illustration, to kiss her–possibly the first interracial kiss in American literature. “Sammy Tubbs offered itself as a program for producing a universalized bourgeois self, a self that explicitly included black people and women—even as it served to reinforce prevailing taxonomies of race and gender.”1 

Recommended Edition

Print: Edward B. Foote, Science in Story. Sammy Tubbs, the Boy Doctor, and “Sponsie,” the Troublesome Monkey. Charleston, SC: Nabu Press, 2010.


For Further Research

Michael Sappol, “Sammy Tubbs and Dr. Hubbs: Anatomical Dissection, Minstrelsy, and the Technology of Self-Making in Postbellum America,” Configurations 4, no. 2 (Spring, 1996): 131-183.


1 Michael Sappol, “Sammy Tubbs and Dr. Hubbs: Anatomical Dissection, Minstrelsy, and the Technology of Self-Making in Postbellum America,” Configurations 4, no. 2 (Spring, 1996): 134.