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A History of the Medical Department of the University of Pennsylvania/Chapter I

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The most enlightened nations of all periods have perceived the advantages, and zealously promoted the formation of colonial settlements. Accordingly those nations who most figure in the records of history were more or less engaged, at the acme of their prosperity, in thus extending the sphere of their influence and authority. In the language of William Penn, “Colonies are the seeds of nations, begun and nourished by the care of wise and populous countries, as conceiving them best for the increase of human stock, and beneficial for commerce.”[1]

Without detailing the numerous instances of enterprise in this direction, or the circumstances attending their varied fortune, it will be pertinent to the subject of present interest to state prominently the fact, that of all the races who have been thus distinguished, not one has been more successful than that branch of the Teutonic stock from which we are lineally descended. Conqueror of the Roman Empire, and the legitimate inheritor of its glory, the race of Teutons has sent its sons broadcast over the earth, and has its offshoots, as flourishing communities, on every continent. Deriving our descent from this redoubtable people through Anglo-Saxon ancestry, we are in this land to-day the representatives of a civilization which has never lost a foot of soil to which it has been transplanted, nor yielded, by force of arms, to any rival or competitor for supremacy; for wherever Anglo-Saxon domination has been carried, there has it been permanently established.

The colonists of North America had all the qualities to secure a permanent foothold, and to extend territorial dominion. They seem to have counted the cost of relinquishing the attractions and advantages of European civilization, and having determined to cast their lot in a distant land, and settle in a wilderness, were ready to undergo the privations, hardships, and frequent perils incident to so bold an undertaking. With stout hearts, vigorous frames, firm and unwavering faith, and confidence in an unconquerable will to surmount obstacles necessarily to be encountered, they persevered tenaciously in their efforts, and, slowly emerging from their difficulties, were eminently successful in converting the primeval forest into a dwelling-place of abundance and luxury. The country they were preordained to subjugate, and to transmit as an inheritance to their children, was no El Dorado. To obtain gold or silver, or precious stones, from its streams or mountains, entered into the imagination only of the wildest dreamers; but it possessed a virgin soil of untold richness, and bays and rivers of vast proportions; and it had every requisite for the support of an industrious, enterprising, self-reliant people, who would bestow their labor without stint, and by the sweat of their brow render nature herself conducive to the acquisition of independence, prosperity, and wealth. The settlers soon discovered that their land of promise was a cereal producing country, by the cultivation of which bread could be produced in abundance for domestic demand, and to spare; that the plough and the sickle were the engines of present and prospective affluence, and that upon the use of these must depend everything that contributes to the erection of a flourishing community, of a first-class power among the nations, with its commerce, manufactures, and arts.[2] In 1680 Mahlon Stacy wrote thus to a friend in England, from New Jersey: “We have wanted nothing since we came hither but the company of our good friends and acquaintances; all our people are very well, and in a hopeful way to live much better than they ever did, and not only so, but to provide well for their posterity. I live as well to my content, and in as great plenty as ever I did, and in a far more likely way to make an estate.”[3]

Writers upon political economy, when estimating the sources of the wealth and prosperity of nations, have given comparatively too little attention to the importance of one natural family of the vegetable kingdom, the Gramineæ; yet with reference to ourselves, its cultivation was the foundation of our first successes, of our prodigious growth and augmentation, of our moral and intellectual elevation, and of our influence upon mankind. Food, then, has been made a dominant power, and all creation virtually recognizes the truth of the assertion.

With the relief from anxiety and concern for immediate and temporary requirements, and an improvement in material sources of prosperity, came new wants, spontaneously arising, to a thriving, active, and reasoning people. The need of literary and scientific cultivation was fully understood, and incited to practical endeavors to meet its suggestions. The school and the schoolmaster were early introduced as an institution, and we may advert with interest, not unmingled with pleasure and pride, to the former days when the rustic school-house and the “Log College” were the seats of education tion and learning of the country, when, with spelling and reading, with writing and arithmetic, the classics and philosophy constituted the daily round of teaching imposed on one professor. From such humble beginnings have proceeded the most successful and elaborately-organized educational establishments, which having acquired a world-wide reputation, and in the full tide of usefulness, are evidences of the intelligence and refinement of the nation.

Besides the necessity of systematic instruction for the prosecution of the increasing business of the people, and for the extension of their relations at home and abroad, there was soon felt that of providing for the future successful performance of professional duties. As population multiplied, this need was thoroughly appreciated. The educated men had become, from the earliest period of the settlements, the leading characters, whether occupied in administering the laws, and governing the State, in expounding the doctrines of religious belief, or in administering to the sick; and hence a respect for the higher orders of learning which were regarded as conducive to efficiency and usefulness became fixed in the minds of the community. The first practitioners of the healing art had been educated in the parent country; when following the fortunes of their less gifted countrymen they had become participants of their struggles and trials. Such were the few medical men who first landed on our shores, and who encountered all the difficulties of administering to the ailments incident to a new climate, aggravated by deficient facilities of protection from the elements and exposure. They were, in many instances, possessed of a thorough education and of classical accomplishments, and nobly sustained their part in the untried scenes through which they passed.

In some cases the theological and medical professions were united in the same individual, medicine being studied as an accessory science, with the especial view—as is now frequently done by our missionaries—to meet the exigencies of administering, if required, not only in spiritual concerns, but in bodily derangements. This union of the clerical and medical professions has been adverted to by Dr. Thatcher, who thus explains it: “The inducements to emigrate, with the large proportion of the colonists, was of a religious nature. They were restive and unhappy under the restrictions and even persecutions which emanated from the bigotry of the Church Establishment of England.” “The Puritan clergy of England were, for more than twenty years prior to the emigration of the first settlers, subjected to the sharpest persecution. Hence, as a precautionary measure in case of an ejectment, a considerable number of clergymen of that period were educated to the medical profession, and not a few were eminent practitioners before they crossed the Atlantic. When these professional men came to form connections in the Colonies, it was found that the small congregations were unable to afford them a comfortable support; hence the necessity and convenience of their resorting to secular avocations.”

Dr. Sewell remarks, in this connection, that “so far were the professions of Divinity and Medicine united that the clergy not only prescribed for the sick, but entered into medical controversies, and wrote practical works on the diseases of the country.” There were several medical works published in America at an early date by divines. A physician as well as a learned clergyman of Boston, Thomas Thatcher, in 1677, published a work entitled, “A Brief Guide in the Smallpox and Measles.” This was soon followed by the work of another clergyman, which bore the title of “A Good Management under the Distemper of the Measles.”[4] The Rev. Benjamin Colman, also of Boston, printed a small pamphlet entitled, “Some Account of the New Method of Receiving the Smallpox, by Grafting or Inoculating.” Nathaniel Williams wrote a pamphlet on the “Method of the Practice in the Smallpox,” published in 1730. And Thomas Howard, in 1732, put forth a treatise upon Pharmacy.[5] Even as late as 1775, we find, in the “Pennsylvania Magazine” for April, the history of a malignant fever, attended with some new symptoms, in Sussex County, Delaware, by the Rev. Mr. Matthew Wilson, of Lewestown.[6] The two avocations, however, occasionally interfered with each other, as is illustrated by the following incident: In a neighboring State, a theological physician was in the midst of his usual Sunday services when a message was conveyed to him that a negro girl was dangerously ill and needed his medical attention. Having no other means in the pulpit of giving his directions, he seized a hymn-book and wrote upon the fly-leaf, “Let the wench be blooded, and wait until I come.” The book is now in the possession of the clerical grandson of the clerical doctor, who in his day was an influential personage.

It must not be supposed that from the very commencement of the settlements there was the highest degree of skill, or consummate learning. The colonists, in the infancy of their establishments, were apparently satisfied with a moderate amount of professional competency. It is recorded that “Jan Petersen, from Alfendolft, was employed as barber (as surgeons were then denominated) on South River (Delaware) at ten guilders per month from the 1st of July, 1638.”[7] At a little later period, we are told by Gordon that the salary of a secretary in New Sweden was eight dollars a month, of a barber ten, and of a provost six. He adds: “We must not infer from comparison of the wages of the secretary and barber, that the latter was most valued, though most appreciated. The first had doubtless the most honor, though the second had a greater compensation in base lucre.”[8] When the Swedish possessions had passed into the hands of the Dutch, the Director of the colony at New Arnstel (afterwards New Castle), Aldricks, writes “that our actual situation is certainly very distressing by an ardent prevailing fever, and other diseases, by which the large majority of the inhabitants are oppressed and broken down; besides that, our barber died, and another, well acquainted with his profession, is very sick.”[9] The practice of the times was probably confined to bleeding, and the administration of salts and simples. These did not always succeed, however, for in some of the references in connection with epidemic disorders, it is stated that this mode of treatment was unsuccessful. A low type of disease may have been prevalent.

There are other allusions made to the Dutch-Swedish Colony on the Delaware. In a letter from Aldricks to the Director-General, Stuyvesant, March, 1659, the “causes” then operating against it are stated; among others, “that prevailing violent sickness which wasted a vast deal of goods and blood from one year to another, and which not only raged here, but everywhere throughout this province, and which consequently retarded, not only our progress in agriculture, but threw a damp over other undertakings.” In 1660, Beekman, the Collector, speaks of “Peter Tenneman to be employed as a surgeon by the Company,” and adds: “We are in want of a good surgeon, as it happened already more than once; thereto we wanted very much Mr. Williams, the barber (surgeon) in this city; but having then some patients there (probably New York) he could not come hither, and when he came he often had not by him such medicaments as the patients required, wherefore the sick are suffering.”[10]

These extracts furnish an interesting view of the posture of affairs, and of the difficulties encountered at the period.

The profession has always been burdened with charlatans, and the early history of it in this country presents no exception. Smith, who wrote in 1758, when speaking of the profession of New York, says: “A few physicians among us are eminent for their skill. Quacks abound like locusts in Egypt, and too many have been recommended to a full practice and profitable subsistence; this is less to be wondered at, as the profession is under no kind of regulation. Loud as the call is, to our shame be it remembered, we have no law to protect the lives of the king’s subjects from the malpractice of pretenders. Any man, at his pleasure, sets up for physician, apothecary, and chirurgeon. No candidates are either examined, licensed, or were sworn to fair practice.”[11] This condition of things was also exhibited by Dr. Peter Middleton in his introductory lecture in 1768, upon the opening of the Medical School, who stigmatized a class of practitioners as the “needy outcasts of other places in the character of doctors.”[12]

There is an instinctive tendency among scientific men, when transplanted to new and unexplored localities, to investigate the objects of natural interest to which they are introduced, and none could have been better calculated to arouse curiosity, or lead to exploration, than the surroundings of the colonial physicians. The natural science with which they were best acquainted was botany. It had necessarily entered into their studies as an element of medical education, and was so closely associated with the therapeutical methods of the time, that the transition was an easy and attractive one from the study of the plants to which they had been accustomed to unknown productions everywhere thrust upon their observation.

The rich and resplendent Flora of North America was a subject for wonder and contemplation to the true votary of nature, well calculated to awaken his enthusiasm, irrespective of the practical application that might be made of its study and investigation to the interests of humanity. When Professor Kalm, of Obo, a distinguished naturalist, was sent by the Universities of Sweden and the Government to this country in 1748, he landed in Philadelphia, and thus narrates his impressions: “I found that I was now come into a new world. Wherever I looked to the ground I everywhere found such plants as I had never seen before. When I saw a tree, I was forced to stop and ask those who accompanied me, how it was called. The first plant which struck my eyes was an andropogon, or kind of grass—and grass is a part of botany I always delighted in. I was seized with terror at the thought of ranging through so many new and unknown parts of natural history.”[13] This was an instinctive expression of feeling on the part of one of the most accomplished naturalists of the age. The colonial physicians were not neglectful of resources that lay within their reach. Stimulated by a desire to render themselves independent in the supply of their remedial agents, they made important discoveries in regard to the value of indigenous plants, which have stood the test of experience. By them standard additions were made to the Materia Medica list, not only of this country, but of Europe. Some of the medicinal productions of the continent of America were known to the aborigines.[14] The names of Clayton, Tennant, Lining, Chalmers, Garden, Shoeff, Colden, and Mitchell, may be honorably mentioned in association with the botanical productions of North America; and in compliment to several of them Linnæus named such genera as emanated from their researches. It is stated that Dr. Tennant received one hundred pounds from the Virginia legislature, in 1739, in consequence of the discovery of the efficacy of senega in pleurisy. Dr. Garden’s name is closely connected with the recognition of the anthelmintic properties of Spigelia Marilandica.[15]

  1. Penn, in issuing his proposals, entered into an elaborate argument to show the advantages of colonization.—Penn’s Works, fol. Annals of Pennsylvania, by Samuel Hazard, pp. 305.
  2. That enthusiastic writer, Gabriel Thomas, when speaking of the crops of the settlers, informs us that “Their sorts of grain are Wheat, Rye, Pease, Oats, Barley, Buckwheat, Rice, Indian Corn, Indian Pease, and Beans, with great quantities of Hemp and Flax, as also several sorts of eating Roots and Turnips, Potatoes, Carrots, Parsnips, etc., all of which are produced yearly in greater quantities than in England. There are several Husbandmen who sow yearly between seventy and eighty acres of Wheat, each, besides Barley, Oates, Pease, and Beans.”—An Historical and Geographical Account of the Province and Country of Pennsylvania and of West Jersey in America, etc., by Gabriel Thomas, who resided there about fifteen years: London, 1698, p. 10.
  3. Smith’s New Jersey, p. 114.
  4. A Lecture delivered at the opening of the Medical Department of Columbia College, in the District of Columbia, March 30, 1825, by Thomas Sewell, M. D., Professor of Anatomy and Physiology, Washington City. (p. 8.)
  5. An Historical Sketch of the state of Medicine in the American Colonies from their first settlement to the period of the Revolution, by John B. Beck, M. D.—Transactions of the New York State Medical Society, 1850.
  6. The letter giving this account is dated March 22, 1775.
  7. Annals of Pennsylvania, p. 49, from Albany Papers.
  8. The history of New Jersey, by Thomas F. Gordon, p. 13.
  9. This picture differs from a somewhat spiteful one of affairs by Gabriel Thomas: “Of Lawyers and Physicians I shall say nothing, because this Countrey is very Peaceable and Healty (sic); long may it so continue, and never have occasion for the Tongue of the one, nor the Pen of the other— both equaUy destructive to Men’s Estates and Lives; besides, forsooth, they, Hangman like, have a License to Murder and make Mischief.”—Op. cit., p. 32.
  10. Annals of Pennsylvania, p. 808.
  11. History of New York, by William Smith, A. M., p. 336.
  12. See Beck’s Historical Sketch, before quoted.
  13. Kalm’s Travels in North America, vol. i. p. 31.
  14. The way in which the resources of the country were viewed by certain persons who wrote upon the subject at an early date, may be judged of from the following extract of Gabriel Thomas’s account of Pennsylvania, published in 1698: “There are also many curious and excellent physical wild herbs, roots, and drugs, of great virtue and very sanative, as the sassafras and sarsaparilla, so much used in diet drinks, for the cure of the venereal disease, which makes the Indians, by a right application of them, as able doctors and surgeons as any in Europe, performing celebrated cures therewith, and by the use of some particular plants only, find remedy in all swellings, burnings, cuts, etc. There grows also in great plenty the black snakeroot (famed for its sometimes preserving from, but often curing the plague, being infused only in whine, brandy, or rumm), rattlesnake root, pokeroot—called, in England, jallop—with several other beneficial herbs, plants, roots, which physicians have approved of, far exceeding in nature and virtue those of other countries.”—Op. cit., p. 18.
  15. An interesting lecture upon this subject was published by Professor Wood, introductory to his course of 1840, University of Pennsylvania. See, also, Thatcher’s Medical Biography.