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Brackett, Joshua (1732–1802)

It is with more than ordinary interest that I write concerning the career of this benevolent physician, because he was not only related to me on my mother's side, but my grandfather, Dr. Lyman Spalding, knew him well, visited him in his last illness, and delivered a most acceptable eulogy at the meeting of the New Hampshire Medical Society in 1807.

Joshua Brackett, the son of Captain John and the handsome Elizabeth Pickering Brackett, was born in Greenland, New Hampshire, May 9, 1733, studied with the Rev. Mr. Rust of Stratham, and filled his youthful mind with the theology of the Bible and of the Universalist church, as was the fashion in those days. Those who investigate the history of the Brackett family will, for instance, find one of them reading the Bible through twice, before her pious death, at the age of seven.

Possessed of an enormous amount of book learning, Joshua entered Harvard in 1748, was graduated in 1752; in 1792 he received the honorary M. D.; and at the end of his life he left his alma mater a goodly sum of money toward the foundation of a professorship of natural history and allied arts.

On graduation he settled in Portsmouth, preached eloquently and prayed extemporaneously at amazing legths in the Universalist church, until he fell ill and then made the intimate acquaintance of Dr. Clement Jack-son, the leading practitioner of the town. This clever man soon discovered from bedside talks with his patient, that he had been forced into theology largely against his inclinations, and was really only an imitative preacher and maker of ecstatic prayers. So soon then, as young Brackett was well, Dr. Jackson put him into his office, set him to compounding drugs, took him about to visit his patients, and after the proper instruction young Brackett settled down beside his teacher, who was glad enough in his advancing years to enjoy his youthful society and honorable competition.

The young doctor soon studied obstetrics as a specialty and became well known. With the oncoming of the Revolution he aided the cause zealously, was on the Committee of Safety, and in his leisure time sat on the bench as judge of the Maritime Courts. This position he owed to Captain Whipple of Kittery whose sister Hannah Dr. Brackett had married in May, 1761, and obtained with her a dowry of 300 pounds in Spanish silver dollars. He remained on the bench until 1784 when his court was abolished and the circuit court established in its place.

From this time on to the end of his life he continued in active practice, was elected honorary and active member of the Massachusetts Medical Society, was one of the charter members of the New Hampshire Medical Society, its first vice-president and then its president for six successive years. (1793–1799). The meetings under his guidance were held in various towns, and were attended by a dozen members, some one presenting a rare case, which was discussed until noon when dinner was served, and then after a pipe and a glass of punch the members with the lowering sun, set off on horseback on their lonely rides, to far distant homes. To this society, Dr. Brackett gave many valuable medical books, the cream of the literature of the era, and from this lending medical library the members had a chance to know all that was best in medicine and surgery of the day. He served on the committee for preparing a permanent seal for the Society, which was finally made of solid silver at a cost of 6 pounds. At his death he gave additional books to the society; when Mrs. Brackett died she left $500 to keep the library in order, and to add more books in time, and at Dr. Spalding's suggestion, the books were marked in golden letters: "Brackett to the N. H. Med. Soc." Let me add for those curious concerning books, that a few of these here mentioned can still be seen in the New Hampshire State Library at Concord.

From the eulogy mentioned at the beginning of this notice, this single sentence may be quoted: "With the rugged art of surgery he was not so much delighted as with the tranquil fields of physic; but midwifery was his forte; here he shone in all his splendor and was peculiarly successful."

Suffering with more than usual severity from a cardiac affection, Dr. Brackett set off in May, 1802, for the springs of Saratoga, but he obtained no relief and finding himself steadily failing he turned back for home, reached Portsmouth about the tenth of July and died on Saturday the seventeenth.

I sum up this benevolent physician as a man of extensive reading, accurate observation, acute reasoning, firm friendship and unbounded benevolence. Nor should we forget that from his early training he could, more successfully than other physicians, minister to the souls of his patients. In other words he was a man to whom one could unbosom secrets, confess sins, and obtain from him all those mental uplifts, which in so many instances raise the patient from a bed of suffering sooner than all the medicines at the command of the indifferent physician.

Brackett Genealogy
Trans. New Hamp. Med. Soc.
Tombstone at Portsmouth, N. H.