American Medical Biographies/Brashear, Walter

Brashear, Walter (1776–1860)

Walter Brashear, surgeon, was born in Prince George's County, Maryland, on the eleventh of February, 1776. Eight years after, his father, Nacy Brashear, emigrated to Kentucky and settled near the Long Lick within three miles of Shepardsville. Walter was the seventh son; therefore, according to the old idea destined for the medical profession. After a limited education at schools then within the reach of his scanty means, he entered the literary department of the Transylvania University, where he acquired a good knowledge of the classics and in 1796 began to study medicine under Dr. Frederick Ridgely (q. v.) of Lexington. Two years after he attended a course of lectures in the University of Pennsylvania and in 1799 sailed to China as surgeon to the ship Jane and while in China amputated a woman's breast, probably the first operation of the kind among the Celestials. On his return he abandoned the profession for a time, devoted himself to mercantile pursuits, and proving ultimately unfortunate, in 1813 moved from Bardstown to Lexington, where his career as a professional man may be said to begin.

It was previous to this period, however, while merchant and surgeon, he amputated at the hip-joint in August, 1806, eighteen years prior to the much eulogized case of Dr. Mott of New York. The subject was a mulatto boy, seventeen years of age, belonging to the monks of St. Joseph of Bardstown. He had fracture of the thigh complicated with severe injury of the soft parts, but completely recovered, living in good health many years after. Dr. Brashear had no precedent to guide him in his hazardous undertaking, for the cases of Larrey and other army surgeons of Europe had occurred only a short time before and were then entirely unknown to the bold and adventurous backwoodsman. The operation was performed upon a very novel plan comprising two distinct stages: first the thigh was removed about its middle in the ordinary manner; then the remainder of the bone was separated from its muscular connection by a long incision on the outside of the limb and disarticulated at the socket.

The operation was done in the presence of Dr. Burr Harrison and Dr. John Goodtell, the boy's doctor. Brashear seemed to possess peculiar tact in treatment of diseases of the bones and joints, especially in cases of scrofulous enlargement, called "white swelling." He was also very successful in the management of fractures of the skull, and had a set of trephining instruments constructed under his immediate direction in Philadelphia, which he regarded as much superior to those in ordinary use.

He practised medicine and surgery in Lexington from 1813 to 1817 with great success, and was the first in the West to change from the depleting to the stimulating plan of treatment in the so-called "cold plague," prevalent and very fatal during a portion of that period.

Being seized anew with the ginseng fever, Dr. Brashear left Kentucky, and in 1882 removed his family to the Parish of St. Mary, where he had previously held property.

Dr. Brashear had a mind of great originality and of infinite resources. Nature had evidently designed him for a great man, and it is much to be regretted that he allowed himself to be drawn aside from his professional pursuits. He was successively doctor, merchant, legislator, lawyer, and naturalist.

Facts given by R. B. Brashear of St. Mary, La.
Am. Pract. and News, Louisville, 1894, vol. xvii.
Louisville Med. Monthly, 1894–1895, part I.
Pioneer Surgery of Kentucky, Yandell.