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American Medical Biographies/Cheever, Charles Augustus

Cheever, Charles Augustus (1793–1852)

This son of Dr. Abijah Cheever (q. v.) was born in Boston, December 1, 1793, and entered Harvard in 1809 and took his A. M. in 1813. He had the good fortune to study medicine with Dr. John Warren and in 1815 with Dr. John B. Brown, and enjoyed the benefit of his large dispensary practice, then the only clinical opportunity in Boston.

In 1816 he received his M. D. and settled in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where he was the leading surgeon for thirty-six years, until his untimely death in 1852. Previous to this he made a voyage to the West Indies to carry vaccination, then a new practice, there. His material of vaccine was embodied in an Irish lad whom he vaccinated on starting and took with him to supply the vaccine virus. This trip was entirely successful. Portsmouth, New Hampshire, was a compact town of about seven to nine thousand people. It was intensely conservative, older physicians were abundant, and his progress in acquiring practice was extremely slow.

Although always somewhat impecunious, he lavished his scanty means in all expenses which would advance him as a doctor. He bought new books, was extravagant in new instruments, and disregarded cost of knowledge. He early attracted students, and always had from one to three under him. He formed a good library, read and catechized his students, took them to see his cases, taught them to dissect and to prepare anatomical injections, dried specimens and skeletons, so that he collected for those times an unusual though small museum. Anatomical material could be obtained only by very expensive purchase. $25 to $50, from New York and Philadelphia (no railway transportation), or by illegal means.

The cadavers were obtained and dissected in the attic of his house. His home was the center of anatomical and surgical knowledge for thirty miles around, and over this area he was for thirty-six years known as "The Surgeon." His work ranged from dentistry and obstetrics to the major surgical operations. Considering the limitations, ignorance, prejudice and timidity with which he was surrounded, it is remarkable that he undertook, for his first attempts, new and recently described operations.

He operated successfully for cataract, and to ensure it kept his patient in his own house and nursed him. He operated for strabismus, also removed breasts and tumors, amputated limbs. The first asepsis of subcutaneous surgery coming to his early knowledge, he operated for club-foot and tendon sections, and treated his patients by apparatus. He was among the first here to follow up a trephining by laying open the dura mater for hemorrhage or for abscess. No asepsis, no ether! Nerve and audacity were required to assail these new problems; enlightened only by his own dissections and his own reading, he practised what he had never seen. The unaided natural senses of sight and touch guided a hand, erudite only by dissection, safely to the recesses of a quivering and moving patient.

Keen insight, intuition even, made him a noted diagnostician, esteemed as such by his contemporaries.

He died too early, shattered by domestic griefs which preyed on a sensitive nature.