American Medical Biographies/Young, John Richardson

Young, John Richardson (1782–1804)

John Richardson Young, America's pioneer medical scientist, was born in Hagerstown (then Elizabethtown) Maryland, in 1782, son of Dr. Samuel and Ann Richardson Young. His mother died in 1791, at the age of 31, leaving, besides John Richardson, two girls, Elizabeth and Martha, aged 8 and 6.

John went to Princeton University (then the College of New Jersey) and while there became a member of the undergraduate "Cliosophic Society." He graduated in 1799, and returning home, soon after took up the study of medicine with his father.

The elder Young was born in County Down, Ireland, in 1730 and came to this country before the Revolution, being a widely known physician and enterprising citizen of Hagerstown. He was a graduate of Trinity College, Dublin, and educated in medicine in Edinburgh. He died in Hagerstown in 1838. The son bears tribute to indebtedness to his father for "paternal kindness and first principles in medicine" in his thesis in 1803.

John R. Young's thesis on graduating at the University of Pennsylvania was entitled, "An Experimental Inquiry into the Principles of Nutrition and the Digestive Process," and this constitutes his one great claim to fame.

Young's work on digestion was based on experiments on our big bull frog with its capacious accommodating gullet; the results were far in advance of anything that had heretofore been done for physiology in this country; he demonstrated for the first time that digestion was effected by an acid secreted by the stomach, that it checked putrefaction, and he rejected the idea that digestion was a process of trituration, fermentation or putrefaction. He says: "We would, therefore, explain this process in a few words. Aliment is dissolved by the gastric menstruum; it then passes into the duodenum and meets with bile and pancreatic liquor; after being united with these, a heterogeneous mass is formed called chyme, and from this lacteals secrete chyle."

Young's thesis was published in Philadelphia in 1803, and was reprinted in Caldwall's Medical Theses in 1805. Two other writings of his have been found in Benjamin Smith Barton's Philadelphia Medical and Physical Journal for 1804, one of these is a brief excerpt from a letter of Young's but valuable as adding to the little that can be found of him.

A more interesting work is a manuscript found among the few effects preserved by descendants of the family; this is evidently a paper prepared for a general audience, setting forth in non-technical language the process of digestion as known before his experiments on frogs and snakes.

In one year from the time he graduated, he died in Hagerstown, June 8, 1804, in the twenty-second year of his age. A tradition in his family states that the cause of his death, as well as that of his sisters, was tuberculosis. The graves of all the family are in the old St. John's Episcopal Church burying-ground in Hagerstown.

Dr. Samuel Young lived to be 108 years old, but misfortune seemed to follow him. In 1805, a year after his son's death, he took into partnership, at the recommendation of Dr. Benjamin Smith Barton (John R. Young's friend, as well as his teacher) a classmate of his son's—Dr. Thomas Walmsley, of Pennsylvania (at that time practising at Chambersburg), and on August 15, 1806, this young man died. The suggestion seems not amiss that he died of tuberculosis contracted at the Young home. Dr. Samuel Young was at this time 76 years old, a man of property in real estate and in slaves, whom he liberated at his death.

There is an exquisite miniature of John Young, painted by Peale, and an indifferent life-size bust of Samuel Young, painted by Frymier, both in the possession of Miss Bessie Bell Patterson (whose mother was a second cousin of John R. Young's) at her home near McConnellsburg, Pennsylvania.

Maryland Her., June 13, 1803 and July 13, 1804
The Phila. Med. & Phys. Jour., 1804, vol. i, pt. 1, p. 47; 145.
Catalogue of the Med. Graduates of the Univ. of Pa., with a Historical Sketch, 1836.
Information from Miss Bessie Bell Patterson, Dr. Ewing Jordan, Mr. T. E. Patterson, Judge T. J. C. Williams, Dr. McPherson Scott, and by investigation.