Monday, October 12, 2015

Dr Church's Surgeons

   Dr Church hired a staff of seven surgeons to run the Hospital he established for the Continental Army and I thought it would be interesting to provide some background on a rather interesting staff of surgeons.

 1. Dr. Isaac Foster, Jr. was born in Charlestown, was a graduate of the Harvard class of 1758 ( four years after Dr. Church) and was elected to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress in October 1774 as a representative of Charlestown. After the battles of Lexington and Concord, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress
Isaac Foster, age 15,
 Joseph Badger,
was faced with the problem of wounded soldiers, British and American that had fallen on a very long battle front. Orders were given by the Congress to take care of them and Dr. Foster responded to the call. He set up a temporary hospital in the Vassall House and collected a number of wounded, apparently, most of them British soldiers. On April 29, 1775, Dr. Foster was given an order to relocate all of the sick and wounded, whose conditions permitted, and who were scattered amongst a number of houses in the local area, to the Vassall House. The Vassall House soon filled with militia men suffering from fever, dysentery and the other diseases that would naturally arise from the hastily constructed and apparently not too clean camps of the Yankee militia. Until the middle of June, Dr. Foster devoted most of  his time to the Hospital but made no attempt to obtain a regular staff, medical supplies, or additional hospital space. He was assisted by one of his apprentice doctors. However, any physician was free to visit the hospital and attend and/or prescribe medicines for any of the patients. In Dr. Foster's defense, he was merely a contract physician and had not been given any authority or direction to take charge. But then, he apparently made no attempt to convince the Provincial Congress to do anything further.

    Dr. Foster's world was shattered by Bunker Hill in mid-June 1775. All of a sudden, there were approximately 300 wounded that had to be treated. Confusion reigned. And to add to that confusion, a rumor spread that the British were about to attack Cambridge. Many of the wounded were carried to Watertown and to farm houses in the adjacent country. Dr. Foster enlisted the aid of Harvard undergraduates, probably all of whom had absolutely no medical training. After the initial chaos had abated, the wounded were brought back to the Vassall House and other locations in Cambridge. The Provincial Congress energized itself and arrangements were made to establish branch hospitals in Cambridge and Roxbury, and to deal with the ever present fear of smallpox. But then, there was still no formal organization and no one in authority. That was changed when Dr. Church was named Director General of the Hospital and he began to bring his organizational and executive skills to bear in a rather chaotic situation in which there were more than thirty hospitals.

   Dr. Foster remained in residence at The Vassall House and was hired by Dr. Church (probably the first hire) as one of his surgeons. After Dr. Church was removed from his position, Dr. Foster became Director General until he lost out to John Morgan of Pennsylvania and he apparently became Deputy-Director. I lost touch with Dr. Foster who apparently left the Army and returned to Charlestown where he died in February 1782.

2.  Dr. John Warren, younger brother of Dr. Joseph Warren, was born in Roxbury in 1753. While attending Harvard (class of 1771), he started an "Anatomical Society" amongst the undergraduates in which they studied a skeleton and dissected whatever they could get their hands on; e.g. horses, dogs. Cadavers were impossible to obtain although the "Society" did concoct an elaborate plan, never consummated, to secure the body of a hung criminal. After graduating from Harvard, John, and almost all the members of his "Anatomical Society" AKA "Spunkers", studied medicine. John, obviously, under his brother Joseph. After two years, John moved to practice in Salem, apparently believing that the competition for physicians was rather too intense in Boston. He joined Col Timothy Pickering's Salem militia regiment in 1773 as a surgeon and marched with the regiment when the battle at Lexington broke out. However, the regiment arrived too late to take a major role in the battle. John was in Salem when he received the news of  Bunker Hill and, at 2 AM the following day, he set off for Cambridge. On the way, he heard that his brother was reported missing in the battle. He then made an attempt to look for his brother on the battlefield where, according to John, he was turned back by a thrust from a bayonet from a British sentry. ( A tale I view with extreme skepticism.) He was said to bear a scar from that thrust for the rest of his life.
John Warren by Rembrandt Peale
ca 1806

   Dr. Warren then accepted a post as a surgeon under Dr. Foster, apparently heeding the entreaties of his mother not to enlist as a soldier in the militia. At 22 years of age, Warren's views of his abilities did not quite match those held by his seniors and he appears to have been somewhat frustrated in the practice of his profession. Warren continued to serve as a surgeon with Washington's Army and was present at Long Island, Trenton, and Princeton. He returned to Boston in 1777 to continue his service as a military surgeon. After the war, he became a very successful doctor and helped to found the Harvard Medical School in 1782. He died at the age of 61 in 1815.

3. Dr. Samuel Adams, Jr. The only son of Samuel Adams was born in Boston in 1751 and attended Harvard, graduating with the class of  1770. He has been described as academically undistinguished and somewhat of a troublemaker. This, despite the fact that he was a sickly child suffering from tuberculosis and apparently sick for much of his life. After graduating from Harvard, young Samuel studied medicine with Dr. Joseph Warren, perhaps more as a favor to his father than to young Samuel's abilities. After Lexington and Concord, young Samuel was trapped inside Boston and was only released by General Gage with some reluctance. Finding employment  as a regimental surgeon in Cambridge, Adams continued to serve the wounded after Bunker Hill. Adams continued to serve the Continental Army as a surgeon in the New York and  other areas, returning to Boston after the war, apparently in very poor health since he did not resume the practice of medicine. He died at the age of 36 in  January 1788, pre-deceasing his famous father.

4. Dr. Charles McKnightwas born in Monmouth County, New Jersey on October 10, 1750 and graduated from Princeton in 1771. At Princeton, McKnight was a member of the American Whig Society along with fellow classmate James Madison. McKnight's father, the Irish immigrant Rev Charles McKnight, was an ardent patriot who reportedly received a severe sabre cut to the head  in the same skirmish that saw General High Mercer, George Washington's good friend, die at the battle of Princeton. He later was imprisoned on a British Prison ship in New York harbor and died on January 1st, 1778.
    After graduation, McKnight studied medicine under the distinguished physician of a well connected Pennsylvania family and a trustee of Princeton, Dr. William Shippen. Before he could complete his studies, the Revolutionary War broke out and Dr. McKnight joined the Continental Army along with a number of medical students. It is not clear as to how McKnight came to Dr. Church's attention or precisely which Continental Army unit he was associated with. But given Dr. McKnight's later career, it is obvious that he was a doctor of some talent and would quickly be noticed wherever he was assigned. McKnight later founded the "flying hospitals" for the Continental Army which allowed for a more rapid response to wounded soldiers. McKnight served throughout the Revolutionary War as a senior physician, establishing a good reputation. Immediately after the war, McKnight was appointed to the position of Professor of Surgery and Anatomy at Columbia and was considered one of  the foremost surgeons in the United States until his death at the age of 41 in November 1791.

5. Dr. William Aspinwall, was born in Brookline in May 1763, descending from one of the first
Dr William Aspinwall
Gilbert Stuart, circa 1815
English settlers of Massachusetts. After graduating from Harvard in 1764, Aspinwall studied medicine in Connecticut with the famous small pox expert Dr. Benjamin Gale and in Pennsylvania. with Dr John Morgan.  He received a medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, at that time the only medical college in the colonies.  He became the first physician resident in Brookline where, after  practicing medicine for some years, and after hostilities broke out, Aspinwall decided to join the army. Dr. Joseph Warren, however, persuaded him to serve as a physician instead. Aspinwall received a commission as a surgeon under Brigadier General  William Heath and then was appointed as Deputy Director of the Hospital on Jamaica Plain. Aspinwall fought as a soldier in the battle of Lexington and followed the retreating British to Charlestown. He served as a surgeon throughout the war and, at one time, served with General John Sullivan in Rhode Island. After the war, Dr. Aspinwall returned to Brookline where he resumed his medical practice and became renowned for the treatment of small pox. Dr. Aspinwall lost sight in an eye as a child and later suffered from a cataract in the other eye. Cataract surgery proved unsuccessful and he was totally blind  for the waning years of his life. He lived to be 80 years old, dying in 1823.

6. Dr. Lemuel Hayward was born in Braintree in 1749 and graduated from Harvard in 1768. He was one of the many who studied medicine under Dr. Joseph Warren. After Lexington and Concord, Hayward and Aspinwall both served militia units and were then contracted by the Massachusetts Provincial Congress to serve the wounded. Both received warrants as  surgeons from the Provincial Congress in late June 1775. When Dr. Church was appointed as Hospital Director, both Hayward and Aspinwall were in a kind of limbo. Their warrants from the Massachusetts Provincial Congress had been superseded by the Continental Congress. Church asked them to stay on since there was a dire need for their services and told them he would obtain warrants for them as surgeons from the Continental Congress. Before that could be accomplished, however, Dr. Church was arrested and their status had to be sorted out by General Washington. After the siege, Dr. Hayward returned to his civil practice and like Aspinwall, specialized in the inoculation and treatment of smallpox. Hayward retired in 1798, living a very comfortable life until his death in 1821. He lived his final years in a mansion in Boston on Washington Street, between Bedford and Essex, that had an acre of garden with it. It is reported that in addition to being a successful physician, part of Dr. Haywards's wealth derived from the sale of a rather non-descript one story and a half house in Jamaica Plain, but with extensive land and mature Linden tress to John Hancock as a summer home in 1800. Hancock paid for the home with four and a half shares in the Long Wharf, which proved to be very valuable.

7. Dr. Elisha Perkins. Elisha Perkins was born in Plainfield Connecticut in January 1741, the son of a physician. He briefly matriculated At Yale and then studied medicine under his father. After practicing in his hometown and surrounding area, Dr. Perkins joined a Connecticut militia unit and served at the siege of Boston. However, I cannot place Dr. Perkins in the Boston area prior to January 1776, some six months after he is reported to be attending to the sick and wounded in Roxbury. On the other hand, I can find no physician of the same name on the rolls of any militia unit and the name would indicate that there can't be more than one. I am reasonably certain that the Dr. Elisha Perkins I describe is the same one hired by Dr. Church. Dr. Perkins is notorious in American medical history.

   After the war, Dr. Perkins returned to his medical practice in Connecticut, supplementing his income (he had ten children to support) by buying and selling mules. Sometime in the late 1790s, while in his forties, Perkins developed a theory that pain was caused by "a surcharge of electric fluid in the affected areas" and that metal could be used to draw off the electric fluid and cure the patient. In 1796, Dr. Perkins patented his " Metallic Tractors." The tractors consisted of two 3-inch metal rods with a point at the end. Although they were made of steel and brass, Perkins claimed that they were made of unusual alloys and he used his rods to cure inflammation, rheumatism and pain in the head and the face. He applied the points on the aching body part and passed them over the part for about 20 minutes. Perkins claimed they could "draw off the noxious electrical fluid that lay at the root of
Modern Replica of Dr Perkins Tractors

   Perkins treated all kinds of illnesses and numbered among his patents George Washington and Supreme Court Chief Justice Oliver Ellsworth. He sold his "tractors" by the score and became quite wealthy from the sales. George Washington was reported to have purchased a set for his family. Perkins  collected hundreds of testimonials from leading citizens, all claiming that his "tractors", not only relieved pain and suffering, but actually saved lives. (Imagine what Dr. Perkins could have accomplished if only Cable TV and the infomercial had been invented.)  His fame and his "tractors" spread to England and the Continent.

  Dr. Perkins then turned his attention to developing an antiseptic remedy which he claimed  could be used in the treatment of diphtheria and typhoid dysentery. Anxious to try out his newly developed antiseptic in treating yellow fever Dr. Perkins traveled to the city and treated patients with it for four weeks only to die of the disease in September 1799 at the age of 59.

  After his death, the use of his tractors and antiseptic faded into oblivion. It should be noted that not all were taken in by Dr. Perkins and he was expelled by the Connecticut Medical Society in 1797.


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