A History of the Medical Department of the University of Pennsylvania/Chapter X

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Death of Dr. Rush—His services to the Medical School and his doctrines—Election of Dr. Barton to the Chair of Practice, and of Dr. Chapman to that of Materia Medica—Death of Dr. Barton—Sketch of his life and labors as a teacher and naturalist—Election of Dr. Chapman to the Professorship of Practice, and Dr. Dorsey to that of Materia Medica.

The University sustained a loss in the death of Dr. Rush, which happened on the 13th of April, 1813. It is a difficult task, after the lapse of more than half a century, to enter fully into an estimate of the qualities of this brilliant teacher of the medical sciences. We receive the impression of his ardor and enthusiasm from his early letters, when he first entered the portals of the temple of science, and we must appeal to the records of his life for the character he bore and the influence he exercised, when, in the position of priest, he ministered at its altar. For forty-four years he continued to expound the science of Medicine to admiring listeners, attracted by the polish of his language, the smoothness of his diction, and the clearness of his expositions. As age advanced, he truly became the “old man eloquent,” and had the satisfaction of witnessing the progressive increase of the class in attendance upon his lectures, from the small number with which he began his career to over four hundred at its close.[1] He died with the satisfaction of knowing that the popularity that had been attendant upon his labors, and which had contributed so much to the success of the University, had not ceased nor waned, for his eye was not dimmed, nor was his mental energy abated.

On the death of Dr. Rush the following Resolutions were passed by the Faculty, April 28, 1813:—

“The Medical Professors having convened for the purpose of uniting in a testimonial of respect to the memory of their late colleague, Dr. Benjamin Rush, Prof. of the Institutes and Practice of Medicine, and feeling sensibly the afflictive dispensation of Providence, which has removed from the Medical School one of its earliest and ablest supporters, Resolved, that the Secretary be directed to record their high estimation of the talents, learning, and eloquence of their late colleague, and of his unwearied diligence and zeal in the discharge of every official duty.

“That the Professors cherish a lively recollection of his laborious exertions in the promotion of medical science, exertions which have conduced greatly to the reputation and interests of the University, and have conferred important benefits upon mankind.”

To trace the course of medical science through its phases of doctrines and opinions, from the commencement of the eighteenth century, when a remarkable impulse was given to it, to the time when Dr. Rush terminated his labors, would be an agreeable and instructive task. It would present the account of the contest between the lingering power of scholasticism, monkish credulity, bigotry, and dogmatism, and the teachings of experiment, observation, and reason.[2] In Medicine, as in other sciences, the victory declared itself upon the side of humanity. There had previously been a fearful struggle, when death and the dungeon were the awards for the temerity of proclaiming God’s own natural revelations, and of reading, by means he had bestowed, the truths of science; yet, through such a terrible ordeal had science passed, and placed its heel on superstition.

The difficulty is great of being entirely freed from illusive dogmas and long-continued prejudices, which have become a part of the mind itself, and tinctured its mode of operation and expression. This has been the case with Medicine. The metaphysical connection between the soul and body hung like an incubus upon all endeavors to ascertain the nature of the vital processes, and gave a bias to every effort to determine the secret of their production. For centuries the agency of the rational soul was the phantom of medical philosophers, who deviated from the natural history arrangement of the vital actions devised by Aristotle, and, not content to study them in their manifestations to the senses, plunged headlong into the pit of blind, conjectural subtleties connected with causation. The idea that a vital principle existed, and modified the structural operations of the body, was obscurely seen by Van Helmont and Paracelsus, and to their imagination became a presiding deity, or demon. The rational soul, the anima of Stahl, was but another form of the same fancy, which figured, even in the middle of the eighteenth century, in the explanation of the vital processes by so accurate and meritorious an observer as Prof. Whytt.[3] That Stahl himself had little faith in his own enunciation, and that he made it in deference to the authority of the schoolmen, he admits, when he informs us that the “introduction of the rational soul into his medical theory was not at all necessary to its vitality, and assigns as a reason for having recourse to that principle, his fear of being suspected to maintain that certain corporeal actions could be performed without an agent.”[4] To this ancient delusion Des Cartes administered the coup de grace by denying the existence and co-operation of a sentient soul in the production of the animal functions, and showing that the vital processes may be executed independently of mental co-operation. The teachings of Hoffman and Boerhaave were in accordance with the Cartesian philosophy; when the last shadow of pagan theism and clerical superstition vanished from sight forever.

We have alluded to the foreign origin of the physicians who first settled in the colonies, and to the education of those who, at an early period, went abroad to the University of Leyden, where Boerhaave was the presiding genius. He was the dictator of medical opinions, not only on the Continent, but in England, and hence their transfer across the Atlantic. We have the authority of Dr. Rush for stating that, until the period of the institution of the Medical School, the system of Boerhaave governed the practice of every physician in Philadelphia.[5]

Boerhaave was a vigorous reformer, and did yeoman’s service in exploding the fallacies of dogmas. He was versed in the mathematical sciences and natural philosophy, and although too strongly mechanical in his notions, saw clearly the importance of bringing to bear upon medical inquiry a correlation of the sciences. The whole system which he inculcated may be judged of from the creed which he uttered— “Let anatomy faithfully describe the parts and structure of the body; let the mathematician apply his particular science to the solids; let hydrostatics explain the laws of fluids in general, and hydraulics their actions as they move through given channels; and lastly, let the chemist add to all this whatever his art, when fairly and carefully applied, has been able to discover; and then, if I am not mistaken, we shall have a complete account of medical physiology.” But Boerhaave had not disabused himself of the belief in the animal spirits as a motor force, and although inferring that each motor nerve had a separate origin, and hence an office, he did not, in his physiological system, take very enlarged or correct views of the vital properties of organized beings, or of the dependence of their properties on the state of the nerves.

When Cullen came into estimation as a teacher, he reigned supreme both in Great Britain and America. His views and opinions superseded those of Boerhaave, and were without challenge until the rise of the Brunonian system, a competitor for credence. From his immediate connection with Cullen as a pupil, Dr. Rush, as we have seen, returned to America imbued with his doctrines, and warm in admiration of his mental qualities. But extensive observation, reading, and reflection, had taught, in subsequent years, the enthusiastic student that the line of speculation was not exhausted; and from a vast experience in the maladies of a new world, materials for thought were presented to him which were not dreamed of in Cullen’s philosophy.

That Dr. Rush aspired to be the founder of a system of medicine we are informed upon the undoubted authority of his biographer, Dr. Ramsay, who says: “In the autumn of 1789 I visited Dr. Rush, and was received by him in his study. He observed that he was preparing for his next course of lectures in self-defence; that the system of Cullen was tottering; that Dr. John Brown had brought forward some new and luminous principles of medicine, but they were mixed with others which were extravagant; that he saw a gleam of light before him, leading to a more simple and consistent system of medicine than the world had yet seen, and pointed out some of its leading features.”[6]

The system to which reference is made in the preceding statement is that which has been familiarly known as the “Unity of Disease.” With reference to this we may pertinently quote the comments of one who, of late years, has written the Life of Dr. Rush, with the spirit of an ardent admirer, but whose medical intelligence led him to criticize the doctrine of the master. “This wonderful vision may be thus explained. Excitement or Life is a unit, and this can be accurately divided into healthy and morbid only; hence there can be but one disease, that is, morbid excitement. This position involves a huge universality, which very few minds, who have seen diseases, can at all comprehend; nor have we ever been persuaded that Dr. Rush himself had well-defined ideas thereof. We have always thought him most wonderfully entangled in the web of his honest sophistry.”[7]

Attractive and plausible as have been the systems of medical philosophy presented to the world, as generalizations they all partake of the deductive method of investigation, which assumes first principles of too limited a scope to admit so wide an application as has been made of them. The animal economy cannot be regarded as obedient to one single law of government, by which the vital operations of its parts and organs can be all accounted for; and the day has passed when even brilliant discovery in one track of research can carry captive the entire mind of the profession. The mine to be explored of obscure organic operations admits of more than one approach, and to detect and make apparent latent truths requires access by numerous avenues. Modern research, by employing every available means and vastly improved appliances, has demonstrated that the forces that are active in controlling and regulating the animal organism are numerous and wide-spread. Haller, Hunter, and Bichat led the way in basing pathology upon physiological knowledge, by which alone practical medicine can be successfully directed; and exhibited clearly that observation, experience, and inductive reasoning are the sure methods of obtaining right principles. Without these, as has been remarked by Dr. Rush, “medicine is an humble art, and a degrading occupation.”

From his valuable labors as an observer and the historian of disease, Dr. Rush must pass to posterity with honor and admiration irrespective of his theoretical opinions. The account of the Yellow Fever of 1793, and of the succeeding years, would perpetuate his name, had he written none of his other numerous communications, literary and scientific.[8]

Upon the death of Dr. Rush, the Chair of Practice was filled by the appointment of Dr. Benjamin Smith Barton, July 14, 1813. By this transfer, the Chair of Materia Medica becoming vacant, was filled August 3d following, by Dr. Chapman, who had previously assisted Dr. James in the office of Lecturer on Obstetrics.

Dr. Barton carried into his new position in the Faculty the prestige of an extended reputation as a teacher of Materia Medica and the Natural Sciences, as well as the advantage of having been a private practitioner, and one of the physicians of the Pennsylvania Hospital. He did not live to determine to what eminence he might have attained in the Chair of Practice, as, after one course of lectures had been delivered, and as the other was about to commence, death terminated his career on the 19th of December, 1815.

It has always been a matter of question whether Dr. Barton would have distinguished himself as a teacher of purely practical medicine, as he had done in the chair which afforded the opportunity of indulging in the especial bent of his genius. His reputation rests upon his success as a naturalist, and cultivator of the branches of knowledge depending upon the natural sciences for their elucidation.

He was born in the city of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in 1766, the son of an Episcopal clergyman there settled. His mother was the sister of the celebrated David Rittenhouse. Upon the death of his father he was transferred to the charge of the Rev. Dr. Andrews, afterwards Provost of the University of Pennsylvania, who then resided at York. He studied medicine under the direction of Dr. Shippen, at the period when the University had superseded the College, and in 1786 embarked for Europe to continue his studies. He was a student of the University of Edinburgh for two years, but did not graduate at that Institution, determining, from personal reasons, to obtain his diploma at the University of Gottingen.

The predilection of Dr. Barton for Natural History, and more especially for Botany, evinced itself very early. He manifested very soon in life a taste for drawing, and “in the execution of his designs with the pencil, at an immature age, he discovered that taste and genius in the art which he afterwards cultivated with much success.” It is said that his knowledge of drawing was acquired from the instruction of Major André, who was a prisoner of war at Lancaster. “This talent was often rendered subservient to his pursuits in Natural History and Botany, branches of science which are greatly assisted in their acquisition by the investigator having himself a facility in copying the subjects appertaining to them.” It was Dr. Barton’s opinion that “no man could become a wise, discriminating, and eminent botanist without possessing that acumen in perception of proportion, color, harmony of design, and of obscure differences in the objects of the vegetable world, which alone belong to the eye of the painter.” That his bias towards Botany took a practical turn, we are assured by the fact that “young as he was at the time, he obtained from the Royal Medical Society of Edinburgh an honorary premium for his dissertation on Hyoscyamus Niger, of Linnæus. It was the Harveian prize.”

In London, during the summer of 1787, when at the age of twenty-two years, he published a little tract, entitled, “Observations on some parts of Natural History,” to which is prefixed an account of remarkable vestiges of an ancient date, which had been discovered in North America.

While residing in the metropolis of England, he was treated with distinguished consideration by Dr. Hunter and Dr. Letsom, having attracted attention by his general scientific proclivities. He was at this time elected a member of the American Philosophical Society. The minute of his election reads thus: “Jan. 16, 1789, Benjamin Smith Barton, M. D., at present in Edinburgh, corresponding member of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, late of the University of Pa., was elected a member.”

When the College resumed its functions in 1789, Dr. Barton, then twenty-four years of age, was chosen the Professor of Natural History and Botany. As has been shown, Botany had been taught by Dr. Kuhn in 1768, and the subject had been considered of sufficient importance to be appended to the Chair of Materia Medica. When, in the new order of things, the two institutions were exercising separately their functions, and Dr. Kuhn had assumed the duties of Practice in the University, the professorship mentioned was created in the College, apparently for the purpose of securing the talents of Dr. Barton. This he retained under the union of the two Faculties, and accordingly we find his name thus appended in the list of Professors of the University in 1792.

The opinion that the natural sciences were important in a scheme of medical instruction may be observed to have constantly influenced the actions of the Board of Trustees, whether of the College or of the University; for we find that although without practical results, Mr. William Bartram was elected Professor of Botany in 1782. Although Dr. Barton was not the first Professor of Botany, he was the first of Natural History, and, so far as can be discovered, the “first teacher of Natural Science in this Cis-Atlantic World.” During Dr. Barton’s pupilage, however, it would appear that no instruction in Natural History, not even in Botany, was given. He was essentially self-taught, as he expressly declares in a preface to a “Discourse on some of the Principal Desiderata in Natural History, &c.” “I have never attended any lectures, however imperfect, on Natural Science or Botany.” It is inferred from this that Dr. Kuhn, at the time of Dr. Barton’s pupilage, must have discontinued his lectures on Botany.

Preparation in the natural sciences did not constitute a requisite for graduation, and was therefore voluntary on the part of the student, and yet no complaint has been handed down, or recorded, of want of encouragement; indeed, the zeal and enthusiasm of the incumbent of the chair, with his skill in making attractive his then novel and curious subjects of information, were sufficient to awaken attention and secure satisfactory patronage. He, in fact, created a taste for these pursuits, that has never been lost in this community, and which has ultimately developed itself in permanent establishments for the cultivation of the natural sciences.

Dr. Barton was eminently a pioneer in exploring the treasures of the Western Continent. He employed competent persons to collect the botanical productions of various sections of the country, who, while thus engaged in the service of a patron, laid the foundation of their own reputation. The researches of Pursh were encouraged by him. In the preface to the “Flora Americana Septentrionalis, by Frederick Pursh,” who was curator of the garden of William Hamilton, Esq. (Woodlands), he states that at this period, between the years 1802 and 1805, he “had also formed a connection with Dr. Benjamin Smith Barton, Professor of Botany in the University of Pennsylvania, whose industrious researches in all the branches of Natural History are so well known to the literary world. He likewise, for some time previously, had been collecting materials for an American Flora. As I was now very anxious to explore the remote parts of the country, particularly in the interesting ranges of the Alleghany Mountains, I was enabled, by the kind assistance of this gentleman, to take a more extensive range for my botanical excursions. The collections and observations made in the course of these journeys, all of which I communicated to Dr. Barton, were considerable in respect to the discovery of many new and interesting subjects of Natural History in general.”[9] Under his auspices, likewise, the late Mr. Thomas Nuttall laid the foundation of that extensive knowledge of our native plants which was embodied in his Genera of North American Plants[10]

If the subjects of the Theses enumerated on the Catalogue of Graduates during the connection of Dr. Barton with the Medical School be examined, one cannot but be forcibly impressed with the number which treat of the Vegetable Materia Medica of the United States. It was a department which he fostered, writing not only upon it himself, but instigating his pupils to its cultivation.[11] Nor are these essays jejune, for under the conducting hand of the master, they took the form of experimental and practical utility, and the present generation is under obligation for valuable researches, in the field of home productions, to many aspirants for medical honors. Under his training skilful botanists were formed, whose contributions have been creditable to their native country.

The works of Dr. William P. C. Barton, the nephew of the Professor, are evidences of zeal and ability in the endeavor to render available a knowledge of the medical and general botany of the United States; while of equal merit are the contributions to the same department of Dr. Jacob Bigelow, of Massachusetts.[12] To the same source of instruction and encouragement may be traced the long life labors of Dr. William Darlington, who thus most feelingly speaks of his preceptor: “In November, 1802, I repaired to Philadelphia to attend the lectures in the University of Pennsylvania, where I was favored to become familiarly acquainted with Prof. B. S. Barton, who discovered in me a considerable fondness for the study of plants, took me under his special patronage, and, by his kind attention and instruction, gave a decided bias to my future pursuits. A Society was formed, called the American Linnæan Society, of which Prof. Barton was President, and it did me the unexpected honor of enrolling me among the members.” Dr. Barton was in the habit, in connection with his botanical lectures, of taking his pupils to the Bartram Botanic Garden. This was situated on the west bank of the Schuylkill, about four miles below Philadelphia. “It was established as early as 1720, by that great vegetable naturalist, John Bartram, the elder, at a time when nothing of the kind existed in the Colonies, except Dr. Clayton’s, in Virginia. Here were concentrated very many of the indigenous plants and trees of North America, and in a greater profusion, perhaps, than can be found elsewhere. Mr. Bartram and his descendants were industriously employed in making this garden for one hundred and ten years.”[13] Dr. Darlington states that “William Bartram and John Bar-tram, Jr., were then living there in 1804; and distinctly do I recollect the venerable men, though I little dreamt I should one day have to do with the history of the family.”[14]

Dr. Barton himself erected the first Green-House in the city. It was in the rear of his residence on Chestnut Street, below Eighth.[15]

Dr. William Baldwin was indebted for his early introduction to the study of the science of Botany to the instruction received at the University. This, in after years, bore fruit in the exploration of the Flora of the Southern States, and that of South America.[16]

Another distinguished botanist, Dr. Thomas Horsfield, was a pupil of Dr. Barton. Before adventure led him abroad, he graduated at the University of Pennsylvania, in 1798. His thesis was “An Experimental Dissertation on the Rhus vernix, Rhus radicans, and Rhus glabrum.” He was a native of Bethlehem, Pa., and went upon a trading voyage to the East Indies, where he was. induced to settle, his talents and accomplishments finding occupation as naturalist and civil agent at the hands of the enlightened British statesman at the head of the Government of Java, Sir Stamford Raffles.[17] Dr. Horsfield, among his other communications with respect to the botany of Java, wrote upon the Upas Tree, and dispelled the fabulous traditions with reference to that plant, thus placing it in its right position among vegetable productions.[18]

As has been stated previously, upon the Chair of Materia Medica becoming vacant by the resignation of Dr. Griffitts in 1796, Dr. Barton was placed in it; and, for the first time, enjoyed the full privileges and distinction of a Professor. He was then thirty years of age. With this promotion “begins and rests the high professional reputation of Dr. Barton in Medicine.” During the twenty-six years that he was connected with the Medical School, he occupied a position of prominence, and was greatly instrumental in promoting its rising reputation. Twenty-four courses of lectures on Botany were delivered by him.[19] We are informed that, as a medical teacher, he was eloquent, instructive, and, when occasion required, quite pathetic. In temperament he was irritable, and even choleric, though in his gentle moods he was kind, tender, and indulgent.

In 1804 Dr. Barton commenced a semi-annual periodical, entitled “The Philadelphia Medical and Physical Journal.” This work was announced to be devoted to original communications relative to all the branches of medicine, natural history, and physical geography, biographical sketches, reviews, extracts, and miscellaneous tracts. It was carried on irregularly until 1809, and, as might be supposed from the Natural History tastes of Professor Barton, was mostly devoted to that branch of science. Indeed, to be a punctual recorder of the progress of medicine and the sciences, and to endure the uniform periodical labor of an editor, were not in accordance with the diffusiveness of his genius; and we are not surprised, therefore, to find that his efforts in this line were fitful. The work, however, is interesting, as being one of the pioneers of periodical scientific literature in this city.

The tributes to Dr. Barton’s scientific zeal and information were not withheld from him by the community in which he lived. In 1802 he was chosen one of the Vice-Presidents of the Philosophical Society. In 1809 he was chosen President of the Philadelphia Medical Society.[20] Numerous foreign honors were conferred upon him.

Dr. Nathaniel Chapman succeeded Dr. Barton in the Chair of Practice, March 5, 1816, and Dr. John Syng Dorsey was placed in the Chair of Materia Medica, April 5, of the same year.

  1. See Appendix F.
  2. The reader may be referred to two interesting and instructive works for information upon this subject: the “Life of Cullen,” by Dr. Thomson, previously referred to, and the “Brief Retrospect of the Eighteenth Century,” by S. Miller, D. D., vol. i. The article, “Medicine,” in it, was written by the late Edward Miller, M. D., of New York.
  3. The Works of Robert Whytt, M. D., Professor of Medicine in the University of Edinburgh. 1768. Quarto, pp. 140 and seq.
  4. Thomson’s Life of Cullen, vol. i
  5. Rush’s Works, vol. iv. p. 375.
  6. An Eulogium upon Benjamin Rush, M. D., Professor, &c., University of Pennsylvania, by David Ramsay, M. D., Member of the South Carolina Medical Society, 1813. In this book is an admirable summary of the doctrines of Rush.
  7. Life of Benjamin Rush, M. D., by Samuel Jackson, M. D., late of Northumberland.—American Medical Biography, edited by Dr. Gross.
  8. For a list of the papers written by Dr. Rush, consult the Life of Dr. Rush by Dr. Ramsay; also Jackson’s Life of Rush.
  9. Pursh’s Flora was printed in London in 1814, and dedicated to the eminent botanist Lambert. A journal of Pursh’s has recently come to light in the collection of MS. of the Philosophical Society. It contains references to his communications to Dr. Barton.
  10. Mr. Nuttall came to Philadelphia in the spring of 1808. To solve a doubt in Botany he called upon Prof. Barton, who received him with politeness, and, “struck with the intellectual countenance of the young man, invited him to take a seat, and entered into conversation with him, pointing out the difference between the two genera, Smilax and Passiflora, and giving a dissertation upon the principles of Botany, and the infinite pleasure this science afforded its votaries.” Mr. Nuttall was so deeply impressed by what he heard that he determined to pursue the study of Botany as an occupation. For an interesting memoir of Thomas Nuttall, we are indebted to Mr. Elias Durand. It will be found in the Proceedings of the Philosophical Society, vol. vi.
  11. Among the publications of Dr. Barton may be mentioned his “Collections for an Essay towards a Materia Medica of the United States,” and his “Elements of Botany,” both issued at the commencement of the present century.
  12. Dr. William P. C. Barton is the author of “Vegetable Materia Medica of the United States,” published in 1818, in 2 vols. quarto; “A Flora of North America,” illustrated by colored figures, 3 vols. quarto, 1823; “A Flora of Philadelphia,” and other contributions to this branch of science. Dr. Jacob Bigelow is the author of the “American Medical Botany,” published in 1817, and “Florula Bostoniensis,” in 1824.
  13. Report of the Committee of the Horticultural Society, 1833.
  14. Dr. Darlington wrote interesting Biographical Notices of John Bartram and Humphrey Marshall, and edited their correspondence. A portion of Dr. Darlington’s journal, from which the above references have been taken, is given in the life of that learned botanist by Thomas P. James, Esq., read before the American Philosophical Society, 1864. Dr. Darlington is the author of the “Flora of Chester County,” an admirable work, and a model of the kind.
  15. This Green-House afterwards became celebrated in the hands of Mr. George Pepper, the father of Prof. William Pepper, of the University of Pennsylvania.
  16. Reliquiæ Baldwinianæ, by Dr. William Darlington.
  17. The “New American Encyclopædia” notices Dr. Horsfield as an English traveller and naturalist. From what source this error came we are not informed. In the Philadelphia Medical Museum, edited by Dr. J. Redman Coxe, vol. i., is an account of a voyage to Batavia in the year 1800, by Dr. Horsfield. In 1802 Dr. Horsfield fixed his residence in Java, where he was found by the English when the island was taken possession of by them in 1811.
  18. See Magendie’s “Journal de Physiologie,” vol. vii., from the Annals of the Batavian Society, vol. vii. Dr. Horsfield published, in 1821-24, his “Zoological Researches in Java and the Neighboring Islands.” His collection of plants afforded the materials of Robert Brown’s “Plantæ Javanicæ.”
  19. The Botanical Lectures were supplemental, and delivered in the summer season. From an advertisement of the University lectures in Dr. Barton’s publication, the “Philadelphia Medical and Physical Journal,” we learn that the lectures on Natural History were delivered in Peale’s Museum.
  20. Dr. Barton succeeded Dr. Rush in the Presidency of this Society, who had resigned in consequence of the idea that a Professor should not occupy the position. An address from the Society led to a change of views in the Faculty, and Dr. Barton consented to serve. See Appendix H.