American Medical Biographies/Ambler, James Markham Marshall

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Ambler, James Markham Marshall (1849–1881)

James Markham Marshall Ambler, heroic physician of the Jeannette expedition, came of an old Virginia family and was born in Fauquier County, Virginia, December 30, 1849, son of Richard Cary Ambler, a physician.

As a boy he joined the 12th Virginia Cavalry and when the Civil War ended, entered Washington and Lee University, remaining three years, then taking up the study of medicine at the University of Maryland, having first studied under Nathan R. Smith, who had been also his father's preceptor. After graduating at the University of Maryland, in 1870, he became clinical recorder at the Maryland University Hospital; later he was assistant physician at the Quarantine Hospital at Baltimore, then entered into private practice with J. G. Hollyday, but gave this up for medical work in the United States Navy.

His first appointment was at the Naval Academy at Annapolis, followed by a cruise on the Kansas, and after being stationed on the flagship Minnesota, in New York harbor, he was sent to the Naval Hospital at Portsmouth, Virginia; he was at this time passed assistant surgeon. Here in 1879 he received word from the Surgeon-General that the department would be glad if he would volunteer for the Jeannette expedition to the Arctic regions. Young Ambler replied: "I respectfully ask to be sent." The same request had been sent before to other officers and had been declined. He prepared himself for the voyage by studies at the Smithsonian Institution and visits to the Johns Hopkins University; studied reports of previous expeditions and consulted specialists. He was one of the last, if not the very last, to die of starvation after the Jeannette had been crushed and sunk by the polar ice-pack (June 13, 1881). The members of the expedition set out in three boats. The first one was lost. All but three of fourteen in the second under DeLong died of starvation, when the boat had been stranded, and the party was on the way back.

Ambler died after DeLong, who kept a journal during this perilous time, making the last entry the day of his death, October 30, 1881.

George W. Melville, chief engineer of the expedition, commanded the third boat, and in a book with the title "In the Lena Delta" (Boston, 1885), wrote of his search for his companions and finding their bodies the following March.

He bears testimony to Ambler's medical skill and nobility as a man. He says: "In the histone of Arctic research there has only been one ship that was free from scurvy; this was the Jeannette. This is the best encomium that I can pass upon Ambler. On the march his services were invaluable. During the illness of Chipp he was roadmaster as well as surgeon. Afterward he volunteered to work in harness, and requested that in addition to caring for the sick he might be allowed to participate in the labors of the working parties. Wherever we were and whatever our situation, Ambler proved himself a skilled physician, an excellent officer and a noble man."

It is related that Dr. Ambler baptised the hunter Alexey before his death, and a note found on his body says that he bowed his head in submission to the Divine will.

Maryland Med. Jour., 1882–83, vol. ix, 495–497.
N. Y. Med. Rec., Oct. 26, 1918.
Handbook of Polar Discoveries, A. W. Greely, Boston, 1906.
The Great White North, Helen S. Wright, New York, 1910.
Some of Our Medical Explorers and Adventurers, Wm. Browning, M.D., Repr. New York Med. Rec., Oct. 26. 1918.