American Medical Biographies/Appleton, Nathaniel Walker

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Appleton, Nathaniel Walker (1755–1795)

James Thacher, who lived during the lifetime of Nathaniel Walker Appleton, has this to say of him: "He was a most amiable man but too diffident to display his real worth and abilities, which were far above mediocrity." When we consider that he was an incorporator of the Massachusetts Medical Society and its recording secretary for the first ten years of its existence; that he attended every meeting of the society and council during that time, writing and signing a record for every one, through all those years fostering the infant organization, Appleton deserves to have the meagre facts of his life transmitted to future generations.

The son of Nathaniel Appleton of the Harvard class of 1749, a Boston merchant and member of the "Committee of Correspondence," Nathaniel was born in Boston, June 14, 1755. His mother was Mary Walker; his grandfather, Rev. Dr. Nathaniel Appleton, of the Harvard class of 1712 and minister of the "Church in Cambridge" from 1717 until his death in 1784. Nathaniel was graduated A.B. from Harvard in 1773, then he wrote interesting letters to his classmate, Eliphalet Pearson, the first preceptor of Phillips Andover Academy, later profesor of Hebrew at Harvard and a member of its Corporation, on one occasion acting president. Appleton's letters show accurracy and attention to minutiae that are so characteristic of the records of the medical society that have been preserved for us intact; they manifested a considerable skill in the art of writing, were filled with affection for his friend and evinced a spirit of patriotism, describing as they did the incidents of the Revolution in and about Boston. Of a modest and impersonal frame of mind Appleton wrote too little of himself, from the biographer's point of view.

Until the fall of 1774 he lived in Cambridge, taking an A.M. at Harvard; then he moved to Salem where he studied medicine, as was the custom of the day before the beginnings of medical schools in the East, living and working with his father's cousin the centenarian, Edward Augustus Holyoke (q.v.), he who trained thirty-five practitioners in the art of medicine and was the first president of the Massachusetts Medical Society. Finishing his novitiate Dr. Appleton settled in practice in Boston and married Sarah Greenleaf, May 24, 1780. They had seven children, four of them dying in childhood and the other three living to the ages of 68, 69 and 70 years.

We do not know whether Dr. Holyoke inspired his pupil with the enthusiasm for organizing and nourishing the state medical society, the first in the United States to have a continuous existence. Holyoke was president from 1782 to 1784, and again from 1786 to 1787. The other presidents during Appleton's secretaryship were Cotton Tufts, who although living in Weymouth, twelve miles away, was most punctilious in his attention to the duties of his office, and William Kneeland of Cambridge, who attended few meetings during his two years in office. A careful study of the records would lead to the belief that the society could not have existed without the fostering care of Appleton and Tufts.

According to contemporary accounts Dr. Appleton had a good practice. "The Boston Directory" of 1789, the first year such a book was published, gives the doctor's residence as, "South Latin-School Street, near the Stone-Chappel," that is to say, he lived in the present School Street, near King's Chapel. In this year Appleton became a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and he was serving as chairman of the committee of the Massachusetts Medical Society that brought out the first volume of the "Medical Communications" in 1790, a publication that was to continue in yearly numbers until 1914, one hundred and twenty-four years. He served also on a committee of the society on education that drafted the qualifications of candidates for a license to practise, in conformity with the act of the Legislature having reference to the society, passed in 1789.

It would appear that his health was not good, for in a letter to his friend Pearson, dated March 23, 1782, he says that he was sending a messenger with his letter "being somewhat unwell myself and not daring to be out in the evening air," and again in 1784, "at present I am confined with a bad cold." In 1788 he asked leave to resign as secretary but the society would not grant it and he kept on for four years more.

Dr. Appleton's records as secretary require special mention for they exhibit a thoroughness that has been only too rare in the history of similar societies. Beyond the fact that his handwriting was good he thought it worth while to set down all the important doings of the society and its council. He did not delegate this to others; he did it himself, and he wrote conscientiously and regularly through a series of years. Who will gainsay that this attention to detail was a leading factor in establishing on a sound basis a new society that was to exercise a potent influence for bettering the standards of medicine in the community?

On January 2, 1793, he signed the records for the last time after resigning his office and received the thanks of the society for his past services. He attended meetings of society and council until April 3, 1794; April 16 he sent a letter presenting the society with "a folio edition of Smellie's anatomical tables; a quarto edition of the medical works of Richard Smead, M.D. and a small box containing a few anatomical preparations." He was made an honorary Fellow and moved to Marietta, Ohio. He returned to Boston and died April 15, 1795, two months before his fortieth birthday.

The Rev. John Clarke preached a funeral sermon on Appleton April 19, 1795, at the "First Church in Boston," taking for his text: "Lover and friend hast thou put far from me; and mine acquaintance into darkness." Having been in the next class to Appleton in college, when classes contained only thirty or forty members, it is likely that Clarke knew a good deal about the subject of his discourse. We feel sure that Appleton would have approved of the clergyman's remarks for in one of his letters to his friend Pearson in 1784 he speaks of sending him a similar sermon preached by Dr. Clarke on the death of the Rev. Dr. Cooper in 1783. The custom of the time did not countenance in a funeral oration anything but "reflections," so posterity must be content with the only direct reference to Appleton as contained in the following quotation: "It is acknowledged that the person, whose death has led to these reflections, was the man of pure and undefiled religion;—was a pattern of all the excellencies which adorn the human character. His integrity, his veracity, his meekness, his benevolence, his profound reverence of the Deity, his respect for the Saviour, and his ardent love for his country, were displayed on numberless occasions; and gathered new brightness through every successive period of life."

Appleton wrote two papers for the Massachusetts Medical Society that were published in the "Medical Communications": "An account of the successful treatment of paralysis of the lower limbs, occasioned by a curvature of the spine," and "History of a hemorrhage from a rupture of the inside of the left labium pudendi."

Amer. Med. Biog., James Thacher, 1828, Hist. of Med. in Amer., p. 25.
Letters of Nathaniel Walker Appleton to his classmate, Eliphalet Pearson, 1773–1784. Edited by William Coolidge Lane. Pubs. of Colonial Soc'y of Mass., 1906, vol. viii.
Occasional Discourses of Rev. John Clarke, Boston, 1804.
The Mass. Med. Soc'y. Records of the Society. Records of the Council, 1781–1795. Also Medical Communications, i, s. i. p. 56; s. 3. p. 24.
Notices of the Founders of the Mass. Med. Soc'y. Ebenezer Alden, 1838.
Appleton Genealogy, W. S. Appleton, 1874.