American Medical Biographies/Ashhurst, John

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Ashhurst, John (1839–1900)

John Ashhurst, Jr., surgeon, son of John Ashhurst, merchant and banker, was born in Philadelphia, August 23, 1839. Educated by private tutors, he entered the college department of the University of Pennsylvania at the age of fourteen and made an average the highest ever attained in the University. In 1857 he graduated A. B., and at once entered the medical department of the university, receiving his M. D. in 1860. In the same year the university conferred upon him her A. M. He received the honorary LL. D. from Lafayette University in 1895.

Dr. Ashhursts' studious and industrious habits were formed early. He had been taught to read before he was four years old, and by the time he was sixteen had accumulated a library of some three thousand volumes, which subsequently was more than tripled in size. Throughout life he found his greatest relaxation in solving mathematical problems, in reading his favorite Greek and Latin authors, and in playing the piano.

First lessons in practical surgery were learned from Dr. George W. Norris while resident in the Pennsylvania Hospital (1861–62), where he also came under the influence of Joseph Pancoast, whom in after years he still regarded as the most brilliant operator he had ever seen. Abandoning a projected course of European study, on account of threatening rumors of civil war at home, he was appointed contract surgeon, with the title of acting assistant surgeon, United States Army, and was ordered, August 13, 1862, to the Chester (Pennsylvania) United States American General Hospital, under the command of Surgeon John L. LeConte, United States Volunteers. The board of examiners before whom Dr. Ashhurst appeared on this occasion was composed of his intimate friend, Dr. James H. Hutchinson (1834–1889), Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, and Dr. S. D. Gross. Dr. Hutchinson of course declined to ask him any questions. Nor would Dr. Mitchell attempt to examine him. Finally old Dr. Gross said, in his usual deliberate manner, "Doctor, I should be afraid to ask you any questions, for fear you might stump me!" In December, 1862, he was transferred to the Cuyler United States American Hospital, at Germantown, Pennsylvania, where he remained as executive officer until the close of the war in 1865. It was narrated by his colleagues at the army hospitals that Ashhurst always got all the good cases, as at a glance he would detect rare and serious injuries and these always remained under his personal care.

His chief reputation was made as surgeon to the Episcopal Hospital (1863–1880), and he resigned only when increasing duties as professor of clinical surgery in the University of Pennsylvania (1877–1900) necessitated it. There and at the Children's Hospital (1870–1900) he made his studies of bone surgery, and did those early and renowned excisions of the larger joints, for which he was so widely known. He was ranked by Otis, with Billroth, Volkmann, Gurlt, and Legouest. His friendship for Ollier and Esmarch, and the reciprocal admiration of Adams, Gant, Estlander, Barwell, Sayre, and other great bone surgeons of that day are well known. Later he was noted for his special skill in plastic surgery and in the surgery of the larger blood-vessels. His early recognition of the pathology of concussion of the spinal cord and brain has long been acknowledged and accepted.

He had been called the most learned of American surgeons (Brinton), and the highest authority in the world on medical and surgical bibliography. Practically all the surgical reviews in the American Journal of the Medical Sciences from 1867 to 1877 were from his pen. In 1867 he published a monograph "Injuries of the Spine," which, treating of its subject in the then novel statistical manner, at once drew attention to his ability as a writer. Having edited an American edition of Erichsen's "Science and Art of Surgery" in 1869 he published the first edition of his own "Principles and Practice of Surgery" in 1871—seven years before the first volume of Agnew's work appeared, and while Erich-sen and Gross were still popular text-books. Dr. Ashhurst's own surgery very soon obtained an authoritative place, and for years was the most widely studied and quoted work in America. The last (sixth) edition appeared in 1893. As editor of the "International Encyclopædia of Surgery" (six volumes, 1881–1886) his name became as familiar in all parts of Europe as it previously was in this country.

With such a reputation as author, teacher, and hospital surgeon, it is not surprising that the trustees of the University of Pennsylvania elected him Barton professor of surgery, on the resignation of Dr. Agnew in 1888. This position he continued to hold until his death in 1900.

Besides his purely professional interests, Dr. Ashhurst was widely known in religious, charitable, and philanthropic work.

Dr. Ashhurst married, December 8, 1864, Sarah Stokes Wayne. They had seven children: John, William Wayne, Mary, Anna Wayne, Sally Wayne, Astley Paston Cooper and Emma Matilda. Of these, William and Astley became doctors.

Dr. Ashhurst worked with untiring industry. He never took holidays. Although spending the summers at his country home, the Grange, in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, he went every day to the city and continued his usual routine of hospital and literary work the year through. During the night of August 2, 1898, having recently concluded a particularly laborious term of service at the Pennsylvania Hospital, he had, while asleep, a profuse cerebral hemorrhage, completely paralyzing his left side. From this he never recovered. With his intellect unimpaired, but his body helpless, he lingered nearly two years, in unexampled patience and fortitude. His death occurred, in the sixty-first year of his age, at his late residence, 2000 West DeLancey Place, Philadelphia, July 7, 1900. His surgical library, containing numerous exceedingly rare mediæval and classical works, was largely given to the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.

He was a member of the Pathological Society of Philadephia [SIC] and its president in 1870–1871; fellow of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, its president in 1898–1900; member of the Obstetrical Society of Philadelphia; fellow of the Philadelphia Academy of Surgery, its vice-president, 1897–1900; fellow of the American Surgical Association, and its vice-president, 1896.

Among the duties he fulfilled was that of:

Resident physician, Pennsylvania Hospital, 1861–1862. Acting assistant surgeon, United States Army, 1862–1865. Surgeon to the Hospital of the Protestant Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, 1863–1880; to the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, 1870–1900; to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, 1877–1900, and the Pennsylvania Hospital, 1887–1900. Professor of clinical surgery in the University of Pennsylvania, 1877–1900. John Rhea Barton professor of surgery in the University of Pennsylvania, 1888–1900.

Besides the reviews and bibliographical notices appearing in the American Journal of the Medical Sciences, practically all his publications up to 1876 will be found in the pages of that journal, and in the "Proceedings of the Pathological Society of Philadelphia." After that date several series of clinical lectures may be found in the files of the Philadelphia Medical Times, the Philadelphia Medical News, the New York Medical Record, and more recently in the International Clinics, the International Medical Magazine, and the University Medical Magazine. He published a memoir of James H. Hutchinson, M. D., in the Trans. Coll, of Phys., Phila., in 1890 and "The Late Prof. Wormley," ibid. 1897.

John Ashhurst, Jr.—a Memoir, by Richard H. Harte, M.D., Trans. Coll. Phys., Phila., 1902, vol. xxiv.
Portraits Coll. of Phys. of Phila., by John Lambert; Univ. of Penn., Medical Laboratories, by Jas. L. Wood.