American Medical Biographies/Bard, John

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Bard, John (1716–1799)

This pioneer New York physician was the first in the United States to take part in a systematic dissection for the purpose of instruction and he was the first in that country to report a case of extra-uterine pregnancy. His father, Peter Bard, a refugee from France on the revocation of the edict of Nantes, went first to London, and then to Delaware in 1703, on a mercantile venture. This not proving successful he settled in Burlington, New Jersey, where he was appointed judge of the supreme court and a member of the governor's council, dying at an early age and leaving his widow, a daughter of an English physician named Marmion, with a family of seven children to educate on very slender means. John, her third son, born February 1, 1716, was sent to Philadelphia where he received the rudiments of a classical education, partly at the hands of a Scotch gentleman, Annan by name, a man of reduced circumstances but an accomplished teacher of Latin and an exponent of polished manners.

At the age of fifteen John was bound apprentice, according to the custom of the day, to Mr. Kearsley, an English surgeon of good talents but of an unhappy temper. He treated his pupils with great severity and subjected them to most menial employments to which John would have scarcely submitted, as he said, were it not for the fear of disappointing his mother and because of his affection for Mrs. Kearsley, who showed him the greatest kindness. For seven tedious years he stayed with the doctor, stealing his hours of study from sleep, after the family had gone to bed and before they got up in the morning.

An early intimacy with Benjamin Franklin, of kindred mind and no unequal fortune, served to brighten Bard's leisure hours and to stimulate his industry. They were members of the same club and they corresponded and kept up their friendship throughout life.

Dr. Bard settled in practice first in Philadelphia where he married a Miss Valleau, a niece of Mrs. Kearsley, like himself a descendant of a refugee and equally destitute of the goods of this world. Of this union was born Samuel Bard (q.v.), organizer of the first medical college in New York and a noted writer on midwifery. After practising six or seven years in Philadelphia Dr. Bard was induced by Franklin to move to New York in the year 1746, to take the place of Dr. Dubois and Dr. Dupie, who had died there of yellow fever. His cheerfulness, conversational ability and tact, coupled with sound professional attainments, soon won for him a large practice among the better classes. Bard read much in the medical literature of the day and also in the English authors and his retentive memory enabled him to delight his friends with long and appropriate quotations.

Upon the arrival in New York harbor of a Dutch ship in 1759 containing cases of a malignant ship fever, Dr. Bard was employed by the corporation to take proper quarantine measures. Every nurse and attendant in the hospital had the disease. Thus was Bard impelled to draw up a memorial urging the expediency of providing a pest house against similar occurrences and the result was the purchase of Bedloe's Island and the building upon it, Bard becoming health officer. He was likewise appointed surgeon and agent for the sick and wounded seamen of the British navy at New York, retaining the position until he retired from practice. He was a friend of Dr. Peter Middleton (q.v.), one of the noted medical men of the time and a founder of the medical department of King's College, and Bard assisted Middleton in the first recorded dissection.

As regards this, David Hosack says (American Medical and Philosophical Register, 1812, ii, 228): "As early, however, as 1750, the body of Hermannus Carroll, executed for murder, was dissected in this city by two of the most eminent physicians of that day, Drs. John Bard and Peter Middleton, and the blood vessels injected for the instruction of the youth then engaged in the study of medicine; this was the first essay made in the United States for the purpose of imparting medical knowledge by the dissection of the human body, of which we have any record."

In 1778 Dr. Bard retired from practice and settled on a farm he owned at Hyde Park, on the Hudson, in Dutchess County, but being reduced in fortune by the Revolution he returned to New York at the peace of 1783 and resumed practice. On the establishment of the Medical Society of the State of New York in 1788 he was unanimously chosen its first president.

Dr. Bard was not a voluminous writer. In a letter to Dr. John Fothergill of London, dated December 25, 1759, he communicated "A case of an extra-uterine foetus," that was read to "A society of physicians in London," March 24, 1760, and published subsequently in Medical Observations and Inquiries, in 1762. This first case to be reported has an interest to every medical reader. It was a woman of 28 years who went through her second pregnancy with only slight abnormal symptoms and at the end of nine months had a few labor pains, but delivery did not take place. In spite of the presence of a large right-sided abdominal tumor she had another healthy child by a normal labor, but five days after delivery pain and fever began and at the end of nine weeks of treatment by fomentations, fluctuation in the tumor could be determined. Dr. Bard in the presence of Dr. Huck, an army physician, opened the abdomen by a long incision and delivered a macerated full-time fetus and much pus, the patient then nursing her child and making a good recovery.

Several papers on yellow fever from Dr. Bard's pen are to be found in the files of the American Medical and Philosophical Register, and after his death there appeared in the same publication (April, 1811, i, 409–421) an essay on the nature and cause of malignant pleurisy that had been delivered before "A weekly society of gentlemen in New York," in January, 1749. Here we have a reference to probably the earliest medical society in the country. It was patterned after Dr. Fothergill's London society apparently and, according to Peter Middleton, was in existence twenty years later.

In 1795 Dr. Bard, then being in his eightieth year, gave an address before the state medical society calling attention to the presence of yellow fever in the city, meeting much opposition and some obloquy by so doing. Nevertheless, his advice as to treatment of this dread disease—sweating the patient—proved more successful than other methods. In 1798 he gave up practice and retired to Hyde Park where he died, March 30, 1799, at the age of 83. His charm of conversation, vivacity and cheerfulness never forsook him and thus he passed to the great beyond, admired, respected and beloved.

Amer. Med. & Phil. Reg., 1811, vol. i, 61–67. Portrait.
Dict. Amer. Biog., F. S. Drake, 1872.
Med. Observas. & Inquiries, Lond., 1762, vol. i, 369–372.
Letters of John Bard in Life of Samuel Bard, Rev. John McVickar, N. Y., 1822.