American Medical Biographies/Beck, John Brodhead

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Beck, John Brodhead (1794–1851)

John Brodhead Beck, medico-legal expert, was born at Schenectady, New York, September 18, 1794. His father was Caleb Beck, his mother, Catherine, only daughter of Theodric Romeyn, D. D., one of the founders of Union College. He was a brother of Lewis C. Beck (q.v.), professor of chemistry at the Albany Medical College, and Theodric Romeyn Beck (q.v.), perhaps one of the greatest experts in legal medicine America has produced.

At the age of seven, John went to live with his uncle, the Rev. John B. Romeyn, at Rhinebeck, New York, and under his personal guidance entered upon a study of the liberal arts and sciences. In 1804 the uncle removed to New York City, taking the young man with him. In 1813 young Beck graduated from Columbia College, with the highest honors of his class, going soon after to London, where he took up the study of Hebrew, with the firm intention of eventually entering the ministry. Shortly afterward, however, he forsook theology for medicine, as better suited to his tastes and abilities.

Returning to New York, he studied the medical sciences for a time with Dr. David Hosack (q.v.), then matriculated at the College of Physicians and Surgeons in the same city. At this institution he received his degree in 1817. His graduation thesis, entitled, "On Infanticide," was a most remarkable production for one of Dr. Beck's years and experience. In the words of R. A. Witthaus (q.v.), "It may be truly said that, in this treatise, the subject was so thoroughly presented that subsequent writers have done little more than reproduce copies, more or less imperfect, and that it is still the standard work on infanticide in the English language." The little work was subsequently incorporated by its author's brother, the famous Theodric Romeyn Beck, into the latter's monumental and enduring "Elements of Medical Jurisprudence."

Dr. John B. Beck was the author of other noteworthy books and papers, among which were "Infantile Therapeutics" and "History of American Medicine Before the Revolution."

In 1826 he became professor of materia medica and botany in the College of Physicians and Surgeons and later was appointed professor of medical jurisprudence in the same institution, holding these two professorships for many years. He was one of the founders of the New York Medical and Physical Journal and of the New York Academy of Medicine, also president of the New York Medical Society, and for ten years one of the physicians to the New York Hospital.

A man of great energy and enthusiasm, he communicated these two qualities to his students to a very remarkable degree. He was also a very courteous man, and would spend long hours with some of his dullest students, resolving their individual perplexities, and at the close of the interview insisting that they should come to him again whenever they found themselves confronted by matters which they did not understand.

He enjoyed occasionally a bit of quiet fun. To him one day in the hospital surrounded by a number of students, came a mother and her eight-year-old son. The fond parent was complaining loudly that she feared that her son was about to be sick. "His skin is just the color of ashes, doctor," she declared. "It is ashes," responded the doctor. Calling for a sponge and a basin of soap-suds, he removed the ashen-gray "complexion," revealing the ruddiest of boyish faces. Beck was an earnest and consistent Christian, keeping to his faith through his latter years, which were troubled by sickness and unremitting pain. Often urged by his friends and attendants to relieve his suffering by means of opiates and anesthetics, he would very seldom permit this. "I do not wish to die," he would almost invariably answer those about him, "either stupified or insane." When finally the grim and dread messenger came to summon him, the doctor passed away "not like the galley-slave," but calmly and smilingly, as one reliant upon his glorious faith and supremely confident of a better life hereafter.

He died at Rhinebeck, New York, April 9, 1851.

American Medical Biography, S. D. Gross, 1861.
N. Y. Jour. of Med., C. R. Gilman, 1851.
American Universities and Their Sons, vol. ii.
Private sources.