American Medical Biographies/Biddle, John Barclay

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Biddle, John Barclay (1815–1879)

John Barclay Biddle, eminent practitioner and author of a widely used treatise on materia medica, was born in Philadelphia, January 3, 1815. He was the eldest son of Colonel Clement C. Biddle, in the military and naval service of the United States, and Mary, daughter of John Barclay. His ancestor, William Biddle, emigrated to America before William Penn.

When fourteen years old, Biddle went to St. Mary's College, Baltimore, remaining there four years, becoming proficient in French and Spanish. After graduating he began to study law but soon gave it up for medicine, entering the office of Nathaniel Chapman (q.v.), a connection by marriage. He was in the University of Pennsylvania when the professors there were Chapman, Dorsey, Wood, Physick and Jackson; he graduated in 1836, after which he studied in Paris.

Returning home, his first work was to start, with Meredith Clymer, the publication of The Medical Examiner, the initial number of which appeared January 3, 1838; this journal continued until 1844, when it was merged in the North American Medico-Chirurgical Review. Biddle was successful as editor and made a feature of reporting the clinical lectures of the attending physicians and surgeons in the Philadelphia hospitals. In the autumn of 1838 W. W. Gerhard (q.v) and, later, Francis Gurney Smith (q.v) joined the editorial staff.

In 1846 Biddle was associated with Joseph Leidy and other young physicians in establishing the Franklin Medical College of Philadelphia; situated on Locust Street, near Twelfth, which did not exist long, although many of its faculty became eminent physicians. He held the chair of materia medica in the Pennsylvania Medical College, a branch of Gettysburg College, and in 1865 was elected to the chair of materia medica and general therapeutics in Jefferson Medical College, to succeed Thomas D. Mitchell (q.v.), a position he held until his death.

He was dean of the faculty and in this office was asked by a young woman from the West to be enrolled as a student. Her request was refused, and he gave the incident publicity in his introductory to his class in 1873. He declared that women entering medicine "must be willing to subordinate love and marriage to the stern requirements of the most exacting of avocations; … if they come into the arena, they must come as equals.… We would spare them the contest … because we know, that, whatever their talent, … the inferiority of a feebler and more delicate physical organization is insurmountable.… The cry for new rights is loud, but it comes from the few— … The clatter of all the female men in the world cannot alter the laws of nature."

Biddle's work, "Review of the Materia Medica for the Use of Students," appeared in 1852, a volume of 300 pages; a second edition was published in 1865, "revised and enlarged and adapted to the last edition of the U. S. Pharmacopoeia;" the title was now "Materia Medica for the Use of Students;" and thus it remained; the eighth edition was in 1878, 462 pages.

In 1850 he married Caroline, the youngest of six daughters of William Phillips, of Philadelphia. They had four daughters and two sons, one, Clement, became a surgeon in the United States Army, the other, William Phillips, major general U.S.M.C.

Biddle went abroad in the summer of 1878, returning to take up his work in Jefferson, but was in ill health and so continued until his death, January 19, 1879, caused by an unrecognized appendicitis, as evidenced by autopsy.

Trans. Coll. Phys., E. B. Gardette, Phila., 1879, 3, s., vol. iv, pp. lxix–lxxxviii.
Med. Rec., N. Y., 1879, xv, 94.
Trans. Amer. Med. Asso., F. Woodberry, 1880, vol. xxxi, 1013.