American Medical Biographies/Bigelow, Jacob

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Bigelow, Jacob (1787–1879)

Jacob Bigelow was a great educational reformer, and one of America's most learned botanists. He was of New England ancestry, his people coming over about 1640 and settling in Watertown, Massachusetts. Jacob was the son of Jacob Bigelow, congregational minister, and graduate of Harvard, who married a daughter of one Gershom Flagg. Jacob the younger was born on the twenty-seventh of February, 1787, in that part of Watertown which is now Waltham and his childhood was passed in the country at farm-work, with scanty schooling. His father managed to send him to Harvard where he graduated in 1806, and in 1808 attended the medical lectures there while acting as pupil under Dr. John Gorham and teaching in the Boston Latin School. Then he went to Philadelphia for the lectures of Rush, Wistar, Barton and Cove and the doctor's degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1810. To bring himself early before the professional public he took to writing and secured the Boylston prize four successive years. So promising seemed his career that the elder James Jackson chose him as associate in practice. He was a born artist, craftsman, and inventor. When occasion came for illustrating his "Medical Botany" (1817–20) with engravings, before photography or lithographing were invented, he devised a means of illustration which proved both practical and beautiful and furnished sixty plates and 6,000 colored engravings for this monumental and now rare work. He speaks laughingly of his first lesson in botany given when as a little boy he asked a learned gentleman the name of the plant Star of Bethlehem. "That? Why that's grass, you little fool." When he wished for drawings and models for his lectures as Rumford professor he knew how to make them. In 1812 his interest in the study of botany led him to give a course of public lectures in Boston.

Botany was his great hobby, and "Florula Bostoniensis" (1814) was a charming book well known to our grandfathers. In 1815 he was appointed lecturer on materia medica and botany and two years later when he was thirty they changed his title to professor. Then, too, as first Rumford professor, it is pleasant to believe that Rumford left behind him in his native state a young disciple who fulfilled all his desires. The work which brought Bigelow into closest contact with European savants and gave him honor in his own country was the elaborate series published under the title "American Medical Botany," which, for finish and beauty and avoidance of technical terms, makes it desirable to-day. In 1820, when thirty-three, he was associated with Spalding, Hewson, Ives and Butts in editing the "United States Pharmacopœia." He followed up this labor by adding "Bigelow's Sequel," a perspicuous commentary on current remedies.

Three years previously he had married Mary, daughter of Col. William Scollay of Boston and they had five children, one son, Henry J. (q.v.), becoming the noted surgeon in Boston.

When the great cholera epidemic of 1832 in New York carried off some 3,000 victims, Boston's death roll numbered only one hundred owing to the authorities being wise enough to adopt the stringent sanitary precautions urged by Bigelow, who, with Ware and Flint, offered his services as investigator of the conditions in New York.

Bigelow at middle age was visiting physician to the Massachusetts General Hospital, professor of materia medica at Harvard, had an enormous consulting practice, and wrote frequently for the press and keenly worked for reform in the practice of medicine. Bigelow had clear vision and for many years, in season and out of season, demonstrated the self-limited character of disease. In 1835, when he read an address with this title before the Massachusetts Medical Society, the effect it produced was profound. Dr. O. W. Holmes says, "this remarkable essay had more influence on medical practice in America than any other similar brief treatise." This paper is bound up in a little volume entitled "Nature in Disease and Other Writings," 1854.

His educational pamphlets caused widespread discussion at home and abroad. Lecky wrote a strong letter of dissent, but Lyell, Huxley and Spencer were vigorous in commendation. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology with its splendid curriculum and strong staff is a monument, in part at least, to his untiring energy.

He did many other things in his declining years and became a most distinguished, most approachable old-man oracle. He was blind at the last for nearly five years; bed-ridden, but with mind undimmed at ninety-two. "His religion, not for speech, discussion or profession, was that of a serious man living very near the realities of life!" Unforgotten to the end, though long inactive, he died January, 10, 1879, and was buried in the beautiful Mount Auburn Cemetery, which he himself had originated.

Abridged from Surgical Memoirs and Other Essays. Dr. J. G. Mumford, N. Y., 1908.
Memoir of Jacob Bigelow, G. E. Ellis, Cambridge, 1880.
Boston Med. and Surg. Jour., 1879, 3 s., vol. xvii.
Am. Jour Sci. and Arts, 1879, New Haven, 3 s., vol. xvii.