American Medical Biographies/Brown, Benjamin

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Brown, Benjamin (1756–1831)

One of the lesser luminaries in the history of American medicine is Dr. Benjamin Brown, who practised in various places in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Maine, and was a member in good standing of the Massachusetts Medical Society. He was born in Swansea, Massachusetts, September 23, 1756, a descendant of that great fanatic in religion, Chadd Brown of Providence Plantation, R. I., who had followed into exile from Salem, Massachusetts, the famous Roger Williams, as their religious views became more and more obnoxious to their churchly-inclined neighbors. Benjamin Brown's grandfather married Mercy Carr, a descendant of Roger Williams, so that in the physician who is the subject of this sketch the Chadd Brown and the Roger Williams strains were strongly united.

I do not find exact traces of the medical studies of Dr. Brown, but during the Revolution he became prominent from his intimacy with one of the ablest American maritime captains of that era, Captain Samuel Tucker, who captured by camouflage more prizes at sea than any other officer on active service during the Revolution. Captain Tucker was so highly thought of, that Congress offered him in 1777 the command of the frigate Boston of 20 guns and 250 men, and as surgeon he called in the services of his friend, Dr. Benjamin Brown, who was, as we may note, just over 21 years of age. The first cruise in which Brown served as ship's surgeon was that in 1778 when the Boston carried as commissioner to France, John Adams, afterward president of the United States. After leaving him abroad, to join Franklin and Rutledge, the Boston made several cruises and captured many prizes, but was finally taken herself by the British fleet off Charleston, South Carolina, where she was finally broken up as unseaworthy.

Just before this, Captain Tucker had captured the British ship the Thorn of 18 guns and 140 men, and sent her into Salem. When he and Dr. Brown were finally exchanged for two officers of similar rank from the Thorn, they both went to sea in that vessel, and continued their successes until the end of the Revolution.

Directly after the termination of one of his cruises in 1780, Dr. Brown had married Susannah Wells, a niece of Elizabeth Adams, second wife of Samuel Adams, the patriot. To use the word "Romance" in its proper meaning, of which it has been robbed of late years in connection with the telephone and other heartless apparatus of modern invention. I will say that when Dr. Brown and his fiancée happened to consult a Gypsy, Moll Pitcher, at Lynn, she romantically prophesied, as she crossed his palm with one of his silver bits, that he would marry the pretty, slightly lame lady at his side, and that she would bring him thirteen children. This prophecy proved true, and from the discovered births of some of the thirteen, we can place Dr. Brown in his peripatetic practice of medicine in Boston, Providence, Bristol and Waldoborough in Maine, where he finally settled for life about the year 1800, and to the astonishment of his neighbors began housekeeping with two colored servants, the man as a butler and his wife as cook.

Dr. Brown's medical experience on two vessels of the size of the Boston and the Thorn must have been considerable, considering the number of wounded and sick men. In Waldoborough he gained an excellent country practice, but the greatest prominence which he obtained as a surgeon was as witness for the plaintiff in the celebrated law suit of Lowell vs. Faxon and Hawkes (q.v. M. C. Hawkes) in which he testified to his large experience in the treatment of dislocations of the hip with pulleys. He proved to be a good witness, much as he regretted appearing against a brother physician.

His savings, from time to time, he invested in shipping, only to see them swept away by the French privateers. He finally went into politics, was a member of the legislature for three terms, and served in Congress for one term, 1815–17, as member from Massachusetts; Maine at that date being a part of the Bay-State.

When Captain Tucker retired from service at sea, he settled for life at Bremen, a few miles from Waldoborough, and often used to drive over and call in on his old surgeon, Dr. Brown. It happened on one occasion that John Adams, then ex-president of the United States, came "Down East" to visit General Knox, and of course he slopped over at Waldoborough, to meet his comrades of the Boston, of thirty years before. They dined nobly, for the times, had a drink of hot spiced rum, and sang many songs together, particularly, that glorious ballad, "Scots, wha hae wi' Wallace bled." with indescribable zest and fervor. When they had finished all of the verses, Captain Tucker tapped Dr. Brown on the shoulder and cried, "Bennie, Bennie! I tell you that song would wake up a worm that had been dead a thousand years."

A day or two later they all arrived safely at Thomaston, at the grand mansion in which the General was glad not only to see the former president and the famous sea captain, but most of all, perhaps, his own personal medical adviser, Dr. Benjamin Brown, "the only man living," said Mrs. Knox with pride, "whom I could ever endure to have around the house when the general is in the least bit ailing."