American Medical Biographies/Haskell, Benjamin

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Haskell, Benjamin (1810–1878).

During the War of 1812, or more precisely at daybreak, September 9, 1814, the British frigate Nymph lying off Rockport at the tip of Cape Ann, Massachusetts, sent ashore two barges to attack the town. They surprised and captured the small fort on Bearskin Neck and as the bell on the meeting-house began to ring the alarm one of the barges, to silence the ringing, fired at the belfry and lodged a round shot in one of the steeple posts where it may be seen today. The old white church now stands side by side with a white-painted square mansion set well back from the main street of the town at the top of a beautiful tree-dotted green lawn, edged round with granite from the quarries near at hand. The shot in its course to the belfry passed directly over the old tavern where little Benjamin Haskell, four years old, lived with his father and mother, Josiah and Rachel Tarr Haskell. There he had been born October 22, 1810. Twenty-five years later, after Benjamin had received an A. B. at Amherst (1832) and an M. D. at Bowdoin (1837) he was to settle in Rockport, to worship at this church and eventually to live in the house next door, and pass the rest of his life caring for the health of his fellow townsmen, helping in the causes of temperaance, education and charity and getting himself so beloved that shortly before his death his patients presented him with a gold watch and chain as a mark of their affection. He represented the good old Puritan stock, for he was descended from William Haskell, a settler in Gloucester in 1643, the father of Benjamin having taken up his residence in Sandy Bay village, which was later to be known as Rockport.

Before going to Rockport Dr. Haskell acted as assistant physician at the McLean Hospital, Somerville, and practised two years at South Boston.

In 1839 he married Mary Jane, daughter of Amos Calef of Gloucester.

He early evinced a literary turn, for we find him contributing to the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal in the year 1837 articles on "Somnambulism," vol. xvi, p. 292–302; "Animal Magnetism," vol. xvii, p. 104–111; another paper on animal magnetism, do., 366–368; "On Inflammation," do., 407–416. Nearly twenty years later he published his chief contribution to medical literature in a pamphlet entitled: "Essays on the Physiology of the Nervous System with an appendix on Hydrophobia," Gloucester, 1856, 87 pp., previously issued in the columns of the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, the last being read before the Massachusetts Medical Society at its annual meeting, May 27, 1856. He confuted the theories of Sir Charles Bell and Marshall Hall as to the sensory and motor functions of the spinal nerves, believing that physiologists overlooked "the existence of a spiritual principle within the body" and that "the real cause of the production of a given phenomenon, is mental instead of physical." He supposed "the nervous system to be employed as an instrument of sensation and motion exclusively, while, at the same time, the powers of sensation and motion inhere in the mind itself."

Dr. Haskell was a critical student of the physiological literature of the time and a man of originality and positive convictions which he expounded with skill and a ready use of language. His ideas were, however, sometimes clouded by complicated and confusing classifications and hypothetical considerations. His services as a writer and speaker were in demand by his neighbors.

In personal appearance he was six feet tall, wore a full beard and stooped a little as he walked. His kindness of heart is shown by his carrying off his wife's entire baking of bread to a poor family that was in need. One stormy night an unknown man stumbled into Dr. Haskell's office and said he was starving. The doctor got him something to eat, tucked him up on his office sofa and went to bed, saying to his remonstrating wife, "He can't steal much, and I will take my chances that he is honest." The wayfarer proved himself to be both honest and grateful. Small wonder that Dr. Haskell was mourned when he died of pneumonia at his home at the age of sixty-eight, January 21, 1878.

Personal Commun. from A. M. Tupper, M. D., who has in his library, Dr. Haskell's writings, and a portrait.
Biog. Rec. of Alumni of Amherst Coll., 1821–1871, Amherst, 1883.