American Medical Biographies/James, Edwin

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James, Edwin (1797–1862)

Dr. James, who is best known among scientific men in this country as the botanist and historian of Long's expedition to the Rocky Mountains in 1820, under the auspices of the U. S. War Department, was born in Wey-bridge, Verment, August 27, 1797. His father was Deacon Daniel James, a native of Rhode Island who removed to Vermont about the beginning of the Revolutionary war. Edwin was the youngest of ten sons, three of whom became physicians. His early studies were conducted at home in the manner usual at that period, the summer months being devoted to the labors of the farm, the winter spent at the district school. He pursued his academic and collegiate course at Middlebury, Vt., where he was graduated in 1816. Subsequently he engaged in the study of medicine for three years under an elder brother, Dr. Daniel James, in Albany, N. Y. While pursuing his medical studies he was particularly interested in the natural sciences then taught by Professor Amos Eaton under the distinguished patronage of Stephen Van Rensselaer. In the spring of 1820 Dr. James was attached to the exploring expedition of Major Long as botanist and geologist, taking the place of Dr. Baldwin, who accompanied this expedition the previous season as far as Franklin on the Missouri River, where he terminated his labors and his life. Dr. James was recommended for this position by the Hon. Smith Leconte, and Dr. John Torrey (q. v), descriptive botanist of Dr. James's collection. The connection of Dr. James with the expedition lasted until its close, being engaged in active exploration during the season of 1820 from May to November.

The efficient labors of Dr. James on this arduous trip may be readily inferred from the published scientific results. Interesting additions were made to the knowledge of the botany of the great plains, at that time but imperfectly known. The elevated peaks forming the outlines of the Rocky Mountain range, rivaling in altitude the snowy summits of Mt. Blanc, revealed a reservoir of existing richness and attracted the attention of botanists both of America and Europe. It is still unexplained why the recommendation of Maj. Long applying to the lofty mountain in Colorado the name of James Peak has not been adopted by modern geologists. Amid the great number of elevated landscapes of this region some other peak fully as appropriate might have been selected to bear the name of the enterprising Pike.

On returning from this expedition the attention of Dr. James was occupied for two years in compiling the results, which were published both in Philadelphia and in London in 1823, entitled "Account of an Expedition from Pittsburgh to the Rocky Mountains in 1819 and 1820, under the Command of Major Samuel H. Long." This publication elicited no little interest and is now a valued fund of historic and scientific facts.

On the completion of this work Dr. James was for six or seven years connected with the U. S. Army as surgeon, serving in that capacity at several of the extreme frontier posts. During this period, aside from his professional duties, he was occupied with the study of the native Indian dialects and prepared a translation of the New Testament in the Ojibway language, subsequently published in 1833. He was also author of a life of John Tanner, a strange character who was stolen when a child from his home on the Ohio river by Indians, among whom he was brought up, developing in his future eventful history a strange mixture of the different traits pertaining to his early life and savage education.

On the reorganization of the medical department of the U. S. Army in 1830 Dr. James resigned his commission and returned to Albany, New York, where for a short time he was associate editor of a temperance journal conducted by E. C. Delavan, Esq. After leaving this he concluded to make his home in the far west, and in 1836 he settled in the vicinity of Burlington, Iowa, where he spent the remainder of his life, devoted mainly to agricultural pursuits. It was at this time that some peculiar traits which distinguished Dr. James as a strange man became more conspicuous. His mode of life, his opinions and his views on moral and religious questions generally were inclined to ultraism and he assumed the habits of a recluse.

In his personal appearance Dr. James was tall, erect, with a benevolent expression of countenance and a piercing black eye.

On October 25, 1861, he fell from a load of wood and both wheels of the cart passed over his chest. He lingered until the morning of October 28th, when he expired at Rock Spring, Illinois, at the age of sixty-four.

Amer. Jour. of Science and Arts, C. C. Parry, 1862, vol. xxxiiii, 428–30.
Cat. of the Library Brit. Museum, Nat Hist., vol. ii.
Some of our Medical Explorers and Adventurers, Wm. Browning, Ph.B., M.D., Brooklyn, N. Y., 1918.
Appleton's Cyclop. Amer. Biog., N. Y., 1887.