NLM in Focus

When George Washington Was Searching for a New Surgeon General

He dipped his quill pen into ink and wrote a letter.

And that letter is in the NLM collection in our History of Medicine Division.

NLM’s Revolutionary War letter from George Washington looks a little dog-eared, as it was likely stashed in the saddle bag of a soldier, riding his horse to make the delivery.

The one-page missive from Washington, then an army officer, asks a member of the Continental Congress to support the search for a new Surgeon General, since the post had remained open a while and the health of the troops was in jeopardy. (Apparently Congress in the late 18th century functioned a bit like our own. The request was not granted, despite the author’s most ardent plea.)

One of the doctors Washington recommends for the position, James Craik, later became Washington’s personal physician and tended to him on his death bed.

In Washington’s own words

Addressed to the “The Honorable Joseph Jones, Esq. of Congress at Philadelphia,” the letter reads—

Head Quarters Sep. 9th, 1780

Dear Sir,

I have heard that a new arrangement is about to take place in the Medical Department, and that it is likely, it will be a good deal curtailed with respect to its present appointments.

Who will be the persons generally employed I am not informed, nor do I wish to know; however I will mention to you, that I think Doctors Craik and Cochran from their services, abilities and experience, and their close attention, have the strictest claims to their country’s notice, and to be among the first officers in the establishment.

There are many other deserving characters in the medical line of the army, but the reasons for my mention the above gentlemen are, that I have the highest opinion of them, and have had it hinted to me that the new arrangement might possibly be influenced by a spirit of party out of doors [i.e., partisan politics], which would not operate in their favor. I will add no more than that I am

With the most perfect respect

Dear Sir

Your most obedient servant

G. Washington

Colonial-era medicine

Washington’s letter is also part of NLM’s online exhibition, Every Necessary Care and Attention: George Washington and Medicine, which debuted in 2013. The exhibition explores Washington’s health and examines the ways he sought to safeguard the health and wellness of those under his care, whether on the battlefield or at his estate in Virginia. The traveling version of the exhibition continues to tour sites in the US and Europe.

See the letter for yourself

Interested in seeing the letter in person? It is frequently on display for tour groups visiting the Library.

Library tours are available Monday through Friday (except federal holidays) at 1:30 pm, and walk-ins are welcome. The basic tour lasts about an hour. Tours are available for individuals and groups weekdays between 8:30 am and 5:00 pm. Fill out the tour request form, and Tara Mowery, chief of visitor operations, will arrange a time that works for your group.

Posted February 22, 2018. The first president of the United States, George Washington, was born February 22, 1731. He served as president from 1789 until 1797.