Among the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence were four practicing physicians: two famous for their work in medicine and two better known for their political activities. (A fifth signer, Oliver Wolcott, studied medicine for a time but never practiced.)
NLM in Focus is celebrating Independence Day by looking back at the important roles played by these four physician-patriots. And we give a tip o’ the tricorn hat to NLM’s 1975 annual report for the text on which this article is based.
Benjamin Rush (1745-1813) whose system of bleeding in the treatment for yellow fever was denounced as “one of the great discoveries … which has contributed to the de-population of the earth” was probably the best-known American physician of his day. Despite some of his mistaken theories, he made many outstanding contributions in medicine and social reform.
He established the first free dispensary in the country, was probably the first to advocate the study of veterinary medicine made notable contributions to psychiatry, and was the first medical man in the country to achieve a general literary reputation. Although a controversial figure in his medical theories, he was greatly admired as a teacher, having taught about 3,000 students in his lifetime. A major result of his instruction was the emergence of Philadelphia as the leading American center of medical training during the first half of the nineteenth century.
Josiah Bartlett (1729-1795) was a notable physician, and chief justice and governor of New Hampshire. The first to vote for adoption of the Declaration of Independence he was one of the most influential members of the two Continental Congresses in which he served. His interest in the medical profession did not abate during his long career in public affairs, and in 1791 he secured from the state legislature a charter for the New Hampshire Medical Society.
Lyman Hall (1724-1790) began his career as a preacher in Connecticut, but he later abandoned this in favor of the study and practice of medicine. He moved with a group of New England Congregationalists to Georgia, where he practiced medicine before becoming a delegate to the Continental Congress. After the war, he returned to Georgia to practice medicine, but that state’s citizens had other plans for him, electing him governor in 1783.
Matthew Thornton (c.1714-1803) was born in Ireland and emigrated to America about 1718. He began to practice medicine in Londonderry, New Hampshire, in 1740, and was an “under-surgeon” in the New Hampshire militia under the royal government. Prominent in the agitation against the Stamp Act, he was later elected president of the provincial congress of 1775. He was also chairman of the committee of safety that organized resistance and exercised general powers of government during the early stages of the war. He never returned to the practice of medicine, but devoted most of his remaining years to political affairs in New Hampshire.