Today, a lesson in living by a Colonial doctor. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Hall Jackson was a Colonial
doctor. He was best among peers in a primitive
business. His journals leave a wonderful record of
the texture of that roughhewn work.
Jackson learned medicine from his father. Few of
our early doctors had formal schooling in medicine.
But Jackson did go on to study for a year or so in
London, before the Revolution.
He was alert and innovative. In England he invented
a device for taking musket balls from wounds. He
was the rare doctor who would do a cataract
operation. Imagine, if you can, doing eye surgery
with primitive instruments and no anesthetics!
In 1776 he heard about the Battle of Bunker Hill
and hurried to Boston. He served the wounded during
the Siege of Boston. He wrote about that terrible
. . . to describe the pittiful and miserable
condition of our unfortunate wound[ed] Brethren
would be impossible . . . I amputated several limbs
and extracted many balls the first night . . . I
went on with this fatigue 15 days.
Military surgery took its toll on
Jackson. He soon wrote, "I am heartily sick of the
din and confusion of war," and went back to civilian
practice. In Boston, he led in the new art of
smallpox inoculation. Then he headed the first public
health program of inoculation in Portsmouth. He also
took up a new cause. He began studying a form of
heart disease called dropsy.
We knew little more about the heart than the pulse
would tell us in those days. The stethoscope hadn't
been invented yet. Dropsy was the old name for
pulmonary edema. It refers to the accumulation of
water that goes with congestive heart failure.
Dropsy caused five percent of all deaths. Doctors
took the water buildup as the disease itself -- not
just a symptom. They simply drained off water until
the patient inevitably died.
Then Jackson read about work with a plant called
the purple foxglove. An English doctor made
digitalis from it. He'd found digitalis could cure
dropsy. But there was no purple foxglove in
America. So Jackson turned botanist. He sent to
England for foxglove seeds. It was he who
introduced digitalis to America.
Jackson isn't famous today. But his was the steady
creative labor that made a better life in a new
land. He also wrote poetry. He used a botanist's
imagery in a hymn about our work:
That's the earthy sentiment of a man
whose gracious fruit of the hands and mind really did
make us -- what we are.
Then dig about our root,
Dig up our fallow ground,
And let our gracious fruit
To thy great praise abound.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds