Strong Medicine: Doctors Who Signed the Declaration of Independence

Jacob Goldstein

declaration_art_257_20080703163700.jpgWho knows better than a doctor — witness to birth, sickness and death — that all men are created equal? So it is fitting to recall, this Fourth of July, that the signatures of five physicians are scattered among the 56 names at the bottom of the Declaration of Independence.

Here are the basics on the Founding Doctors. Facts not otherwise attributed come from the book Physician Signers of the Declaration of Independence (Yes, there’s really a book with that title, and we were able to get our hands on a copy.)

Benjamin Rush was a Pennsylvania doc who served as a high-ranking surgeon in the Continental Army and was later treasurer of the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia. He is known as the Father of American Psychiatry, and his book Medical Inquiries and Observations upon Diseases of the Mind was the standard psychiatry textbook for much of the 19th century, the NIH says.

Matthew Thornton practiced for years in rural New Hampshire. When he went to Philadelphia for the Continental Congress, he had himself innoculated against smallpox and wrote of the ensuing ordeal. His satire described a Dr. Cash (�we saw no more of him, till I paid his bill of 18 dollars�); Dr. Critical Observer (�told me he would critically observe every stage … came once in two or three days, and stayed about a minute�); and Dr. Experience (�a merchant, who had the Small Pox, visited us every day, and gave a much truer account of the Small Pox, than all the doctors.�)

Josiah Bartlett was a practicing physician who became governor of New Hampshire and was one of the framers of the Constitution. But the practice of medicine remained important to him. In 1793, two years before he died, he wrote a letter to the New Hampshire state medical society (which he helped charter) expressing his hope that the group would crack down on quackery by “discouraging ignorant & bold pretenders from practizing [sic] an Art which they have no knowledge.�

Lyman Hall worked as a minister until, for reasons unknown to history, he was charged with “immoral conduct� and dismissed. He became a doctor, left his native Connecticut and ultimately landed in Georgia, where things seemed to improve for him — in 1783, he became governor of the state.

Oliver Wolcott was the son of a Connecticut governor who trained as a physician and may have practiced briefly, but spent most of his life in public office. For a while, he held the appealing sounding title of “high sheriff� in Litchfield County.

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