Tuesday, May 24, 2016

“An Aristocracy of Talent”: The South Carolina Physician-Naturalists and Their Times

By Charles S. Bryan, MD (by invitation) and A. Weaver Whitehead, Jr, MD

During the natural history movement of the 18th and early 19th centuries, Charleston as a center was rivaled in the United States only by Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. Prominent physician-naturalists included Alexander Garden (for whom the gardenia is named), John Edwards Holbrook (“father of American herpetology”), and Francis Peyre Porcher (whose Resources of Southern Fields and Forests helped Confederates compensate for drug shortages). The Charleston physician-naturalists belonged to an “aristocracy of talent” as distinguished from the “aristocracy of wealth” of lowcountry planters, who probably did more than any other group to perpetuate slavery and propel the South toward a disastrous civil war. None of the physician-naturalists actively opposed slavery or secession, a reminder that we are all prisoners of the prevailing paradigms and prejudices of our times.

The South Carolina lowcountry elicits mixed emotions. Its beauty and diversity of flora and fauna bring out the joyous naturalist in a person, yet such sights as abandoned rice fields, tabby ruins of plantations and chapels-of-ease, and Civil War cemeteries remind us of a way of life based on African slavery. During the natural history movement (the descriptive study of the three major kingdoms—animal, vegetable, and mineral—during the 18th and early 19th centuries), Charleston as a center for naturalists, especially physician-naturalists, was rivaled in the United States only by Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. How did these men respond to slavery, that singularly defining fact of American history?

My text comes from a remark made sometime around 1830 at a dinner party: “Whatever parties may exist in a country, and under whatever names they may go, there are always two aristocracies—the aristocracy of wealth and the aristocracy of talent.” Turning to his guest, the speaker added: “You belong to one and I to the other”. The speaker was young Tom Heyward, scion of a rice-planting family. The South Carolina lowcountry planters, an argument goes, did more than any other group to perpetuate African slavery, defy the federal government and its constitution, propel the nation toward civil war, and establish a mindset that reverberates today in our hyperpolarized national psyche. The listener was a young lawyer named James Louis Petigru, who went on to such distinction that by the eve of the Civil War he is said to have been the only Unionist in South Carolina who could walk down the streets of Charleston or the aisle of St Michael's Church and gain a respectful nod from everyone he passed. To Petigru is attributed the famous mot that “South Carolina is too small to be a republic, and too large to be an insane asylum.”

The physician-naturalists constituted an aristocracy of talent. A few, to be sure, became planters and slaveholders, but most earned their livings practicing medicine. Their lives and achievements have been previously summarized, but, to my knowledge, no attempt has been made to situate all of them within their eras' general histories. This meeting's setting in downtown Charleston, the scheduling of this paper late in a program sated with basic and clinical science, and last evening's address on the bombardment of Fort Sumter by Professor James Rembert suggested it might be more useful to underscore the contexts of their times that to dwell at length on their specific contributions to natural history, which at this late hour might fly by like so much scenery. Let us then consider some of the more prominent Charleston physician-naturalists in four contexts: the colonial and revolutionary periods, during which the die was cast for a later reckoning on the slavery question; flush times between 1783 and 1830, when diversity of opinion on slavery was still tolerated; stormy years between 1830 and 1860, during which southern attitudes hardened; and the Civil War, which destroyed the aristocracy of wealth and effectively closed an era of physician-naturalists in South Carolina.

Colonial Americans bent on studying medicine typically went to Edinburgh. Native Scots trained in Edinburgh often went elsewhere to practice, as the supply of doctors in Scotland exceeded the demand. The late Dr Joseph Waring determined that 17 of 28 doctors who practiced in Charleston between 1725 and 1780 were either born in Scotland, trained in Scotland, or, and more typically, both. During the colonial and revolutionary periods, the leading South Carolina naturalist by far was Dr Alexander Garden (1730−1791), a Scot who came here in 1752 seeking a milder climate for his lung condition, probably tuberculosis. He began practice in what is now Beaufort County but due to illness went north for a few years. There he met other naturalists and learned the Linnaean method of classification. Returning to South Carolina, Garden practiced with Dr John Lining, another Scottish immigrant remembered as a pioneering American meteorologist. Garden applied Linnaean taxonomy to the flora and fauna of South Carolina. He submitted botanical specimens to the British naturalist John Ellis, who read Garden's papers to the Royal Society and made Garden known to the great Swedish physician-naturalist Carl Linnaeus. The latter showed appreciation by naming the Cape jasmine the “Gardenia” and encouraged Garden to send animal specimens. Linnaeus eventually credited Garden for describing three new genera of plants, two new genera of fish, and 60 new species of serpents, insects, and fish. Garden's specimens were so well-prepared that many remain on display in London museums. His observations and experiments on electric eels drew the attention of London's John Hunter and others, contributing to a chain of events leading to the idea that human nerves and muscles might operate on electric impulses.

Garden's productivity as a naturalist becomes all the more remarkable when one considers his poor health, his probable attacks of malaria, the Carolina heat, and a practice that grew busier after Lining died in 1760. He was driven in part by a desire for recognition by European scientists. He held little hope for recognition by fellow colonists, telling Ellis that South Carolina was “a horrid country, where there is not a living soul who knows the least iota of Natural History”. Garden took a dim view of the lowcountry planters, writing that they were “absolutely above every occupation but eating, drinking, lolling, smoking, and sleeping, which five modes of action constitute the essence of their life and existence” (whether he left out sex inadvertently is unknown).

Also driving Garden like most naturalists was the desire to know God by studying His handiwork (natural theology; the “argument from design” for the existence of God). Thus, in 1763, Garden wrote Linnaeus of “the mental pleasure and rational employment, which I have had in examining, determining, contemplating, and admiring this wonderful part of the works and manifestations of the wisdom and power of the Great Author of Nature,” which was “so full and replete with innumerable marks of Divine” that Garden planned to devote full-time to it “as soon as my business of the practice of medicine will permit me”. Linnaean taxonomy was predicated partly on the idea that God had formed each creature independently; therefore, each species reflected a divinely created “original mold.” How Garden reconciled his pursuit of the divine with the harsh reality of slavery is unknown, but he made scathing observations on the slave trade.

More than 200,000 Africans were brought to South Carolina between the late 17th century and 1808, when the slave trade was officially abolished. Charleston's first English-speaking settlers came from the West Indies in 1670 as experienced colonists well-aware of the profitability of cash crops using slavery. The brutality of slavery in the hot and humid Carolina lowcountry prompted the Stono Rebellion of 1739, which resulted in the deaths of approximately 45 whites and an equal number of blacks. Whites' attitudes hardened but the slave trade resumed after brief suspension. Garden was among the doctors who examined newly arrived slaves quarantined on Sullivan's island, which became the Ellis Island for at least 40% (some estimates run as high as 60%) of today's African Americans.

Garden described the horrors to the British botanist Stephen Hales: “There are few Ships that come here from Africa but have had many of their Cargoes thrown overboard; some one-fourth, some one-third, some lose half; and I have seen that some that have lost two-thirds of their Slaves. I have often gone to visit those Vessels on their first arrival. .. but I have never yet been on-board one, that did not smell most offensive and noisome; what for Filth, putrid Air, putrid Dysenteries (which is their common Disorder), it is a wonder any escape with Life”. Nevertheless, Garden as a man of his times did not forswear slavery. Reputedly the colony's wealthiest doctor by the eve of the revolution, he bought a plantation only to have his enjoyment of a slaveholding planter's lifestyle cut short by the Revolution.

South Carolina was the wealthiest of the 13 colonies. If you belong to the privileged class, should you bet on the Continentals or the Crown? This question became urgent after Charleston fell to the British in early 1780, leaving Lord Cornwallis in charge. Garden tried to stay neutral. However, his signature on a memorial congratulating Cornwallis on his route of the Continentals at Camden (August 1780) proved his undoing.

South Carolinians taught the British a lesson (and a lesson apparently forgotten by US leaders beginning around 1960) that a well-equipped, well-fed, well-dressed occupying force from across an ocean may lose to insurgents who know the terrain, blend in with the population, use hit-and-run tactics, and are not answerable to public opinion in a faraway land. Francis Marion (“the Swamp Fox”), Thomas Sumter (“the Gamecock”), and other partisan leaders with their ragtag troops disrupted British supply lines between Charleston and the “backcountry.” Marion and his colleagues effectively wrote a manual on asymmetric warfare that is still studied. Backcountry farmers, many of them Scots-Irish with no particular fondness for the British, became enraged by occasional atrocities such as Banastre Tarleton's massacre at the Waxhaws (May 1780). They teamed with Continental regulars to win decisive battles at Kings Mountain (October 1780) and Cowpens (January 1781) and drive Cornwallis up through the Carolinas and then to Yorktown, where the British were trapped between George Washington's army and the French fleet. After the war, Garden became one of 13 doctors banished in 1783 as “obnoxious persons” for supporting the British cause. He returned to Great Britain, became vice-president of the Royal Society, and died there in 1791.

The fate of America, it is suggested, may have been sealed during the Constitutional Convention of 1787 when a Charleston lawyer-politician named John Rutledge invited Roger Sherman of Connecticut to dinner. Rutledge chaired a committee that wrote much of the final version of the Constitution. Only 3 of the 13 states—the two Carolinas and Georgia—had a vested interest in perpetuating slavery indefinitely. Most southerners like most of the Founding Fathers tolerated slavery but predicted its eventual decline. Rutledge, perhaps through a lie, persuaded Sherman to vote with South Carolina on the slavery issue in exchange for which South Carolina would support Connecticut's desire to invest in western land through the Ohio Company (that is, to establish the Western Reserve). The slave trade was thus extended until January 1, 1808. Pierce Butler, another South Carolina delegate to the Constitutional Convention and one of the South's largest slaveholders, inserted a clause mandating return of fugitive slaves. Butler also promoted a compromise that allowed states to count three-fifths of the slave population for the purposes of Congressional apportionment. This gave the slave states disproportionate power in the new Congress, the first iteration of a “solid South” in American politics.

The half century that followed the Revolution brought flush times for lowcountry planters. They lost the British bounty for indigo (a plant from which blue dye was produced) but discovered the profitability of “Carolina gold” rice. Rice plantations lined stretches of rivers where fresh water rises and falls with the tides. The rice fields were alternately flooded and drained by harnessing tides with dikes, floodgates, and trenches—elaborate systems requiring large numbers of slaves to be cost-effective. By the 1820s, the population of Georgetown County, north of Charleston, was more than 90 percent black. The widow of a Georgetown rice planter wrote her son at West Point: “Rice [that is, the price of rice] fell badly, and that depresses the spirits of the Majority of the People here, whose chief object is to make Rice to buy Negroes and Buy Negroes to make Rice”. Malaria and other diseases rendered the rice plantations extremely insalubrious. The seasonality of malaria prompted one of the strangest migration patterns in the history of agriculture: the planters and their families absented their country homes during the growing and harvest seasons, taking extended summer vacations including the European Grand Tour. The lowcountry planters came to view slavery as a permanent necessity for their way of life.

Rice was, of course, not the only source of South Carolina's wealth. In 1793, Eli Whitney of Massachusetts, fresh out of Yale College, invented the cotton gin. Backcountry Carolinians turned forests into cotton fields. It is said with only slight hyperbole that one could have walked from Charleston to Walhalla (in the western corner of the state) without stepping out of a cotton field except to cross the occasional creek or river. Southern planters perceived two threats to their power in Congress: rapid population growth in the northern states and the possibility that western territories would become states that outlawed slavery. Tensions were appeased but not resolved by the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which banned slavery in the former Louisiana Territory north of the 36° 30' parallel (but allowed slavery south of it) except within the boundaries of the proposed state of Missouri.

Emblematic of South Carolina's prosperity during the early decades of the 19th century was the opening of the Medical College of South Carolina in Charleston, which at its creation in 1824 was the first such school in the Deep South. All but one of the seven charter faculty members had been graduates of the University of Pennsylvania, which had replaced Edinburgh as the destination of choice for American medical students. The exception was Stephen Elliott (1771−1830), whose honorary medical degree was conferred by the new school. Three of the seven charter faculty members were naturalists: Elliott, John Edwards Holbrook (1794−1871), and Edmund Ravenel (1797−1870).

During the early 19th century, many educated Americans took up botany. A South Carolina example was Joel Roberts Poinsett (1779–1851), who used the small fortune inherited from his father, Dr Elisha Poinsett of Charleston, to pursue a diplomatic career. In 1825 Joel Poinsett became America's first minister (ambassador) to Mexico, from which he brought back a flowering plant known there la flor de Nochebuena and to us as the poinsettia. Among the South Carolinian physicians who studied botany during this period, the most prominent were Elliott and John Lewis Edward Whitridge Shecut (1770−1836). Shecut's application of Linnaean taxonomy resulted in The Flora Carolinaensis, or a Historical, Medical, and Economical Display of the Vegetable Kingdom according to the Linnaean or Sexual System of Botany (1806). Shecut also experimented with electricity to treat various conditions, especially withered or paralyzed limbs, and wrote two novels. Elliott published between 1816 and 1834 a Sketch of the Botany of South Carolina and Georgia, a classic of American botany. Plants bearing his name include the shrub Elliotia.

Shecut and Elliott left little evidence of their views on slavery, which, however, changed after the slave trade ended in 1808. Slaves were treated better because they could no longer be replenished from Africa (or at least not legally). They no longer slept on bare ground. Many were taught Christianity. Many kept their own vegetable patches and some kept livestock. Some sold goods at markets such as the one directly across Meeting Street from where we now assemble. Charleston and other cities became home to an increasing number of free blacks, one of whom—a man known to history as Denmark Vesey—supposedly led an insurrection in Charleston in 1822. Although slavery became in some respects a kinder and gentler institution, white southerners' attitudes toward their “peculiar institution” and toward the federal government inexorably hardened.

The naturalist movement in the United States peaked between 1830 and 1840; the years between 1830 and 1860 constituted a golden age for naturalists in South Carolina (7). Three physicians—Edmund Ravenel, Lewis Reeve Gibbes (1810−1894), and John Edwards Holbrook (1794−1871)—deserve mention, as does a Lutheran minister, the Reverend John Bachman (1790−1874). Their times were characterized politically by the doctrine of states' rights and by the “positive good” theory of slavery, ideas that led southerners down the primrose path toward secession and civil war.

The first flash point in South Carolina's journey toward secession was the Nullification Crisis, a reaction to the federal Tariffs of 1828 and 1832. South Carolinians considered these tariffs oppressive, designed as they were to protect northern manufacturing to the detriment of southern agriculture. In 1832 the state legislature passed an Ordinance of Nullification declaring federal tariffs null and void within the state borders. President Andrew Jackson sent naval forces to Charleston, warned South Carolinians not to commit treason, and supported a bill in Congress giving him power to enforce tariffs. A compromise ensued and South Carolina repealed the ordinance. However, an irreparable rift developed between President Andrew Jackson and his vice-president, South Carolina's John C. Calhoun. Calhoun, as a recent commentator puts it, “made it impossible to be both antislavery and reasonable”.

Calhoun popularized two theories later used to justify secession and civil war: the “theory of the concurrent majority” and the “positive good” theory of slavery. In his Disquisition on Government Calhoun railed against “the tyranny of the majority” and implied the rights of states to nullify acts of Congress. The positive good theory of slavery, first articulated by Thomas Dew of Virginia, held that blacks were incapable of self-government and benefitted from slavery. It was during the gathering firestorm fueled by Calhoun's theories that physician-naturalists Ravenel, Gibbes, and Holbrook contributed to their era's scientific thought.

Edmund Ravenel, who served as dean of the Medical College in Charleston from 1829 until 1834 when his health began to fail, spent summers on Sullivan's Island where he practiced medicine and collected seashells. Between 1827 and 1829 he befriended a soldier stationed at Fort Moultrie who had enlisted as “Edgar A. Perry” but whose real name was Edgar Allan Poe. In Poe's short story “The Gold Bug” the protagonist William Legrand, modeled in part after Ravenel, finds a bivalve mollusk on the beach at Sullivan's Island before being bitten by the scarab-like “gold bug.” In 1834 Ravenel published a catalogue of his collection, the first of its kind in the United States and containing more than 3500 shells. His collection is still intact in the Charleston Museum and some consider him the “father of American conchology.” Ravenel published on other scientific topics including geology, and in 1853 was a founding member of the Elliott Society of Natural History in Charleston. Lewis Reeve Gibbes was perhaps the most versatile of the Charleston physician-naturalists although, to be sure, he never practiced medicine after receiving his degree, electing instead to teach mathematics. In 1835, he published a “Catalogue of the Phaenogamous Plants of Columbia, S.C. and its Vicinity,” describing some 900 species.

The most eminent Charleston physician-naturalist of this period was John Edwards Holbrook, the first professor of anatomy at the Medical College of South Carolina. Holbrook is considered the “father of American herpetology” on the basis of his five-volume North American Herpetology; or a Description of the Reptiles Inhabiting the United States, begun in the 1820s and ultimately completed in 1842. He personally collected reptiles in every state from Maine to Georgia and named 29 new species. He then turned to fish. In 1847, and again in 1848, 1855, and 1860, he published treatises on the fish of South Carolina and neighboring states. Holbrook developed a vast network of naturalists including physicians to collect specimens—an early model of collaborative research. He insisted that his illustrations be drawn from life, which explains in part their high quality. A self-effacing man, Holbrook never made much money practicing or teaching medicine and spent much of what he earned on his collecting trips and book publishing. However, his devoted wife came from a wealthy slaveholding family and supported his scientific endeavors.

Edmund Ravenel, Lewis Gibbes, and John Holbrook belonged to a circle of naturalists led by the Reverend John Bachman. Born in Rhinebeck, New York, on the Hudson River, Bachman, similar to Garden before him, came to South Carolina seeking a better climate for tuberculosis. He served as minister of St John's Lutheran Church in Charleston from 1815 until his death in 1874. He is remembered eponymously for Bachman's sparrow, Bachman's hare, and the probably extinct Bachman's warbler, but during his day the quality and quantity of his observations, especially on small mammals such as moles and shrews, drew admirers on both sides of the Atlantic. The artist John James Audubon became his close friend. They collaborated on the three-volume Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America (1846−1853), for which the self-promoting Audubon took most of the credit even though Bachman did nearly all of the writing. As a naturalist, Bachman was Audubon's superior and objected to the artist's rushing into print despite inaccuracies. Bachman apparently did not object to the marriage of two of his daughters to Audubon's two sons. (Both of these daughters later died of tuberculosis, as did another daughter and both of Bachman's wives; Bachman seems to have been an effective disseminator of the tubercle bacillus.) Bachman's opposition to a prevailing view on polygenesis—the derivation of a species from more than one ancestor—makes him a still-relevant figure in the broader history of science.

Calhoun and others supported the positive good theory on slavery with an argument that blacks were not just intellectually inferior to whites; they were a separate species. The idea of polygenesis—that is, that there were multiple creations, not just the singular creation of Adam and Eve—was respectable during the 18th century (defended, for example, by Voltaire and David Hume), was widespread in Europe by the 19th century, and by 1830 had spread to the United States. Among its champions was the celebrated Swiss-born Harvard scientist Louis Agassiz. In 1839 polygenesis received a boost in the United States when the Philadelphia physician Samuel George Morton (1799−1851) published his long-awaited book, Crania Americana. Morton, one the world's foremost “craniologists,” used internal dimensions of skulls to support an argument that blacks were the “lowest grade of humanity.” Among Morton's most enthusiastic supporters was Dr Josiah Clark Nott (1804−1873), a native of Columbia, South Carolina, who made his mark in Mobile where he founded the Alabama College of Medicine. Nott became the South's leading physician-polemicist on racial theory. He used Morton's data to strengthen the case for polygenesis, black inferiority, and the positive good theory of slavery.

John Bachman, although a social reformer who ministered to both races, did not dispute the idea of black inferiority. However, he like other ministers was troubled by Morton's challenge to the biblical creation story. In 1850, Bachman published The Doctrine of the Unity of the Human Race Examined on the Principles of Science shortly before the American Association for the Advancement of Science held its third annual meeting in Charleston. Ravenel, Lewis Gibbes, Holbrook, Nott, and Bachman all presented papers. Bachman's paper on the “unity of the human race”—monogenesis as opposed to polygenesis—created a stir. Louis Agassiz, a frequent visitor to Charleston, attended the meeting and contested Bachman. After the meeting, Agassiz went to Columbia to spend 2 weeks with Dr Robert Wilson Gibbes (1809–1866), a Charleston native who had become a versatile physician-scholar and authority on paleontology. Gibbes took Agassiz to various plantations where Agassiz made observations on slaves that strengthened his conviction that blacks were a separate species. The Harvard scientist now sided completely with Morton and Nott on polygenesis. Bachman, meanwhile, was unable to convert any of his fellow Charleston naturalists, or any of the professors at the Medical College, to his point of view.

These events coincided with debates in Congress that led to the Compromise of 1850—five bills that defused a confrontation between slave states and free states on the status of territories acquired during the Mexican-American War. John C. Calhoun died that year, but his doctrine of states' rights and his positive good theory of slavery became mantras for pro-slavery southerners.

In a recent book entitled America's Longest Siege, Joseph Kelly argues that “the siege of Charleston” was not merely the siege of Fort Sumter; rather, it was a decades-long siege of southern thought led to a large extent by the South Carolina lowcountry planter aristocracy. Freedom of speech on slavery and states' rights virtually disappeared among white South Carolinians. Root causes included greed, fear, and preservation of a way of life because an estimated two-thirds of the state's private wealth consisted of slaves. During the war, the British-Irish reporter William Howard Russell attended a gathering of lowcountry rice planters and wrote in his diary: “These tall, thin, fine-faced Carolinians are great materialists. Slavery perhaps has aggravated the tendency to look at all the world through parapets of cotton bales and rice bags, and though more stately and less vulgar, the worshipers here are not less prostrate before the ‘almighty dollar’ than the Northerners”.

Historian William J. Cooper argues that secession was not an inevitable result of the pro-slavery and pro–states' rights dogmas of the antebellum South. If South Carolina seceded, would the other southern states follow? South Carolina had acted alone during the Nullification Crisis of 1832; would the Palmetto State again be “hung out to dry”? Pro-secession “fire-eaters” advanced three arguments. First, the right to secede was implicit in the Constitution. Because the Union had been entered voluntarily it could be left voluntarily. Second, the federal government had not enforced the Fugitive Slave Law, and now northern opinion threatened abolition. Finally, Lincoln's election was intolerable, tipping as it did the balance of power in Washington. Although Lincoln did not call for the immediate abolition of slavery, he was clearly no friend of the South's “peculiar institution.” He had little first-hand knowledge of the South. He had no plan for reparations to slaveholders should slavery be abolished.

The Charleston physician-naturalists supported secession and, like other able-bodied men, served the Confederate cause. John Holbrook chaired the Examining Board of Surgeons for South Carolina and was a medical officer in the Confederate Army. Robert Wilson Gibbes served as Surgeon General of South Carolina. One physician-naturalist, Dr Francis Peyre Porcher (1824−1895), made himself useful through his knowledge of medicinal botany.

In 1847, Porcher had been the first honor graduate of the Medical College in Charleston, writing his thesis on the flora of the Carolina lowcountry. In 1848, he published “A Sketch of the Medical Botany of South Carolina” and in 1854 he reported to the American Medical Association on “The Medicinal, Poisonous, and Dietetic Properties of the Cryptogamic Plants of the United States.” He might have veered off into the emerging field of cellular pathology had the war not intervened, for in 1860 he presented a paper to the state medical association on “Illustrations of Disease with the Microscope; Clinical Investigations, with upwards of five hundred original drawings from nature and one hundred and ten illustrations in wood.” Porcher's knowledge of medicinal botany drew the attention of the Surgeon General of the Confederacy, Dr Samuel Preston Moore, a Charleston native who had relocated to Arkansas. Moore asked Porcher, then a surgeon in the Confederate army, to prepare a manual on botany to compensate for the effect of the Union blockade of Southern ports on Confederate drug supplies. Porcher's manual, Resources of the Southern Fields and Forests, Medical, Economical, and Agricultural. Being also a Medical Botany of the Confederate States; with Practical Information on the Useful Properties of the Trees, Plants, and Shrubs (1863), was widely used. It was so successful that a revised and expanded edition was issued 4 years after the cessation of hostilities.

The Civil War was disastrous for South Carolina, which lost 23% of its white male population of fighting age, the highest percentage of any Confederate state. John Holbrook lost all of his papers when Charleston was ransacked. He eventually retired to Massachusetts where he died in 1871. Robert Wilson Gibbes lost nearly everything including his extensive collection of fossils when Columbia burned shortly after William Tecumseh Sherman entered the city (February 1865). He died in 1866 “full of loneliness and despair.” The elderly and kindly Reverend Bachman, who despite northern roots had supported secession, lost his papers and was seriously roughed up by Union troops. True to his religious beliefs, he declined to identify his attackers.

The natural history movement faded during the closing decades of the 19th century. Darwinism dimmed enthusiasm for natural theology and the argument from design. Professionalization and compartmentalization of most branches of science discouraged talented amateurs or “gentleman” naturalists. The advent of anesthesia, the germ theory, and aseptic surgery opened new avenues for innovative physicians. Francis Porcher, the youngest of the physician-naturalists considered here, went on to a distinguished medical career and in 1890 was 1 of 10 Americans invited to attend the 10th International Medical Congress in Berlin. A few physicians soldiered on as naturalists in South Carolina and elsewhere, but the movement had by and large run its course.

Looking out on this audience, I see an aristocracy of talent dedicated to the advancement of scientific medicine. As William Osler put it: “Linked together by the strong bonds of community of interests, the profession of medicine forms a remarkable world-unit in the progressive evolution of which there is fuller hope for humanity than in any other direction”. Yet looking beyond this audience, beyond the salt marshes of the South Carolina lowcountry, I see a nation nearly as hyperpolarized as it was on the eve of the Civil War, a nation divided not as Blue versus Gray states by the Mason-Dixon line but as Blue versus Red states divided more or less (and fortuitously) by whether their ticks carry Borrelia burgdorferi, the agent of Lyme disease. Sadly, I see politicians of my own state voting to nullify the Affordable Care Act (just as their forebears nullified the tariff), voting to oppose expansion of Medicaid, and acting (at the time of this meeting) in such a way as to bring the federal government to a near-standstill. Like James Louis Petigru, I wonder whether we—Americans and, in a broader sense, all of Homo sapiens—will ever “get it right.” The root cause of at least some our troubles remains greed—aspiration to, or preservation of, an “aristocracy of wealth.” The social predicaments of the South Carolina physician-naturalists, and their tacit approval of slavery and states' rights, remind us that we are all at least to some extent prisoners of the prevailing paradigms and prejudices of our times, and that future generations may see us quite differently than we see ourselves. We forget this lesson at our own risk.

Image 1: Selected military, political, and ideological events between 1750 and 1865 (shown to the left of the timeline) and dates of major contributions including published treatises by selected South Carolina physician-naturalists (shown to the right of the timeline).

Image 2: Dr Francis Peyre Porcher (1824−1895), whose Resources of Southern Fields and Forests (1863) helped Confederates compensate for the scarcity of drugs, enjoyed a successful medical career after the Civil War.

Peter McCandless provided valuable assistance during the research for this paper.

From: ncbi.nlm.nih.gov


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