J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, January 24, 2010

Dr. Amos Windship’s “Description of a Dissection”

What did Dr. Amos Windship do after leaving the Continental Navy? I actually told the next chapter of his saga back here.

That trading voyage to London wasn’t a total loss for the doctor. While he was in London, he made the acquaintance of a leading British physician, Dr. John Coakley Lettsom (1744-1815, shown here courtesy of the Medical Society of London).

Windship returned to America with some medications, which he ended up never paying for (apparently because Bell’s creditors were seizing any money they could). The doctor kept up a correspondence with Lettsom, who offered to make him a corresponding member of the London Medical Society.

Of course that too led to trouble. Dr. Ephraim Eliot later explained:

Doctor Letsom now found that he had gone too fast in regard to our Doctors election, as the requisite qualification was, that the candidate must be a Batchelor or Doctor of Physic, to neither of wch. had he been admitted.

To save himself his friend Letsom advised that he should immediately go thro’ the courses of Lectures, requisite to obtain one of them, & if the expence should be more than he could spare, he gave him authority to draw upon him for it thro’ Mr. Crawley of London to the amount of fifty pounds sterling, after the object should be obtained.

He [Windship] complied. & when a diploma was taken out, he forwarded it to Letsom, together with the description of a dissection which he pretended he had made of a subject in which there were some uncommon appearances & some facts discovered which were not usual.

Doct Letsom supposing the communication to be designed for the society, presented it, & it was printed in their transactions.
Lettsom read the report from Windship at a meeting on 31 Mar 1788. The volume recording that event made its way to America, and Dr. Abijah Cheever (1760-1843) recognized the patient as one he had treated in 1786, and described in a paper for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences on 31 Jan 1787. Eliot said of Windship, “probably he had no idea of its being published” in London.

Dr. Windship nevertheless made another voyage to London about 1790, and renewed his acquaintance with Dr. Lettsom. And on that trip Lettsom introduced the American doctor to the family of the late Maj. John Pitcairn.

TOMORROW: Meanwhile, back at Christ Church…


Charles Archbald, II said...

Amos is my 4th gr-grandfather who is described as a rogue, etc. by recent postings on the net. I've done some research on how he came by his reputation and came to the conclusion that he must have been an extremely capable, charismatic individual. I am familiar with the details in your posting and have read Dr. Eliot's letter in the 1924 Transactions of the Colonial Society of MA. His letter was written after Amos' death and probably was to a researcher of the May family. There was a May Genealogy prepared in 1827 and Dr Windship was omitted probably on the basis of Dr Eliot's letter. Amos was married second to Elizabeth May and her name appears in the genealogy as a single woman. Her children are also omitted who were distinguished Exeter and Harvard graduates. His son by his first wife, Dr Charles Williams Windship, was my 3rd gr-grandfather who also married into the May family and is recorded in the genealogy. If nothing else, Dr Amos Windship had an interesting life for the times he lived in.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for sharing that perspective and story. Dr. Windship does seem to have been a talented man, with great drive, and he just seems to have taken a lot of his enterprises just a step too far. Even in the new republic, he may never have recovered from being considered a parvenu.

On this particular issue of Maj. Pitcairn’s body, Windship appears to have been genuinely trying to help the family, while also of course ingratiating himself with some powerful British doctors. Though some later writers suggest he knowingly sent the wrong body to Britain, I don’t think that’s so clear.