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, March 25, 2012

Examined by the Medical Committee

In 1775, James Thacher of Barnstable was a twenty-one-year-old medical trainee eager to work for the provincial army (just as it was officially becoming the Continental Army). Years later, he adapted his journal into a memoir and left this recollection of how he applied for the position of regimental surgeon’s mate:
I proceeded, July the 3d, with alacrity to the seat of [the Massachusetts Provincial] Congress [in Watertown]. I was not disappointed in my interview with Mr. [James] Warren; my letter procured for me a favorable and polite reception. He honored me with his friendship and kind assistance, and introduced me to his lady, whose father’s family and my own have for many years been on terms of friendly intercourse.

The office which I solicit is one in the medical department, in the provincial hospital at Cambridge. A medical board, consisting of Drs. [Samuel] Holton [of Danvers, 1738-1816] and [John] Taylor [of Lunenberg and Fitchburg, born about 1734], are appointed to examine the candidates; and they added my name to the list for examination, on the 10th instant [i.e., of this month]. This state of suspense continuing several days, excites in my mind much anxiety and solicitude, apprehending that my stock of medical knowledge, when scanned by a learned committee, may be deemed inadequate, and all my hopes be blasted. . . .

On the day appointed, the medical candidates, sixteen in number, were summoned before the board for examination. This business occupied about four hours; the subjects were anatomy, physiology, surgery and medicine. It was not long after, that I was happily relieved from suspense, by receiving the sanction and acceptance of the board, with some acceptable instructions relative to the faithful discharge of duty, and the humane treatment of those soldiers who may have the misfortune to require my assistance.

Six of our number were privately rejected as being found unqualified. The examination was in a considerable degree close and severe, which occasioned not a little agitation in our ranks. But it was on another occasion, as I am told, that a candidate under examination was agitated into a state of perspiration, and being required to describe the mode of treatment in rheumatism, among other remedies he would promote a sweat, and being asked how he would effect this with his patient, after some hesitation he replied, “I would have him examined by a medical committee.”
On 15 July Thacher started work under Dr. John Warren, brother of the late Dr. Joseph Warren, at the main army hospital. That building is shown above in photo by Roger Wollstadt, via Flickr under a Creative Commons license. It was still legally owned by Penelope Vassall, a Loyalist widow. (The cars are from a more recent century.) For more on that house, see Historic Buildings of Massachusetts.

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