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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Thursday, August 21, 2014

Chasing Down the Obnoxious Dr. Hicks

The New York doctors’ riot of April 1788, most chroniclers agree, was set off by a doctor named John Hicks making a tasteless and ill-timed joke about a corpse he was dissecting.

Identifying that man is complicated by the fact that two men named John Hicks practiced medicine in New York City in the late 1700s.

One, working out of Magazine Street, had been a “supernumerary mate” at the army hospital in 1783. On 15 Apr 1788, immediately after the riot, this “John Hicks, Sr.,” swore publicly that he hadn’t been in the hospital since that year and had no connection to any dissection. He was trying to distinguish himself from the real culprit, a medical student with a similar name.

John Brovort Hicks was born about 1768. He was actually the second person with that name; his older brother had died young, immortalized in a mourning ring. John B. Hicks was thus twenty years old during the doctors’ riot.

Hicks didn’t end up in the besieged jail with some other doctors. According to William Alexander Duer, he had fled on his own to the house of a former surgeon general of the Continental Army:
The obnoxious Dr. Hicks fled in the first instance to Dr. [John] Cochran’s, nearly opposite Trinity Church. Relying for protection upon the general respect in which Dr. Cochran was held, and that from his having relinquished practice, his house would escape search. But the mob had an intimation of Hicks’s retreat, and searched the house from cellar to garret, without success. They even opened the scuttle and looked out upon the roof, without perceiving the Doctor, who lay perdue [i.e., concealed] behind the chimney of the next house, suffering probably under a more violent sudorific [i.e., drug that induces sweating] than he ever ventured to administer to a patient.
That same story might have been what the Virginian William Heth heard when he wrote that one medical student “took refuge up a chimney.”

Young Hicks survived to complete his medical training. In 1792 he put a notice in the newspaper that he had successfully operated on a stone—a gallstone or kidney stone—at the City Hospital. The next year Columbia granted him an “M.D.” In 1796 Hicks and some colleagues got the mayor of New York to bar a supposedly unqualified doctor from practicing; Alexander Hamilton represented that other doctor and got the mayor’s order quashed.

In August 1797 Hicks and one of those colleagues had to advertise in the newspapers after dissected body parts were found in a sack in the river. They acknowledged that that corpse was a man named John Young, but since he had just been hanged for murder, under a new law he was eligible for dissection. The surgeons insisted that they had anatomized Young “in as decent and secret a manner as the nature of the business would admit of.” (As secret as any activity in what they called their “Anatomical Theater.”) But “the persons to whom the remains of the body were committed to be interred”—probably medical students—had tossed the pieces in the water and neglected to weigh down the bag.

Dr. John B. Hicks was thus involved in two public scandals involving dissected corpses within ten years. In one of those incidents, his insulting behavior had resulted in a riot. In the other, he was simply careless. And yet Hicks remained a respected physician. It probably didn’t hurt that he came from the city’s upper class: his late father, Whitehead Hicks, had been mayor of New York for the decade before the Revolution.

On 2 Oct 1798, in the midst of a yellow fever epidemic, the Daily Advertiser reported Hicks’s death. It lamented his
indefatigable zeal & pursuit to administer relief to the poor and distressed in this trying hour of distress and melancholy, and for which he would receive no compensation. But alas! he falls a devoted victim himself to the prevailing epidemic. . . . He was possessed of a truly philanthropic spirit, and his principal study was to do good. In him the poor have lost a valuable friend, and the public a useful member of society.
Hicks left a wife and at least one child.

TOMORROW: The political side of the doctors’ riot.

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