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, September 06, 2020

Dr. Charles Hall, Regimental Surgeon, and Cleft Lips

On 6 Sept 1770, 250 years ago today, the Boston News-Letter carried this news item:
A few weeks since the Operation for the Hare-Lip was performed to great Perfection on a young Man in Milton near Brush-Hill; and a Child in Boston has received as much Benefit from the Operation as the Case would admit of, by Mr. HALL Surgeon to the 14th Regiment.——

The Impression these unhappy Sights are apt to make on married Women, should be an Inducement to have this Defect in Nature rectified early in Life, as there are numerous Instances of the Mother’s Affection having impressed her Offspring with the like Deformity.
This event shows up in histories of plastic surgery as the earliest recorded American examples of operations to repair cleft lips. It’s striking how that medical breakthrough was still accompanied by an antique warning that the condition was contagious—pregnant women might see people with cleft lips and pass the trait on to their babies!

The surgeon who did these operations was Dr. Charles Hall. He had cared for the men of the 14th Regiment at least since 1758, when he was in his late twenties. In 1768, while the regiment was in Halifax, Hall treated one soldier for a compound fracture of the arm, sawing off “between two and three inches of the whole substance of the Tibia” but reporting that after about five months that limb was “but very little shorter than the other.” Eighteenth-century medicine was not for the faint-hearted.

Dr. Hall presumably came to Boston with the regiment in October 1768. He shows up in the town’s Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre, in the deposition of leather-dresser Ephraim Fenno:
on Friday the ninth instant [i.e., of March], as I was going home by the hospital in the Common, I saw Doctor Hall, surgeon of the 14th regiment, looking out of his window, who said to me, dirty travelling, neighbour!

Yes, Sir, returned I.

He asked me what news in town?

I told him I heard nothing but what he knew already, that the talk was about the people that were murdered.

He then asked me if the people of the town were not easier?

I replied, I believed not, nor would be till all the soldiers had left the town.

He then asked me, if I heard whether the 14th regiment was going?

I answered, yes—for the people would not Be quiet till they were all gone.

He said, the town’s people had always used the soldiers ill, which occasioned this affair; and said, I wish, that instead of killing five or six, they had killed five hundred, damn me if I don’t.
Weeks after the Boston Massacre, the 14th Regiment moved to Castle William, and Dr. Hall probably went with them.

The Boston News-Letter article about Hall’s surgeries on cleft lips provided a little positive press for the army. The reference to “Brush-Hill” is notable; that was acting governor Thomas Hutchinson’s country estate.

The 14th Regiment remained at Castle William until 1772, then went to St. Vincent. In 1775, at the start of the Revolutionary War, its men fought at the Battle of Great Bridge in Virginia. The next year, the 14th was part of Gen. William Howe’s force at New York, and in 1777 the regiment returned to Britain to recruit more men.

Toward the end of the war, in 1782, the Crown sent the 14th Regiment to Jamaica. Dr. Charles Hall was promoted from the regiment to the army hospital on that island on Christmas Day. One year later he retired, going on half-pay. In 1795 the doctor wrote a letter from Nantwich, a small town in central England. Hall died in 1805 at the age of seventy-six.

(The picture above comes from a 1748 French manual of surgery, shown in Blaire O. Rogers’s “Treatment of Cleft Lip and Palate during The Revolutionary War,” downloadable as a P.D.F. file.)

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