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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Wednesday, June 01, 2022

The Progress of Dr. James Graham

Dr. James Graham disembarked in Baltimore late in the summer of 1769.

Graham had been born in Edinburgh twenty-four years before, son of a saddler. He had enough resources and drive to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh, though not enough to finish a degree. But he was tall, good-looking, and extremely interested in new ideas.

Before turning twenty, Graham set himself up as an apothecary in Yorkshire and married. But soon he left his wife and surviving young child to explore prospects in the American colonies, perhaps looking for a place for the family to settle.

In January 1770, Dr. Graham advertised a “Lecture on the Eye” in Annapolis. Such lectures were a way to establish his bona fides and attract patients. The advertisements Graham placed, Lydia Syson found in writing his biography, are the best way to track him in North America.

From August to November 1770, Graham promoted his talks and services in New York City, again emphasizing expertise on the eye and ear. By October 1771 he had moved on to Philadelphia. According to an article in Therapeutic Advances in Ophthalmology, Graham was the first specialist documented as using the term “glaucoma” in America. He also added music to his public lectures.

While in the colonies’ largest city, Dr. Graham also spent some of his time “attending the public Exhibitions and Lectures on Electricity” at the local college. Ebenezer Kinnersley, officially steward and professor of English and oratory, performed electrical demonstrations for the public based on Benjamin Franklin’s famous discoveries.

Interestingly, Graham also later claimed that he had learned medical secrets from “Indians” while in America. I’m not sure what these secrets were.

In the autumn of 1772, the doctor did a swing through the Pennsylvania towns of Lancaster, York, and Reading. By this time he was announcing that he could perform cataract operations and fit prosthetic eyes. The doctor was in New York again the following summer and Baltimore in November 1773.

Graham then sailed back to Britain and his family. He later wrote, “I returned to England at the commencement of the eternal downfall of European power in America!” That was a radical political statement, but it’s impossible to know how politics affected his decision to return home during the tea crisis.

Dr. James Graham set up a new practice in Bristol in May 1774, spent a month or so in fashionable Bath at the start of the next year, and went to London in February 1775.

By then he had accumulated enough testimonials to his medical skills to publish them in a pamphlet titled Thoughts on the Present State of the Practice of Disorders in the Eye and the Ear, combined with An Address to the Inhabitants of Great Britain. Late in 1775 he advertised the following success rate from February to October:
cures or relieved, 281
refused as incurable on their first Application, 317
after a short Trial (by desire) found incurable, 47
dismissed for Neglect, etc. 57
country, foreign, and other Patients, events unknown, 381.
It’s striking that Graham claimed to have cured only about a quarter of the people he saw, fewer than he had immediately sent away.

One of the people who read Graham’s writings was the author Catharine Macaulay. She turned forty-five in 1776 and had long worried about her health. Between 1763 and 1771 she had completed five volumes of her History of England, but she had been struggling with the sixth for half a decade. Macaulay decided to consult this Dr. Graham.

TOMORROW: Testimonials and travel.

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