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At more than 250 years old, the medical school at the University of Pennsylvania predates the United States of America by about a decade. Between that and its location at the very heart of this new nation, the school has been witness to—and produced witnesses to—significant events throughout American history. One of those witnesses: Dr. David Hosack, renowned physician, botanist, historian—and personal doctor to the family of Alexander Hamilton, the country’s first treasury secretary. The Hamiltons, unfortunately, required his services all too often. This is the first of two parts.
It’s foggy in Weehawken.
Dr. David Hosack, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania medical school (now the Perelman School of Medicine), stands near the shoreline at dawn. Across the quiet Hudson River, barely visible in the morning mist, is the undeveloped land that will later become New York City’s West 42nd Street. It’s low tide, and the waters have receded enough to afford Hosack this spot—a diminutive beach, barely noticeable from the 200-foot cliffs of the Hudson Palisades. The small rowboat that ferried him to this spot sits nearby, waiting.
Hosack’s waiting, too. The others who made this trip with him—a small party including Hyde Park judge Nathaniel Pendleton—departed several minutes ago, scaling a small dirt path that leads to a shrouded ledge roughly twenty feet up the cliffs. Hosack has been left behind, but must nonetheless remain nearby—close enough to render his services if needed, but far enough away to maintain deniability.
Two gunshots break the morning silence. They’re followed almost immediately by Pendleton calling for Hosack, who promptly rushes up the dirt path.
It’s roughly 7:00 a.m. on July 11, 1804, and the vice president of the United States, Aaron Burr, has just fatally wounded former treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton.
Born on August 31, 1769 in New York City, David Hosack’s childhood was spent at the geographical epicenter of his country’s violent beginnings. By the time he would have been old enough to fight, the war was over—and so Hosack was free to attend Columbia College (now a branch of Columbia University), kicking off what was to be a profoundly impressive academic career. Though his initial studies were in the arts, Hosack soon recognized in himself a passion for medicine and began pursuing his education in the medical field. Not too long after that, he transferred to the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University).
Hosack’s ties to Penn have their origin shortly after his graduation from Princeton, when he chose to complete his medical education at the University of Pennsylvania medical school. While there, he observed and studied under Philadelphia’s own Benjamin Rush—himself a founding father and significant contributor to the field of medicine.
It was, however, Hosack’s refusal to adhere to Rush’s recommended yellow fever treatment that would eventually help endear him to founding father, decorated war veteran, and first secretary of the treasury Alexander Hamilton.
Yellow fever was particularly dangerous for some in the formative years of the United States, as locations like Philadelphia and New York City grew drastically, allowing disease to spread more easily than ever before. The 1793 yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia killed 5,000 people—a full tenth of the city’s population—between August 1 and November 9. Rush, who found himself at the heart of the epidemic, believed in an approach that, according to the biography “Alexander Hamilton” by Ron Chernow, “now sounds barbaric: he bled and purged the victim […] He emptied the patient’s bowels four or five times, using a gruesome mixture of potions and enemas, before training off ten to twelve ounces of blood to lower the pulse. For good measure, he induced mild vomiting. This regimen was repeated two or three times daily.”
Hamilton and his wife, Eliza, contracted yellow fever in early September of 1793. Instead of undergoing Rush’s regimen, they enlisted the services of Hamilton’s childhood friend and St. Croix medical practitioner, Edward Stevens. Stevens, according to Chernow, believed in a treatment far less horrendous:
To strengthen patients, Stevens administered stiff doses of quinine called ‘Peruvian bark’ as well as aged Madeira. He also submerged them in cold baths before giving them glasses of brandy topped with burned cinnamon. He sedated patients nightly with a tincture of opium (laudanum). To stop vomiting, patients quaffed an aromatic blend of chamomile flowers, oil of peppermint, and lavender spirits.
Alexander and Eliza were cured within five days. Though it seems an unrelated anecdote, the success of Stevens’s treatment would, in time, be the catalyst for Hosack’s attachment to—and care for—the Hamilton family.
Several years later, Hosack—who had left for England to further study medicine and another of his life loves, botany—was back in New York City. Yellow fever epidemics hit the city hard in 1795 and 1798, leading Hosack to devote much of his time to medical practice and education. Still, he found the time to be an accomplished botanist, forming the Elgin Botanic Garden—the first public botanical garden in the United States, which stood on 20 acres in what is now Rockefeller Center.
Alexander Hamilton and his family had also relocated to New York City. Hamilton’s oldest son, 15-year-old Philip, caught yellow fever and was quickly pushed to the brink of death. The family called for Hosack, who had by then made a name for himself as a physician.
Alexander, forced to be absent in Hartford on business, wrote home and instructed that Philip be given something similar to the treatment that had proven so effective for himself and Eliza only a few years before. Philip did not take to the treatment quite as rapidly as his parents, and his health soon deteriorated to the point where Hosack was convinced the boy was about to die—prompting the doctor to send an express courier to hasten Alexander’s return. Philip, according to Chernow, began to show signs of delirium. His pulse was weak or sometimes almost nonexistent, and he sank into a coma. Hosack used hot baths of Peruvian bark and rum to keep him alive.
He succeeded. Alexander arrived home and was relieved to find his son still alive, setting the stage for his first meeting with the young doctor. Hosack later wrote:
When the father knew what had been done and the means that had been employed…he immediately came to my room where I was sleeping, and although I was then personally unknown to him, awakened me and taking me by the hand, his eyes suffused with tears of joy, he observed, “My dear Sir, I could not remain in my own house without first tendering to you my grateful acknowledgment for the valuable services you have rendered my family in the preservation of my child.”
Philip would, eventually, make a full recovery—but in four short years he’d be under Hosack’s care yet again, with far more tragic results.
Hosack arrives at the dueling ground and finds Hamilton seated awkwardly on the ground, supported in Pendleton’s arms.
A little over a month after the duel, Hosack would write a letter to William Coleman, editor of the New York Evening Post and friend of Hamilton, describing in detail the events of that day. Regarding his first impression of the wounded former treasury secretary, Hosack writes:
His countenance of death I shall never forget. He had at that instant just strength to say, “This is a mortal wound, Doctor;” when he sunk away, and became to all appearance lifeless. I immediately stripped up his clothes, and soon, alas! ascertained that the direction of the ball must have been through some vital part. His pulses were not to be felt; his respiration was entirely suspended; and upon laying my hand on his heart, and perceiving no motion there, I considered him as irrecoverably gone.
Hosack makes the call to carry Hamilton toward the beach below, telling Pendleton that their friend’s only chance is to make it back onto the water and into the city as quickly as possible. Together, the two men carry Hamilton back down the dirt path, where waiting oarsmen help get him loaded into the boat. The group starts their slow journey to civilization.
Mere minutes after getting onto the water, Hamilton starts to show signs of life. Hosack—who has to this point been rubbing Hamilton’s face, lips, temples, neck, chest, wrists, and palms with hartshorn (an oil derived from the horn of a male red deer)—notes in Hamilton “imperfect efforts to breathe,” much to his and Pendleton’s relief. Hamilton’s eyes open slightly and he struggles to focus, managing to mutter that his vision is indistinct.
As his pulse grows stronger and breathing more regular, his sight returns and he grows more lucid.
Little is said on the long ride back. Hosack investigates the wound and repeatedly asks Hamilton questions so as to better ascertain his condition. The answers are brief. One thing Hamilton does make sure to tell Hosack is to be careful of the dueling pistols, which are sitting in the floor of the boat. He, apparently unaware of the fact that he fired his weapon during the duel, believes his is still cocked and “may go off and do harm.”
“Pendleton knows that I did not intend to fire at [Burr],” Hamilton says.
Hosack manipulates Hamilton’s legs, but finds them limp and without feeling. The lower extremities are paralyzed.
(Continued in pt. 2, this Friday)