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No. 643:
Hall Jackson, Physician

Today, a lesson in living by a Colonial doctor. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Hall Jackson was a Colonial doctor. He was best among peers in a primitive business. His journals leave a wonderful record of the texture of that roughhewn work.

Jackson learned medicine from his father. Few of our early doctors had formal schooling in medicine. But Jackson did go on to study for a year or so in London, before the Revolution.

He was alert and innovative. In England he invented a device for taking musket balls from wounds. He was the rare doctor who would do a cataract operation. Imagine, if you can, doing eye surgery with primitive instruments and no anesthetics!

In 1776 he heard about the Battle of Bunker Hill and hurried to Boston. He served the wounded during the Siege of Boston. He wrote about that terrible business:

. . . to describe the pittiful and miserable condition of our unfortunate wound[ed] Brethren would be impossible . . . I amputated several limbs and extracted many balls the first night . . . I went on with this fatigue 15 days.

Military surgery took its toll on Jackson. He soon wrote, "I am heartily sick of the din and confusion of war," and went back to civilian practice. In Boston, he led in the new art of smallpox inoculation. Then he headed the first public health program of inoculation in Portsmouth. He also took up a new cause. He began studying a form of heart disease called dropsy.

We knew little more about the heart than the pulse would tell us in those days. The stethoscope hadn't been invented yet. Dropsy was the old name for pulmonary edema. It refers to the accumulation of water that goes with congestive heart failure.

Dropsy caused five percent of all deaths. Doctors took the water buildup as the disease itself -- not just a symptom. They simply drained off water until the patient inevitably died.

Then Jackson read about work with a plant called the purple foxglove. An English doctor made digitalis from it. He'd found digitalis could cure dropsy. But there was no purple foxglove in America. So Jackson turned botanist. He sent to England for foxglove seeds. It was he who introduced digitalis to America.

Jackson isn't famous today. But his was the steady creative labor that made a better life in a new land. He also wrote poetry. He used a botanist's imagery in a hymn about our work:

Then dig about our root,
Dig up our fallow ground,
And let our gracious fruit
To thy great praise abound.

That's the earthy sentiment of a man whose gracious fruit of the hands and mind really did make us -- what we are.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Estes, J.W., Hall Jackson and the Purple Foxglove. Hanover, NH: The University Press of New England, 1979.


The Purple Foxglove
From the 1897 Encyclopaedia Britannica

The Purple Foxglove