Dr. David Hosack, Physician to Hamilton and Burr

By Johanna Goldberg, Information Services Librarian

With Hamilton-mania sweeping the nation, we’re not throwing away our shot to discuss the physician present at the infamous 1804 Hamilton-Burr duel, Dr. David Hosack.

Hosack was born in New York City in 1769. Like Alexander Hamilton, he attended Kings College (now Columbia University), then transferred to Princeton. After graduating in 1789, he received his medical education from the University of Pennsylvania.1 He briefly practiced in Alexandria, Virginia and New York, then went to Edinburgh and London to further his medical education. These travels both increased his medical knowledge and nurtured his interest in botany and botanical gardens. In 1801, this life-long interest led to Hosack’s founding of the Elgin Botanical Garden, the first garden of its kind in the United States, located where Rockefeller Center stands today.1,2

By 1794, Hosack had returned to New York City. He formed a medical practice with noted physician Samuel Bard and gained a reputation for the successful treatment of yellow fever.2 As his practice grew, he counted among his patients New York’s elite. Not only did Hosack provide care for Hamilton and his family (including at the deathbeds of both Hamilton and his son, Philip, after their two deadly duels), he also served as physician to Aaron Burr and his daughter and close confidant, Theodosia Burr Alston.3 Our collection includes numerous manuscript materials from Hosack relating to his practice, including copies of a letter to Theodosia and one to her husband, Joseph Alston. These letters give a sense of Hosack’s warmth and dedication to his patients.

Theodosia Burr Alston, 1802. Portrait by John Vanderlyn. Courtesy of the New-York Historical Society.

Theodosia was an educated woman; her father supervised her rigorous studies. In 1801 at age 18, she married Joseph Alston, 22, a member of the South Carolina legislature and a future governor of the state. After the birth of their son Aaron Burr Alston in 1802, Theodosia’s health declined.4

Hosack’s letter to Joseph Alston from June 12, 1808 begins: “Mrs. Alston having been under my care as her physician, you will naturally expect from me some account of her situation.” Theodosia had recently traveled to New York, and text that follows describes the effect of her journey on her health:

When she arrived she was much exhausted by the fatigue of her voyages—added to the diseases under which she labors—but by change of climate I hope she is likely to be benefited—her appetite tho still bad is somewhat improved—the pain on her right side and shoulder still continue troublesome, attended occasionally with violent spasms of the stomach and her other complaints, I mean those of the womb, remain as before—her general appearance is somewhat improved. My attentions hitherto have been directed to the general state of her health, when that is mended she will be enabled to make use of such remedies as are calculated to remove her local diseases—with the views of improving her strength. I have advised her to pass a few weeks at the Ballston Springs—she has already made some use of the waters and finds them to agree with her—but drinking them at the springs will be more serviceable to her—they are especially calculated to improve her appetite and strength, and in some instances have been found beneficial in obstructions both of the liver and womb which are her complaints—yesterday she left New York on her way to the springs—should any thing of importance occur and I receive information of it, you may expect again to her from me.

I am Dear Sir with respect and esteem

Your

David Hosack

Recto and verso of a copy of David Hosack's letter to Joseph Alston. In: D. Hosack. Copies of Letters and Documents 1801-1826.

Recto and verso of a copy of David Hosack’s June 12, 1808 letter to Joseph Alston. In: D. Hosack. Copies of Letters and Documents, 1801-1826. Click to enlarge.

By August 20, Theodosia’s health improved sufficiently that Hosack provided her with one of the remedies mentioned in his letter to her husband two months prior. The copy of the letter to Theodosia (written in a messier hand than the one to her husband) tells her what to eat and avoid while on the medication (“be careful to avoid acids and stimulant foods—lemonade, the acid fruits – spices,” instead eating “soups – milk – eggs – arrowroot – tapioca – rice – puddings etc.”). Hosack also recommended that two to three baths per week would “be useful in lessening your pain at the same time that it will give more effect to the medicine now directed.”

David Hosack’s August 20, 1808 letter to Theodosia Burr Alston. In: D. Hosack. Copies of Letters and Documents, 1801-1826. Click to enlarge.

Theodosia died young, but not due to her lingering post-partum health problems. In January 1813, just seven months after the death of her son, she was aboard the ship Patriot when it disappeared off the coast of Cape Hatteras on its way to New York. While stormy weather most likely caused the ship’s loss, some believed that pirates were to blame.4,5

Portion of page 59 of the January 12, 1913 New York Times. Click to enlarge.

Portion of page 59 of the January 12, 1913 New York Times. Click to enlarge.

David Hosack died of a stroke in 1835.1 His son, pioneering surgeon Alexander Eddy Hosack, took on much of his father’s practice, including the care of Aaron Burr.6,7 Alexander’s New York Times obituary noted:

It is said that on one occasion [Alexander Hosack] asked Mr. Burr if he did not experience contrition at times for having shot Hamilton. Burr, with an expression of stern feeling, replied with emphasis: ‘No, Sir; I could not regret it. Twice he crossed my path. He brought it on himself.’

Aside from his treatment of elite patients like Burr, Alexander Hosack (1805–1871) made a name for himself through his medical endeavors. Like his father, he received his medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania, after which he worked as a doctor in Paris for three years. He was the first doctor in New York City to use ether during surgery, and he developed a number of surgical instruments. In addition, he helped establish the Emigrants’ Hospital on Ward’s Island.6

The Hosack name lives on at the Academy. In 1885, the estate of Celine B. Hosack, widow of Alexander, bequeathed $70,000 to the Academy for a new building or an auditorium within that building.8 The original Hosack Hall was on West 43rd Street, in the Academy’s home from 1890 until 1926. When the Academy moved to its current location in 1926, the new auditorium retained a name deeply embedded in American and medical history.

Left: Hosack Hall on West 43rd St. Image in Van Ingen, The New York Academy of Medicine: Its first hundred years, 1949. Right: Hosack Hall Today, at 1216 Fifth Avenue.

Left: Hosack Hall on West 43rd Street. Image in Van Ingen, The New York Academy of Medicine: Its first hundred years, 1949. Right: Hosack Hall today, at 1216 Fifth Avenue. Click to enlarge.

References

1. Jeffe ER. Hamilton’s physician: David Hosack, Renaissance man of early New York. New-York J Am History. 2004;Spring(3):54–58. Available at: http://www.alexanderhamiltonexhibition.org/about/Jeffe – Hamiltoss Physician.pdf. Accessed January 15, 2016.

2. Hosack AE. A memoir of the late David Hosack. Lindsay & Blakiston; 1861. Available at: https://books.google.com/books?id=o4A22YJI53YC&pgis=1. Accessed January 19, 2016.

3. Garrison FH. David Hosack. Bull N Y Acad Med. 1925;1(5):i4–171. Available at: http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=2387360&tool=pmcentrez&rendertype=abstract. Accessed January 15, 2016.

4. James ET. Notable American Women, 1607-1950: A Biographical Dictionary, Volume 1. Cambridge: Harvard University Press; 1971. Available at: https://books.google.com/books?id=rVLOhGt1BX0C&pgis=1. Accessed January 19, 2016.

5. Mystery of Aaron Burr’s daughter baffles a century. New York Times. http://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1913/01/12/100604845.html?pageNumber=59. Published January 12, 1913. Accessed January 15, 2016.

6. Alexander Eddy Hosack, M.D. New York Times. http://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1871/03/07/78760572.html.  Published March 7, 1871. Accessed January 15, 2016. 

7. Obituaries. Med Surg Report. 1871;24(734):262. Available at: https://books.google.com/books?id=_kKgAAAAMAAJ&pgis=1. Accessed January 19, 2016.

8. Van Ingen P. The New York Academy of Medicine: Its first hundred years. New York: Columbia University Press; 1949.

A Letter from Benjamin Franklin

By Danielle Aloia, Special Projects Librarian and Arlene Shaner, Reference Librarian for Historical Collections

To mark Benjamin Franklin’s 309th birthday on January 17, we thought it appropriate to share some information about the Benjamin Franklin letter in our manuscript collection.

Frontispiece of The Memoirs and Writings of Benjamin Franklin, 1818.

Frontispiece of The Memoirs and Writings of Benjamin Franklin, 1818.

When we think of Benjamin Franklin, we usually remember him as a Founding Father, inventor, diplomat, printer, and publisher, but we are less likely to think of him as a medical man. In fact, he had a keen interest in public health and hygiene. He was one of the founders of the Pennsylvania Hospital, wrote a short treatise on inoculation, and even an essay about the health benefits of swimming. He also corresponded with physicians across the globe and with colleagues, family members, and others on medical topics.1

The Academy acquired a Franklin letter, dated December 8, 1752, in 1906, as a gift from Dr. William K. Otis (1860-1906), who inherited it from his father, Dr. Fessenden Nott Otis (1828-1900). Both were Fellows of The New York Academy of Medicine, the father elected in 1861 and the son 30 years later, and both specialized in treating urological disorders. Dr. F.N. Otis was a professor of venereal and genito-urinary diseases at Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. He modernized the treatment for urethral stricture by inventing both the Otis Urethrometer and the Otis Dilating Urethrotome, so it should not be a surprise that this particular letter by Franklin interested him.2,3 The letter was published in various editions of Franklins works and writings, in The Medical Side of Benjamin Franklin (1911), and as a facsimile in A Letter on Catheters (1934), with commentary by Dr. Edward Loughborough Keyes.

Front and back of Franklin's December 8, 1752 letter to his brother John. Click to enlarge.

Front and back of Franklin’s December 8, 1752 letter to his brother John. Click to enlarge.

In the letter, Franklin encloses a catheter (not in our collection) and describes its fabrication to his brother John, who was suffering from painful bladder or kidney stones: “Reflecting yesterday on your Desire to have a flexible catheter, a Thought struck into my Mind how one might possibly be made…” Worried that he might not be able to adequately convey his idea through description, Franklin goes on to tell his brother, “I went immediately to the Silversmith’s, & gave Directions for making one, (sitting by till it was finished), that it might be ready for this Post.” He then provides very complete instructions for having the size of the device adjusted by a silversmith should the diameter prove too large, and for using it. Though Franklin’s text suggests that he invented the catheter, Keyes, in the commentary published with the facsimile, quotes a letter from F.N. Otis in which Otis notes that he believes the wording in the first sentence of the letter simply demonstrates Franklin’s familiarity with a similar catheter already being used in Europe.

Transcription of Franklin's letter. Click to enlarge.

Transcription of Franklin’s letter. Click to enlarge.

At the end of the letter, Franklin shares his thoughts about Robert Whytt’s “An Essay on the Virtues of Lime-water in the Cure of the Stone” with John. Clearly both of them had read this book in an attempt to find a treatment that would offer John some relief from his ailment. Franklin responds to what seems to be an earlier query from John about the likelihood that Whytt’s method of treatment would help him. “I have read Whytt on Lime Water,” Franklin writes. “You desire my thoughts on what he says. But what can I say? He relates Facts & Experiments; and they must be allow’d good, if not contradicted by other Facts and Experiments. May not one guess by holding Lime Water some time in one’s Mouth whether or not it is likely to injure the Bladder?” As almost any elementary school student today would be able to report, all the basic elements of the scientific method are conveyed in Franklin’s elegant sentences: the question, the hypothesis, the experiments and observations, and the final conclusion.

In addition to the letter on catheters, the Academy library collections contain many published editions of Franklin’s work, along with a number of secondary sources about him. Please contact history@nyam.org or call 212-223-7313 to make an appointment to visit us if you are interested in exploring one of our most famous and engaging man of letters further.

References

1. Pepper W. The Medical Side of Benjamin Franklin. Philadelphia: W. J. Campbell; 1911.

2. Franklin, Benjamin, John Franklin, and Edward L. Keyes. A Letter on Catheters. Fulton, N.Y: Morrill, 1934.

3. Kelly H.A. Dictionary of American Medical Biography. New York: D. Appleton, 1928.