Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Portland’s Earliest Medical Practitioners

Share by Jerry Genesio, the author of “PORTLAND NECK:  The Hanging of Thomas Bird.” from his blog Portland Maine History

Apothecary Medicines. Photo by Doug Coldwell. Wikimedia Commons.
There were no trained physicians living at Portland Neck during the early years of the town’s development.  For many years, Rev. Thomas Smith, Portland’s first ordained minister (1726) and one of the very few well educated men on The Neck, served in a dual capacity as physician to the townspeople’s bodies as well as their souls.  At the time, it was very common for ministers in outlying settlements to perform this double-duty.

Twelve years after Rev. Smith settled on The Neck, Dr. Nathaniel Coffin arrived (1738) from Newburyport, Massachusetts.  The following year (1739), Dr. Coffin married Patience Hale and soon thereafter the couple built or purchased a home and office on India Street where they raised six children: Sarah, Nathaniel Jr.,Jeremiah, Francis, Mary, and Dorcas.

Rev. Smith’s journal
notes on December 8, 1760, “The people upon this Neck are in a sad toss about Dr. Coffin’s having the small pox, which it is thought he took of a man at New Casco, of whom many there have taken it.  It is also at Stroudwater.”  Perhaps sensing that his days were numbered, and that the “people upon this Neck” would be left without a proper physician, Dr. Coffin sent his son, Nathaniel, Jr., off to England in 1763 to study medicine at Guy’s and St. Thomas’ Hospitals in London.
Dr. Nathaniel Coffin, Jr., returned to The Neck in 1765 where, historian William Willis tells
us, “he entered upon a very full and lucrative practice”.  Soon after opening his medical practice, he married Eleanor Foster of Charlestown, Massachusetts.  They had eleven children, including five sons who were all said to be “handsome in person”, and six daughters who were said to be “among the most attractive ladies of their day.”

Eleanor Foster Coffin (1744-1825). Oil by Gilbert Stuart.

In January of 1766, at the very beginning of the year following young Dr. Coffin’s return from England, his father, Dr. Nathaniel Coffin, Sr., died.  Fortunately, however, he would not be required to look after the health of Portland’s rapidly growing population alone.  In 1765, the same year that he returned from London, Drs. Edward Watts and John Lowther settled on The Neck.

Dr. Lowther arrived from Tuxford, county of Nottingham, England and a few months later, in August of 1765, he married Rebecca Bradbury of York.  He immediately opened his medical practice in a building on the corner of Middle and India Streets, where he also ran an apothecary dispensing medicines, drugs, and other chemicals. Later, he  built a home on the corner of Middle and Lime Streets, where he and his wife raised seven children.  According to Willis, Dr. Lowther was “a skillful physician and surgeon”, but “liberal and careless of money, and often embarrassed in his affairs.”

 Dr. Edward Watts was a surgeon and physician stationed at Fort Pownal in 1759 under Brigadier Jedidiah Preble. 
On May 22, 1765, he married Mary Oxnard, the daughter of a Boston merchant whose two brothers, Thomas and Edward Oxnard, were merchants in Portland.  Dr. Watts also opened an apothecary shop to complement his medical practice, and later built a three-story, wooden house on Middle Street, which Willis tells us “was then the largest and most conspicuous in town”.  Here, he and his wife, Mary, raised eight children including five sons, two of whom would be lost at sea.

These three physicians looked after the ill and injured of Portland for nearly a quarter of a century before Dr. Shirley Erving arrived from Boston.  His father, John Erving of Boston, was an eminent merchant and a royalist who bestowed upon his son the best education money could provide, for as long as it lasted.  Shirley attended Boston Latin School, and entered Harvard College in 1773, but with the outbreak of the American Revolution, his father fled the country and his property was confiscated.  Shirley Erving left Harvard and studied medicine with Dr. Lloyd of Boston, and later completed his studies in Europe, then returned to Boston for a time before moving on to Portland.

Dr. Shirley Erving's bill for attending the birth of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1807. Courtesy Maine Historical Society.

Dr. Erving married Mary Coffin of Boston in 1786.  Three years later, in 1789, after their first child, Frances, was born, they moved to Portland where Dr. Erving continued his medical practice and added yet another apothecary to the commercial establishments on The Neck.  According to Willis, he also became Portland’s “inspector of pot and pearl ashes, a great article of commerce at that period.”
All four of these men were practicing medicine on and about Portland Neck in 1790 and might well have attended the trial and execution of Thomas Bird.  It is likely that one of these physicians pronounced Bird dead after the hanging.
Dr. John Lowther died at Portland in 1794.  Dr. Edward Watts died suddenly at Wells on June 9, 1799, en route to Portland from Boston.  Dr. and Mrs. Shirley Erving moved back to Boston in 1811 and he died two years later, in July of 1813.  And Dr. Nathaniel Coffin, Jr., died at Portland on October 21, 1826.

Added by Melissa Berry
From the "American Medical Biography: Or, Memoirs of Eminent Physicians who Have Flourished in America. To which is Prefixed a Succinct History of Medical Science in the United States, from the First Settlement of the Country, Volume 1" by James Thatcher

Dr. Nathaniel Coffin, M.M.S.S.(Written by son)  Dr. Nathaniel Coffin came to Portland in 1738 from Newburyport, his native place, where he studied physic with Dr. Tappan. In 1739 he was married to Patience Hale, by whom he had eight children. Dr. Coffin had an arduous task in pursuing his professional duties, having nearly the whole of the eastern country to attend, from Welles to the

Kennebeck. He was frequently called to perform operations on persons who had been tomahawked and scalped by the Indians. He was so much respected by these that they always furnished him with a safe conveyance through their settlements, and treated him with the greatest kindness and hospitality.
From his studies in Newburyport he could not have acquired the information he possessed, and which made him so extensively useful, particularly in surgery; but it may be easily accounted for, by the opportunity he had of intercourse with the young gentlemen who came out in the ships as surgeons. After having served their apprenticeship in London, they were admitted for one year or more into some of the hospitals there, to finish their education, and were then employed in the above capacity. Discovering their superior advantages, he always made them welcome at his house, and also provided them with the means of accompanying him to visit his patients. In this manner he obtained yearly information of every new discovery or improvement relative to the science of medicine or surgery. In May, 1763, he was attacked with a palsy, notwithstanding which he persevered in his intention of sending his son to London, to attend the hospitals of St. Thomas and Guy in the borough. In January, 1766, he had another attack of the palsy, of which he died, aged fifty years.

Nathaniel Coffin, M.D. M.M.S.S. son of the preceding, was at the time of his decease the oldest and one of the most eminent physicians in the State of Maine. The first ancestor of his family who came to this country was Tristam Coffin, who emigrated from England in 1642. (Some few years since Sir Isaac Coffin, Bart, had a medal struck in commemoration of his ancestor, Tristam Coffin; which with his accustomed liberality he presented to all the male descendants of the name. It bore on one side a full length figure of their ancestor in the Spanish costume, with this inscription, "Tristam Coffin, the first of the race that settled in America, 1642"; and on the reverse were four hands joined—" Do honor Jo his name"—" Be united.")

Dr. Coffin was born in Portland, on the 3d of May, 1744, in which place he always lived, and where he closed his long and useful life. The country at the time of his birth, for many miles round Casco bay, including the site of Portland, was called Falmouth; afterward the part most thickly settled, lying on the harbor, was incorporated into a separate town by the name of Portland.
He completed his preparatory medical education under his father ; but the limited means of scientific improvement then existing in this thinly peopled section of the country, induced the son with the advice of his father to embark for England at the age of eighteen. He there prosecuted his studies at Guy's and St. Thomas's Hospitals, under the distinguished Hunter, Akenside, McKenzie and others; and returned to commence the practice of his profession at the early age of twenty-one.

The time which he passed in a land, then as far excelling his own in the advancement of the arts and sciences, as the vigor of manhood excels the weakness of infancy, was faithfully improved. His industry and desire for knowledge were greatly promoted by the ready tact and practical good sense which were distinguishing features of his mind ; and at the death of his father, which occurred in 1766, he was qualified in no ordinary degree to succeed to an extensive and arduous practice. He married in the 26th year of his age the only daughter of Isaac Foster, Esq. of Charlestown, by whom he had eleven children.

In consequence of the rapid increase of population in this part of the country after the close of the war, his labors, though greatly multiplied, soon became confined principally to his native town. His father, who had resided on the same spot with himself, had within the memory of his son been compelled to travel with his healing art over an extent of country reaching forty miles west, and more than fifty on the east, the only messenger of health and consolation that could then be procured within these limits; while the son found in his native town and its vicinity, a constant demand for his time, his talents and his benevolence. At the commencement of his professional career, Dr. Coffin might often be found traveling through unfrequented and dangerous roads, to visit patients who possessed none of the comforts and scarcely the necessaries of civilized life, while the cannon of the enemy was sounding in his ears, and before his eyes lay all the desolation with which war ravages the land. Could this amiable and enterprising physician, while watching in the abodes of misery, have relieved the tedious hours with an anticipation of the peace and prosperity which were so soon to reward the constancy of his countrymen, how would his benevolent heart have been cheered at the prospect! He loved his country, and ardently desired her freedom andadvancement; but few persons at that period dreamed of independence. It was not long, however, before the prospect brightened, and America, though struggling with a power incalculably superior to her own, gave signs of a resolution not to be overcome.
The inhabitants of Falmouth caught the general spirit of patriotism which was daily gaining ground, and determined to relinquish their commerce with England. This resolution was first enforced on Mr. Coulson, an English resident there, who had married a sister of Dr. Coffin. In consequence of these offensive proceedings an order was obtained from the admiral on this station for the destruction of the town; and Captain Mowatt drew up his naval force in the port to execute the order.

Capt Henry Mowatt

On this occasion Dr. Coffin, with two others, was employed by his townsmen to repair on board the Canceau, to expostulate with the commander upon the severity of his commission, and to endeavor to avert or mitigate its evils. In this attempt he was unsuccessful. Captain Mowatt was determined to burn the town, and a short interval only was obtained for the inhabitants to remove some of their effects, and to escape with their families into the adjacent country. This excellent man continued to share the lot of his suffering townsmen during that trying season, and his faithfulness deserves to be recorded with that of the respectable and worthy pastors of the flock, who abode by their charge in their dispersion. After the alarm had a little subsided, the inhabitants ventured to return to their ruined homes, and began gradually to rebuild their houses. Dr. Coffin was the first to enter the town, and to animate by his courage and cheerfulness the hearts of the people, sunk into despondency by the melancholy spectacle which on all sides met their view. His services as a physician were at this time particularly acceptable to his fellow-citizens, harassed as they were by a foreign enemy, and liable to all those diseases and misfortunes incident to perilous times. In seasons of public calamity an intelligent and benevolent physician is indeed an angel of mercy wherever he appears. Sickness is one of the severest aggravations of poverty and misfortune; it unnerves the strong arm and the stout heart, which in the vigor of health find new resources and! new enterprise from peril and difficulty.
During the period of the revolution sick and disabled seamen and soldiers were frequently brought by our ships into Portland. Dr. Coffin was thus offered repeated opportunities for a display of those principles of practice which he had previously acquired in foreign hospitals, and which a rare skill and discriminating judgment enabled him at all times to apply with the most successful results. As a surgeon, Dr. Coffin was in his native town ranked at the head of the profession; always prompt and ready, with a resolution that never wavered in the boldest operations, with an eye steadily fixed on its object, and a hand that never trembled, and all the practical knowledge of anatomy essential to the successful treatment of surgical diseases, he was prepared to accomplish what no other practitioner around him presumed to undertake. If he possessed a peculiar facility in any one branch of his profession, it was certainly operative surgery. Some of his operations were performed at the advanced age of 80, with all the promptness and decision of a youthful professor. His reputation was also high as a medical practitioner; and what is said of the learned and distinguished Dr. Baillie may with truth be applied to him: "He had a most natural, unassuming but decided manner, which in the exercise of his professional duties was the same to all persons and on all occasions. His mind was always quietly, but eagerly directed to the investigation of the symptoms of the disease, and he had so distinct and systematic a mode of putting questions, that the answer often presented a corrected view of the whole, and could not fail to impress the patient with his clear and comprehensive knowledge."
Another great source on Coffin
He was honored with all those professional distinctions which his merits and attainments so truly deserved. The honorary degree of Doctor in Medicine was conferred on him by the College of Brunswick ; he was the first President of the Medical Society of Maine, and for many years discharged the duties of Hospital Surgeon for marine patients in the district of Maine.
Possessing a constitution naturally healthy and vigorous, and a mind resolute and intelligent, there was no peril which he was not prepared to encounter, and no adversitywhich he could not endure, and he has well deserved the distinction awarded him by the public for his constant and unremitted exertions during a period of more than sixty years.
Dr. Coffin was surrounded in the early part of his career by suffering friends and patients, but his life was closed amid the blessings of freedom and independence. In the peaceful evening of his days, all the enjoyments of prosperity and affection clustered round his dwelling; but it should not be forgotten that the respectability and happiness he then experienced, were the well earned reward of the virtues, the talents and the faithfulness of early years.
It appears that Dr. Coffin had no ambition to figure as an author, though he read the best medical publications, and reflected attentively upon what he read. We are not aware that he has left behind him any papers for the public eye. This is to be regretted, for no one had a better opportunity of noticing the diseases of our climate for the last half century, and of recording the various changes which they have assumed and the consequent change of practice which must have necessarily followed in their treatment and cure.
His private character, though known only to a small circle of fellow citizens and friends, will never be effaced from their memory. The keenness and ready tact of his intellect, increased by the peculiar and difficult circumstances in which he commenced practice, his sound judgment, founded on long experience and rational deduction, the perfect simplicity and singleness of his heart, his benevolence and readiness to answer the call of duty or humanity at the risk of any personal sacrifice, his fondness for»the young and his affectionate solicitude to promote their happiness, and his equanimity and courage in cases of misfortune and difficulty, are qualities, which, although they do not make much figure in a narrative, insure to their possessor respect and happiness, and shed a pure and sacred light around the memory of departed worth.
In his manners he was a polished specimen of the state of American society existing before the revolution ; he was one of the most graceful gentlemen of the old school, and his deportment was marked by a uniform and captivating urbanity.
His long experience, added to his varied knowledge, rendered his services valuable to the last, and the faculties ofhis mind retained a singular freshness even in the ordinary decays of nature.
He made an early profession of his religious principles and was one of the first who united in the Unitarian faith with the Rev. Dr. Freeman of Boston, more than 40 years ago; and for a number of years since, he was associated with the church of the first parish in his native place.
Rev James Freeman

The manner of his decease is briefly told. In 1823 he had a slight attack of asthma, which disappeared in a few days; but it returned in April, 1824, and brought on extreme debility which threatened his life, and ended by a general breaking up of his robust and healthy constitution. From this period he began to decline, while a gouty affection appearing, produced, according to its ordinary effects on a debilitated system, hydrothorax, which at last proved fatal ; and notwithstanding the unremitted and affectionate attentions of an anxious family, and the constant services of his medical friends, with as little bodily suffering as could be expected, and a mind but slightly impaired, he expired on the 18th October, 1826. It may be noticed that he died on the anniversary of the destruction of Portland, which he survived 51 years.

By Surg. E. Banks, M. H. S.
The Marine-Hospital Service was established by act of Congress in 1798, but how soon it extended its operations to Portland is not known. The probability is that it did not attain any importance for several years, as the first record of the treatment of sick seamen appears in a small volume in the hospital archives and begins in 1805. The heading of the record is "A list of sick and disabled seamen receiving assistance from the agent of the marine hospital at the port of Portland." This " agent" was the collector of the port for the time being, but there was no marine hospital building, properly speaking. The agent of the fund selected a local physician to attend the patients, and rendered accounts of his transactions direct to the Secretary of tbe Treasury. The first marine-hospital physician was Dr. Nathaniel Coffin.
Dr. Coffin was the son of Dr. Nathaniel and Patience (Hale) Coffin, of Newburyport, Mass., where he was born April 20,1744. He was brought to Falmouth as a young child by his parents, and his father died here January 11,176G. Nathaniel, jr., was sent to England by his father in 1763 to study medicine at Guy's and S. Thomas hospitals, London, and when he returned to Falmouth in 1765 he entered upon a lucrative practice, which he enjoyed for over half a century. He was the leader of his profession in this section of the country, a position which he did not forfeit during the troublous Revolutionary times on account of his sympathies with the loyalists. He married Eleanor Foster, of Charlestown, Mass., by whom he had a large family. The doctor and his wife are described as a markedly handsome couple, characterized by graceful and dignified manners, gifts of person which all their children inherited. He died October 21,1826, at the advanced age of 84 years. His portrait hangs in the office at the hospital.
It is not known whether Dr. Coffin retained the position of attending physician to the day of his death, but if so, there is an interregnum which I am not able to fill.

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