Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

John Denison Hartshorn: A Colonial Apprentice in "Physick" and Surgery (Boston)

Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

John Denison Hartshorn: A Colonial Apprentice in "Physick" and Surgery (Boston)

Article excerpt

Abstract: In the eighteenth century, as now, finding adequate, affordable medical care occupied the minds of many colonists. Most medical scholarship focuses on the practice of medicine, providing few details of a crucial time in a physician s career - his training. This article provides an analysis of the journal of John Denison Hartshorn, a colonial medical apprentice in Massachusetts. It compares Hartshorn's experiences with that of other Massachusetts ' medical apprentices. From Hartshorn s diary, we can determine the common features of medical training, the types of patients who were treated by novices, and the treatments they received. Dr. Thompson is an assistant professor of U.S. history who is working on a book on medicine in early America.

Like many young men in colonial America who wished to become physicians, John Denison Hartshorn trained by apprenticeship. He signed a contract in April 1752 to receive his surgical and medical training under a prominent Boston surgeon, Dr. Silvester Gardiner. Historian Eric Christianson's work establishes the importance of medical apprenticeship in eighteenth-century Massachusetts. His data shows that the growth rate in the number of physicians outstripped the general population growth and yet, "Europe provided less than 10 percent of all the colonial Massachusetts practitioners."1 Of those who received formal instruction, it was most likely in the form of apprenticeship. Despite the centrality of apprenticeship to medical education, most scholarship on eighteenthcentury colonial medicine focuses on the practices of prominent physicians of the period, ignoring a key aspect of their career - their training.2

This article critically analyzes Hartshorn's diary to explore the life of an eighteenth-century urban apprentice, comparing his experiences with William Jepson, a fellow apprentice under Gardiner; Peter Oliver, Jr., who apprenticed under Dr. Stockbridge in Scituate; and Elihu Ashley, who apprenticed under Dr. Thomas Williams in Deerfield. An analysis of Hartshorn's journal reveals many important features of colonial apprenticeship, the variety of non-medical duties performed: the medical training that unfolded in phases; the types of patients on whom that training was implemented; the exposure to dissections and surgical cases; and the impact of war.


Hartshorn never disclosed how he became an apprentice to Dr. Gardiner, a prominent Bostonian surgeon. Born in Rhode Island, Gardiner's uncle financed an eight-year study overseas in France and England. There Gardiner studied under some of the best-known surgeons in Paris and London, including William Cheselden - who taught him to perform a lithotomy (removal of stones from organs, especially the kidneys) with the most "humane and successful" procedure, the lateral technique.3 In 1734, Gardiner became a practicing physician in Boston and in 1736, along with William Douglass, founded the Medical Society of Boston. Gardiner earned a reputation as one of the best-trained and competent surgeons in the colonies. Until his 1776 exile for his Tory sympathies, "he was among one of the two or three most important physicians in Massachusetts."4 Gardiner's prominence cannot be doubted: he served as attending physician to the governor of Massachusetts and received personal visits from him.5

Hartshorn's father, Ebenezer, practiced medicine in Concord.6 Since it was not unusual for physicians to train their sons in medicine, why did Hartshorn not study under his father? Perhaps he did receive some training from his father, but Gardiner's reputation increased the chance of establishing a successful practice. Gardiner knew Hartshorns's father and grandfather; "He [Gardiner] told me ... that my grandf [ather] and father were good men & heard my mother was a good character," Hartshorn wrote. Perhaps Hartshorn was able to obtain such a prestigious apprenticeship through this acquaintance. …

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