Sunday, December 13, 2009

Jerome Van Crowninshield Smith

Years Served: 1826 to 1849

Dr. J.V.C. Smith, as he was known, was the fifth Port Physician in Boston but the second under the city council form of government. Born July 20, 1800 in Conway, New Hampshire, he took the post at the young age of 26 and was apparently happy to take up residence on Rainsford Island in the summer of 1826. He carved his name and date of becoming the port physician into a rock outcropping on Rainsford Island in the summer of 1826 and this carving still remains visible today. He was a rare individual who combined eminent skills in medicine with considerable literary abilities which he demonstrated as the editor of the New England Journal of Medicine and Collateral Branches of Science, the original name of the New England Journal of Medicine. He studied surgery under Dr. William Ingalls, an eminent surgeon of Boston, and in his spare time took up sculpture, creating busts of Bishop Fitzpatrick and Bishop Eastburn, among others.

He became the editor of the Boston Medical Intelligencer, later known as the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, editing more than forty volumes over this career. While his first public office was that of Port Physician in 1837 he was also elected to the state Legislature and was responsible for putting through a capitation tax on foreigners arriving at any port in Massachusetts, the money targeted to care for the poor and sick immigrants. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually declared this law unconstitutional. He was re-elected to the legislature in 1848 while he continued to hold the post of Port Physician. Smith used his post as Port Physician as a bully pulpit to speak out on a wide range of public health and medical issues. During the 1840’s, when the city of Boston had essentially “moth balled” the maritime quarantine program, Smith was virtually free to use Rainsford Island as a contemplative spot to write his lectures and articles for the New England Journal and Collateral Branches of Science without interruption. After all, the City had built him a comfortable cottage in 1830 which provided him with the ambience he needed to do his literary work.

He maintained his post as Port Physician from 1826 to 1849 at which time he decided that the level of effort required to manage the growingly complex quarantine program was simply too much for his interests. At forty nine years of age he was looking for a new challenge and new turned to local politics. He ran for Mayor in 1852 and lost but two years later was elected Mayor of Boston. While in office he advocated the introduction of pure water at the city’s expense and he also unsuccessfully urged the relocation of the various services for the poor from Deer Island to South Boston. As a physician he brought a sensitivity public health issues that many other mayors had not demonstrated. He died August 21, 1879.

To learn about other Port Physicians that worked on Boston's maritime quarantine program, go to the Port Physician blog:

Mayors of Boston, An Illustrated Epitome of who the Mayors have been and what they have done, Boston, MA, 1914, p. 24.

Vidich, Charles, Germs at Bay (forthcoming book on Boston Quarantine)

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