Wednesday, August 11, 2010

John Baker Swift

Years Served: 1879 to 1880

Mayor Frederick Octavius Prince appointed John Baker Swift the City’s eighth physician on April 16, 1879 succeeding Dr. Alonso Wallace who had held that post for the previous four years. At his appointment Swift was only twenty six years old, one of the youngest physicians to ever take on the challenge of protecting Boston from all sorts of biological threats coming from abroad. Like most of his predecessors, he graduated from Harvard Medical School and undoubtedly came into contact with Samuel Durgin, the Chairman of the Boston Board of Health and part time instructor at Harvard. Durgin sought out some of the best and brightest medical minds of the 19th century and offered them the biggest medical challenge any physician could ever imagine. The job of the port physician called for inspecting thousands of ill clad, undernourished souls arriving by steerage class, a slice of humanity that was invariably highly susceptible to a wide range of communicable diseases Although Swift only served as port physician for less than 8 months, resigning on January 3, 1880, he fulfilled his duties with a sense of duty and professional discipline that attracted other physicians to respect and remain closely affiliated with him for years to come.

During his year of service, the quarantine station was without a storage location for infection cargoes. He managed to keep the quarantine station operational even with less than adequate sanitation equipment and a surging volume of passenger vessels. Hoards of immigrants were coming to Boston in the 1870s and the city was not fully equipped to handle them all. In 1879, 498 vessels entered Boston harboring. Daily inspections kept Swift busy day and night and the wear and time of the work eventually convinced him that a private practice would be a lot easier way to make a living.

The potential of dying from a communicable disease certainly had to have crossed Swift’s mind while working on Gallop’s Island. However, he might not have imagined a much more violent threat posed by dependence on overtaxed machinery and vessels chained to the service of the quarantine station. In the spring of 1879, the constant wear and tear on the quarantine vessel led to an unfortunate accident resulting in the breakage of the engine’s piston rod. The explosion that ensued completely demolished the engine cylinder and cast large metal fragments weighing from 1 to 20 pounds against the vessel walls and the engine room. The engineer, William H. Preston who normally carried Dr. Swift to arriving vessels, received a severe cut to his forehead but otherwise survived the ordeal to live another day. Swift missed a bullet by not being on the Samuel Little steamer when this accident occurred. The pressure of the work, the lack of contact with his family and friends and the appeal of starting his own private practice eventually convinced Swift that life on the quarantine island could only satisfy him for so long.

1. Obituary, Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, Vol. 169, No. 9, August 28, 1913, p. 333

2. Thayer, William Roscoe, The Harvard Graduates' Magazine, 1913-1914, Volume 22, Harvard Graduates Association, Boston, MA, p. 186

3. Sixth Decennial Catalogue, of the Chi Psi Fraternity, 1902, published by the Order of the 58th Annual Convention, Auburn, NY 1902, p. 412.

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