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Biography of David James, M.D. (1805-1873)

Published in The Hahnemannian Monthly Journal,

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Volume IX

October 1873, No. 3, Pages 97-111

      The record of a good man’s life is at once an example and an incentive, a guide and an inspiration; and the recital of the events and the deeds which go to make up such a career, is not only profitable but pleasant, a we reflect that the very qualities of his character which make our parting sad, have a thousand times made his living joyous to himself, delightsome to his friends and precious to his race.


     David James, M.D., was born March 14th, 1805, in the “Old Mansion House” – the home of four generations of his ancestors – at Radnor, Delaware County, Pennsylvania, a few miles west of Philadelphia.  His earliest ancestor of whom we have any record was David James, of Radnorshire, Wales.  It appears that he “had suffered persecution in Wales, and is several times mentioned by Besse in his ‘Sufferings.’  In December, 1662, he was imprisoned three weeks, for refusing to take the oath of allegiance.  In a more extended account of the event, it appears that he suffered with twenty-two others.  ‘Anno 1663.  About the month called January, this year, David James, (here follow the names of the rest) were committed to prison in Radnorshire, until they should take the oath of allegiance, which yet had not been tendered them before their commitment.’  In 1674 David James attended a meeting at a house called Cloddian Cochion, within the corporation of Poole, where a small number of Friends were met together in silence.  Thomas Lloyd, of Dalobran (afterwards well known in Pennsylvania as Penn’s first deputy-governor), being present, when fifteen armed men came to arrest those attending this meeting.  He requested them to remain a while, and preached to them, for which offence he was fined and most of those present.  That the David James here mentioned is the ancestor of this family is proved by papers in their possession.*  He appears to have been one of those who purchased a right of land in Pennsylvania before leaving Wales; for his name is signed as a witness to two indentures of land from Richard Davies, gentleman, of Welshpoole, who had bought five thousand acres in Penn’s new province.  He arrived in Pennsylvania in August, 1682, with Margaret his wife, and probably went at once to Radnor and settled on the land he had bought before coming over.  He built a good stone house, on one end of which are the initials ‘D.&M.J.’ and the date:  but these have now been plastered over, and his descendants cannot remember the exact years, but know that it was early in 1700.”  (See a forthcoming work on the Genealogy of the Potts Family, by Mrs. Isabella James, of Cambridge, Mass.)


     David James was the father of Evan James (who, tradition says, was born on the passage from Wales), the grandfather of Griffith James, the great-grandfather of Isaac James, M.D., and the great-great-grandfather of David James, M.D., the subject of this memoir.  Isaac James, M.D., of whom David was the third son, is still living at Bustleton, Philadelphia, in the ninety-seventh year of his age, and has the honor of being “the oldest Methodist in the World,” having joined that society in 1790, and been licensed to preach in the year 1800.  The mother of Dr. David James was Henrietta, daughter of Col. Thomas Potts, of Coventry.  Col Potts was the eldest son of John Potts, the founder of Pottstown, and the grandson of Thomas Potts, who settled near Philadelphia about 1695, and removed to Colebrookdale on the Schuylkill (Berks County) about 1718, where he, his sons and grandsons engaged in developing the iron resources of that region, and became the most extensive ironmasters of Pennsylvania.


     It will thus be seen that the subject of our sketch was descended from that ancient people who, breathing in the air of soul-liberty from among the mountains of Wales, have made for themselves a record of fidelity under the most adverse circumstances, which places them side by side with the Waldenses of Italy and Germany and the Huguenots of France, as a community of moral heroes.  And it may be that he inherited some of those qualities which gave force to his character from those very people, who, for the sake of conscience and the truth, braved the arrows of persecution and defied the flames of martyrdom.  Surely he must have had need of his “Welsh blood” when, in the full strength of his manhood, he laid his professional reputation and his business prospects upon the alter of a medical truth, amid the jeers, the scoffs and the calumnies of his professional brethren.


     The first eleven years of David James’ life were spent at Radnor, where he attended the school close by the old homestead, except at times when he went to school at “Garigues,” a few miles lower down.  His parents had always felt the importance of securing for their children the best possible education, and spared themselves neither trouble nor expense to facilitate that object.  As their family increased, they felt more and more their educational disadvantages; and finally, to secure better opportunities, they sold part of their property and removed to South Trenton (then called Bloomsbury), New Jersey.  This was in the spring of 1816.


     Here David was immediately placed in the Academy, then under the care of Mr. Sutterly.  Throughout his boyhood he was full of life and fun, and consequently gave his teachers and parents more trouble than did his more staid brothers.  In those days the locomotive and railroad car were things unheard of, and South Trenton being at the head of tide-water navigation of the Delaware, was, of course, the point of trade communication with the more interior counties of New Jersey and Pennsylvania.  David being exceedingly fond of the river front, was thrown into the society of “old salts” whose crafts were lying at the wharves, and like many another boy under similar influences, he conceived a strong desire to go to sea.  To this proposition his parents refused their consent.  Somewhat later in his life he became imbued with a desire for the gospel ministry.  Of this we shall have more to say hereafter.  His father had a wish that one of his sons should adopt his own profession, and as the older brothers had already made choice of an occupation, David entered upon a course of medical reading under the tuition of his father.  In 1826, March 21st, the family removed to Philadelphia, and on November 2d of that year David entered the Jefferson Medical College, then in the second year of its existence, having already entered the office of Dr. George McClellan, the distinguished professor of surgery.  It was during this same year that Dr. McClellan successfully performed, for the first time in the United States, the operation for the removal of the entire parotid gland, in a case which some of the most eminent surgeons of Europe had attempted in vain.  This operation – at first scouted by surgeons at home and abroad as an impossibility – at once established Dr. McClellan’s reputation as a bold and skillful operator, and helped to advance the popularity of the young college.  It also served to arouse the enthusiasm of our young student, who applied himself with energy to his studies and graduated March 18, 1828.  His teachers, besides McClellan, were Barton, Green, Rhees, Eberle, Barnes and Nathan R. Smith; and among those associated with him in the office of Dr. McClellan were Samuel D. Gross, Washington L. Atlee, and others who have attained distinction in the world of medicine and surgery.


     A few days after Dr. David James’ graduation, his father, who had been residing at the north-east corner of Eighth and Vine streets, returned to Radnor, leaving his Philadelphia practice to his son.  John F. and Thomas P. James – two of David’s brothers – at the same time kept a drug store in the same building.  About one year later, the young doctor and his mother paid a visit to Dr. John Worthington in Byberry, in the northern part of Philadelphia County.  Mrs. James had, before her marriage, made the acquaintance and secured the friendship of Dr. Worthington while he was practicing in Coventry, Chester County, the home of her parents.  Being now advanced in years and in feeble health, and influenced, probably by his old friendship for the mother he agreed to take the son into partnership.  Accordingly, in the spring of 1829, Dr. David James removed to Byberry.  His first reception, however, was by no means flattering.  He was but twenty-four years of age and entirely unknown; and the unwillingness of the people to accept him in lieu of an old physician of established reputation and great popularity, is said to have called forth from the over-worked old gentleman some remarks more forcible than elegant.  Dr. James, however, by his genial yet dignified deportment, and no less by his correct diagnosis and his judgment and skill in the treatment of disease, was not long in securing from his new neighbors not only their confidence but their lasting friendship.


     Upon the death of Dr. Worthington, which occurred a few years later, Dr. James succeeded to the entire practice; and by his untiring devotion to his duties, his evident skill, and his affable deportment both in and out of the sick chamber, he soon attained to the position of the first business physician in that section of the country.  The people among whom he practiced were mostly farmers, many of them members of the society of Friends, and of a high order of intelligence.  His field included the northern portion of Philadelphia, the southern portion of Bucks and the southeastern portion of Montgomery counties.  This district has been the home of some distinguished men, Byberry itself being famous in professional annals as the birth-place of Dr. Benjamin Rush, the patriot, statesman and father of American medicine.  To attain great eminence in such a field was in itself evidence of an unusual order of skill and ability; and such was the position which Dr. James had reached while yet in the full vigor and enthusiasm of his young manhood.


     In 1833 he was united in marriage to Miss Amanda Worthington, who survives him.  She was the daughter of Benjamin Worthington, Esq., of Byberry.  Of their children, two were daughters and three sons; of the latter, two entered the medical and one the legal profession.


     Just about the time that Dr. James graduated, homoeopathy as a system of medical practice had crossed the Atlantic from Europe, and was beginning to attract public and professional attention in this country.  Dr. Gram had recently settled in New York City, and Drs. Carl Ihm, of Philadelphia, and Henry Detwiller, of Easton, introduced the system into Pennsylvania, about the year 1828 or ’29.  So late as 1840, however, comparatively few physicians had adopted the new system, the prejudice against it being so intense, and the hostility towards its advocates so bitter, that not only the requirements of professional courtesy, but even those of common politeness, were utterly ignored by the opponents of homoeopathy in their relations to its professed practitioners.  Even as investigation into its merits rendered the honest seeker after truth the subject of professional ridicule and of a very unprofessional hatred.  While Dr. James’ character as a christian gentleman utterly forbids the supposition that he could have engaged in the persecuting crusade against homoeopathic physicians, still it is certain that the system itself was at least for a time the subject of his unsparing ridicule.  But this state of things was not always to be.  Some time prior to 1840, some of his patients, after having failed to obtain any benefit from his (allopathic) treatment, went to Philadelphia and were cured by means of homoeopathy.  One case occurred in which a lady was afflicted with an organic disease, threatening to assume a very grave character.  The doctor failing to benefit her, sent her to the city to consult a surgeon.  A friend, at whose house she was staying prevailed on her before submitting to surgical treatment to try the new system of medication, and she was speedily cured with two doses of homoeopathic medicines.  This case is recorded in the Hahnemannian Monthly, vol. II, and is also alluded to on page 149, vol. IV., of the same journal.  Some of these patients, it is said, urged him to examine the new system, and probably not without effect, as the following incident would seem to show.


     One morning in the autumn of 1840, he was driving through Byberry, in company with his sister.  He stopped to visit a patient, and on retuning to the carriage he remarked in a desponding tone.  “I think that man will die; he has a large family depending upon him.  And over there is Mr. A., and down that road is Mr. B., both dangerously ill, and both heads of families.  We had the dysentery all through here last summer, but the medicines which cured it then have not effect whatever the present season.”  After riding for a while in silence he remarked with a suddenness and energy that startled his companion, - “I’m tired of the practice of medicine, I’ll give it up, and go to the backwoods and dig up stumps for a living.  It is just like going a gunning; you take aim and fire away, and you don’t know whether you hit or not till the smoke is blown away.”  He then spoke of a conversation between himself and his brother, Mr. John F. James, in which homoeopathy was referred to, and the wonderful success which had resulted from the use of that system of practice in Europe, and said “The next time I go to the city I intend to buy a book and some medicines and try it.”  His sister saw that he was in earnest and endeavored to dissuade him, pointing out the disgrace that must attach to the practice of a “system of quackery.”  Her efforts were of no avail, however, for at their next interview, which occurred in a few weeks, he reported the success of his trial, which had exceeded his most sanguine expectations.  His earliest experiments with homoeopathy were made upon himself and family and were followed by a thorough examination and research, and more extended experiments, during which he was overwhelmingly convinced of its superiority as a scientific system of medical practice.  To such a man as David James there was no alternative but to adopt it in practice.  And thus was no trifling thing for him to do.  He enjoyed the confidence of the whole community, a confidence that might be impaired and perhaps destroyed by a change of practice.  Moreover, his universally admitted skill in practice, and especially in obstetric practice, made him the counsel of the neighboring physicians in difficult and dangerous cases; this part of his business would certainly be destroyed by the change, and yet, had the sacrifice and hazard been ten times as great, he would not have hesitated a moment, in a matter where duty and the safety of human life were involved.  Accordingly we find that in 1841 and ’42 he was beginning to use the new method of prescribing medicines.  He did not, however, at once abandon the “old system,” but, wisely distrustful, not of homoeopathy but of his own knowledge of it, pursued a thorough course of study and research, and applied his knowledge gradually, as he acquired it.  In 1846 he became a member of the American Institute of Homoeopathy; thus publicly proclaiming himself a follower of Hahnemann.  It could not be expected that all his patients should have the same faith in homoeopathy that he professed, and yet the sequel showed that so strong was the confidence which they reposed in his sterling good sense and judgment, that his endorsement of the new practice was to them a sufficient reason for its acceptance; and we have the very best authority for the statement that not a single family withdrew their patronage on account of his change of practice.  Grateful indeed must it have been to the heart of the conscientious physician, amid the sneers, the scoffs and the calumnies of his professional “brethren,” to receive at the hands of his patients this new attestation of their esteem and confidence.  And now the increase of his business went on even more rapidly.  Day after day, during his office hours, long lines of carriages waiting at his residence gave evidence of his popularity and the extent of his field of practice, so that in 1847 he admitted his former pupil, John R. Reading, M.D., into a business partnership, which continued until 1855 the date of his removal to Green street.


     During Dr. James’ residence in Byberry, and incident occurred that caused him much amusement, and which it may not be out of place to relate.  The doctor was placing upon his farm a hydraulic ram, for the purpose of conveying to his house the water from a spring several hundred yards distant.  An old colored woman, a domestic in the family, was very skeptical as to the results of such an investment.  Nobody could convince her that water could pump itself up hill; and to all argument her invariable response was, “I don’t believe it, I don’t believe it.”  At last the machine was completed, the water was turned on at the spring, and after a reasonable time had elapsed, it commenced flowing into the cistern prepared to receive it.  Aunt Hannah was now called to “see for herself.”  She gazed for a few moments at the water gushing from the pipe, then suddenly turning away with a deprecating gesture, she exclaimed, “I don’t believe it; I don’t believe it.”  And the doctor, in endeavoring to impress the truth of his system of medicine upon his medical brethren, doubtless found an abundance of skepticism differing little, if any, from that of the unlettered old colored woman.


     In the month of April, 1855, Dr. James removed with his family to No. 1013 Green street, Philadelphia.  This removal was prompted partly by a desire to secure better advantages for the education of his children, and partly on account of his own failing strength.  Twenty-six years of hard labor, as a country practitioner, was beginning to tell upon his health.  He had shown himself possessed of almost marvelous powers of endurance, but his vast field of practice, and his steady devotion to the duties of his immense business, were not beginning to manifest their depressing effects.  Removal was the only method of relieving himself from the great burdens which he had borne so long and so steadily.  Shortly after his removal he was seized with typhoid pneumonia, which for a time threatened the most serious consequences, and from which he as a long time in recovering his usual strength.


     Rest, however, seemed not to be for him.  Large numbers of his country patients continued to avail themselves of his services; and in addition to this his fame as a physician had preceded him, and in a remarkably short time he had charge of a large practice among the most intelligent and influential people of the city, while as a consulting physician his services were often called into requisition.  This continued until about the year 1868, when symptoms of organic heart disease began to show themselves, and warned him of the necessity for great prudence and watchfulness.  From the very beginning of these symptoms he fully realized that life might cease at any moment, and always carried about with him the means by which he might be recognized in case of sudden death among strangers.  He was still able to accomplish a considerable amount of labor, both professional and religious, until about the middle of April, 1873, when he was suddenly attacked with symptoms of cardiac dropsy.  From this time he rapidly grew worse and worse.  He suffered greatly from dyspnoea, the difficulty of breathing often preventing him from lying down, and requiring him to sleep in a sitting posture.  The dyspnoea came in paroxysms at frequent intervals.  These could sometimes be relieved at the commencement by fanning him, but not always.  At other times relief was obtained by means of a forced expiration.  So complete was this relief that he would say, “There, I feel as well as I ever did,” when in a few moments, perhaps, the paroxysm would return.  At times, also there were sudden and violent spasmodic contractions of the muscles of the diaphragm, chest and arms, accompanied with an involuntary scream.  The digestive functions remained almost unimpaired, though there was vomiting at times, apparently caused by nervous irritation, and some irritability of the bowels.  He maintained through all a cheerful spirit, though he understood as well as any one that death might come at any moment.  His strength gradually succumbed to the power of his disease, and at five o’clock on the morning of June 6th, 1873, he calmly passed away to his rest.


     A post-mortem examination made eighty-eight hours after death, revealed a general enlargement of the heart.  The semilunar valve of the pulmonary artery was thickened, hard, gristly and rough.  The mitral and tricuspid valves were healthy.  The dropsy of the heart had much diminished some three weeks before death; yet the post-mortem showed three ounces of effused fluid in the pericardium.  In the left pleural cavity there was a pint of fluid, and in the right a quart; while in the abdominal cavity there were three or four ounces only.  There had been considerable dropsical swelling of the lower extremities with some exudation of fluid.  The lungs were solidified or hepatized in small portions of the different lobes, on both sides, with slight pleural adhesions at the top; otherwise they were healthy.  The aorta showed a few atheromatous patches.  The coronary arteries were brittle and fragile.  The liver had a yellowish, granite-colored, cirrhosed appearance.  The stomach, spleen and kidneys were healthy.  The pancreas was small, indurated and gristly, almost like cartilage; the left end was most indurated, and seemed to account for pain which had been complained of in that region.


     In studying the character of Dr. James from the standpoint of an intimate knowledge of his life and his labors, we must regard him as in some respects a most remarkable man.  In diagnosis he had very few superiors.  Even in those cases of rare disease which so often take the physician unawares, he seemed to suspect and recognize their first insidious approaches; while his skill and success in treatment was a matter not of public only, but also of professional remark.  As an obstetrician he stood first in all the section of the country where he was known, and as a consulting physician in difficult cases of this character, was preferred above all others.  As a surgeon he was also successful, particularly in those cases of sudden emergency requiring a prompt and bold attention; and old professional friend ranking him with the very best in this respect.  To his patients he was not only a physician, but a devoted self-sacrificing friend.  His hopefulness in the chamber of sickness inspired his patients with new confidence.  For the old he had always a pleasant work; and the school boy trudging barefoot by the dusty roadside, was always sure of a kindly greeting as the carriage of Dr. James passed by.  The affable, genial manner, springing, as it did, from a warm heart, won him fast friends wherever he went.  Add to all this his almost utter indifference to the allurements of ambition, caring little for the world’s applause, but only for the confidence of his patients and the love of his friends, and we have before us a character rarely seen and still more rarely appreciated.  As a medical writer, Dr. James made no pretensions whatever.  Had he so wished, he could have made for himself an almost world-wide reputation; his quick and accurate perception, his strong common sense, his sound judgment and logical mind having eminently fitted him to shine in such a sphere, which, however, it seems he did not care to enter.


     But there was another phase of David James’ life and character, no less important, which as yet we have scarcely even alluded to; we refer to his deep and abiding religious faith and devotion.  His parents were both members of the Methodist Episcopal Church and attended carefully to the religious culture of their children.  Morning and evening prayers were never omitted, and public services were frequently held in their house.  So early as his sixteenth year, David gave evidence of that “sound wisdom and discretion” which marked his whole after-life, by making a public profession of a personal faith in the atonement of Christ.  In the spring of 1822, Rev. John Summerfield visited South Trenton, where the James family still resided, and by his youth, eloquence and fervid piety, exerted a powerful influence upon David, who from this time began to feel an intense longing for the work of the gospel ministry.  His mother encouraged him to cherish the desire, but his father had other plans for his future.  And submission to the will of those in authority seems to have been with him, as with the Apostle Paul, a part of his religion.  It is doubtful, however, if this desire ever entirely left him, for he took an active part in all that pertained to the moral improvement of the community, and in 1841, no doubt in fulfillment of his long cherished hopes, he was licensed to preach the gospel; and in 1848 was ordained as a Deacon in the M. E. Church by Bishop Janes.  During nearly his whole professional career, in the city and country, he devoted a portion of his time to religious work, preaching, as opportunity offered, even in his businest seasons.  One Monday morning, after his removal to Green street, one of his students asked him if he had been busy the day previous.  The reply, quietly given, was, “I made tewenty-four visits and preached one sermon.”  And thus for years he labored; and this accounts for his having written so little for the medical press.  He occupied his spare time in a different line of duty, feeling that in behalf of his fellow-men, the Great Physician had called him, for a part of his time at least, to a higher sphere of labor.


     Dr. James was naturally of a lively and cheerful disposition, and this was enhanced by his religious experience, especially during the later years of his life.  The teachings on the subject of holiness of Wesley, Clark and other standard writers of the denomination to which he belonged, had been theoretically accepted in his early Christian life; but it was not until 1868, at a camp meeting held at Brandywine Summit, that he seemed to enter into a deeper Christian experience than ever before.  He never had been a doubter; but now his experience was of a more joyful character, and this continued without interruption to the latest hour of his life.


     As a thinker, Dr. James was logical; as a speaker, fluent and rapid.  In labor abundant; in controversy energetic, yet always kindly; in his benevolence unostentatious, seeking out the poor unnoticed, and ministering to them in physical and spiritual necessities; and watchful for every opportunity “in season and out of season” to lift man up from his depths and make him what he was designed to be.  His piety was an every-day matter, brightening his whole life; and it has been justly said that no one ever obtained from him the impression that religion is a gloomy thing.  The malady under which he had suffered for the last five years of his life, was of such a nature as to lead him to expect to die suddenly; and when to his surprise he found himself called upon to endure intense physical suffering, his cheerfulness never forsook him, and when one of his friends expressed astonishment at it, he said, “We do not believe in long faces; we do not have a gloomy religion in our house.”  He seemed pleased to know that his friends remembered him and when it was told him that the Byberry people were making constant inquiries about him, his face brightened as he replied, “Ah, yes; Byberry doesn’t forget Dr. James;” and true it was, although eighteen years had passed since he left it.  Indeed, it is doubtful if any physician could have a stronger hold upon the affections of his patients.  While expressing his perfect willingness to die, still he gave directions that nothing should be left undone to secure his recovery, evidently in the hope that he might yet have still more opportunities for labor.  He intimated, however, that in case of his recovery, he should not return to professional labor, adding that “The Master would have other work for him to do.”  And throughout all his sickness, his complete resignation, his cheerful, happy spirit, his frequent expressions of thanksgiving, and as the last hour approached, his perfect trust and unshaken confidence, were such that it might well be said, as it was said in reference to another, that his apartment seemed “not the chamber of death, but the robingroom of Heaven.”


     During the last two or three days of his life, it was noticed that the energies which had so long sustained him were gradually giving way, and the vital forces rapidly failing; yet death when it came was almost instantaneous.  His children were near his bedside; he repeated the thanksgiving that “as if in contemplation of his complete salvation in Christ” he had so often uttered during the preceding night “Thine be the glory; Amen and Amen.”  His heart suddenly ceased its beating, and the spirit of David James winged its way to its rest.


     As we reflect upon the great conflict that is being waged between science and error, between Christianity and infidelity, between purity and corruption, we feel that our best and bravest warriors can ill be spared.  As we lift up our eyes and look on the fields so vast and so rapidly whitening, and while the cry for laborers toes up to the Lord of the harvest, we realize that now, if ever, David James is needed here.  The medical profession, the Church and the world all need him, and more like him.  And yet, One who “doeth all things well” has summoned him from the field.  The tabernacle of his earthly journey is mingling with the dust of Laurel Hill, and its occupant has gone to higher service and happier scenes, leaving to us who remain the fruits of his faithful toil and the precious legacy of his bright example.  “The memory of the just is blessed.” – Blessed indeed to those who are ready to learn a lesson and take an example from a life well spent and a work well done.




     *Sewel, in his “History of the Christian people called Quakers,” vol. II., p. 306, undoubtedly alludes to the same event.  He says:  “Some time before (i.e., before 1676) it happened within the corporation of Poole, in Montgomeryshire, that the justice, David Maurice, coming into a house where a small number of people were peaceably met and all silent, required them to depart.  Hereupon Thomas Lloyd, one of the company, began to speak a few words by way of defining true religion and what true worship was; and what he said was so reasonable that the said justice approved of it as sound, and according to the doctrine of the Church of England.  Yet, notwithstanding, he fined the said Thomas Lloyd £20 for preaching.”