THACHER, JAMES. (1754–1844). Continental surgeon and diarist. Massachusetts. James Thacher was the son of a poor farmer who had the good fortune to be apprenticed at the age of sixteen to Abner Hersey, the leading physician in Thacher's hometown of Barnstable, where he received five years of arduous training. When the war began, Thacher applied to serve in the provincial hospital at Cambridge, was accepted by the medical examiners on 10 July and started his duties five days later. In an account of the examination of another candidate he recorded in his Military Journal, Thacher reported that the candidate, asked how he would induce a sweat in a patient to remedy rheumatism, replied that "I would have him examined by a medical committee."
In February 1776 Thacher was named surgeon's mate of Colonel Asa Whitcomb's Sixth Continental Infantry (Massachusetts), then recruiting at its camp on Prospect Hill. He marched with the regiment to Canada and took part in the retreat from Ticonderoga. On 1 April 1777 he was assigned as surgeon's mate to the General Hospital at Albany but went with the regiment when it moved to West Point. He returned to the field as surgeon of the First Virginia State Regiment on 10 November 1778 and spent the winter in quarters at Middlebrook, New Jersey. He transferred in June 1779 to Colonel Henry Jackson's Additional Continental Regiment, then stationed in Providence, Rhode Island, and marched with it to Boston, where it embarked on transports to reinforce the Penobscot expedition. Delayed by contrary winds, the transports put into Portsmouth, New Hampshire, thereby enabling the regiment to escape capture at Penobscot. He spent the arduous winter of 1779–1780 in New Jersey and witnessed the execution of Major John André on 1 October 1780. When his regiment (designated the Sixteenth Massachusetts beginning 23 July 1780) was absorbed in the reduction of the Massachusetts Line on 1 January 1781, he remained as surgeon of the Ninth Massachusetts. On 17 July 1781 he was detached as surgeon to the elite battalion of light infantry led by Colonel Alexander Scammell and served through the Yorktown campaign. He retired on 1 January 1783.
Thacher is famous for the Military Journal he kept during the Revolutionary War, first published in 1823, with a second edition in 1827 and many reprints thereafter. He wrote his journal in a lively style and included valuable information on army life and senior commanders, particularly Washington, Lafayette, and Steuben. His account of military medicine is regrettably slender. He "failed to give many details of his hospital experiences, except in regard to smallpox inoculation, which he carried out on a large scale" (Henry R. Viets in DAB). Since he wrote about matters about which he had no firsthand knowledge, it is important to distinguish that information from episodes in which he personally participated.
After the war he became a prominent physician in Plymouth. "Small of stature, light and agile in movements, Thacher was fond of social intercourse, yet regularly studious" (DAB). An astute observer, he produced important books on medicine and contemporary medical biography, including The American Medical Biography (1828). He also wrote on orchards (1822, 1825), bees (1829), ghosts (1831), and the history of the town of Plymouth (1832, 1835).
Thacher, James. A Military Journal during the American Revolutionary War, from 1775 to 1783. 2d ed. Boston: Cottons and Barnard, 1827.
revised by Harold E. Selesky