Nott, Josiah (1804-1873)

views updated

Josiah Nott (1804-1873)


Physician, ethnologist

Background. Born and raised in Columbia, South Carolina, Josiah Nott graduated from South Carolina College in 1824. He attended the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City for one year before moving to Philadelphia, where he received his medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1827. In 1829 he returned to Columbia, where he established a private practice. Six years later he moved to Mobile, Alabama. He aided in the establishment of the Mobile Medical Society in 1841 and helped enact a law regulating the practice of medicine in Alabama. He served as professor of anatomy at the University of Louisiana in 1857-1858, then returned to Mobile to help establish the Medical College of Alabama. Nott took the position of professor of surgery at the school.

Civil War and After. When the Civil War broke out, Nott joined the Confederate army medical department as a surgeon. During the early years of the war he served as director of the Confederate General Army Hospital in Mobile; later he served in the field as medical director on the staffs of Brig. Gen. Daniel Ruggles and Gen. Braxton Bragg; finally, he returned to Mobile to fulfill other medical duties. After the war he moved to Baltimore and then to New York City, where he was a founding member of the New York Obstetrical Society. Nott returned to the South after his health began to decline, settling first in Aiken, South Carolina, and then moving back to Mobile, where he died on 31 March 1873his sixty-ninth birthday.

Writings. Nott wrote prodigiously on many medical and scientific topics. In 1866 he published Contributions to Bone and Nerve Surgery as an instructional guide for new surgeons. The work describes injuries suffered by soldiers during the Civil War and offers surgical techniques to remedy them. In A Lecture on Animal Magnetism, delivered in Mobile in 1846 and published in the Southern Journal of Medicine and Pharmacy the same year, he promoted hypnosis for the treatment of nervous diseases.

Yellow Fever. Nott devoted much of his medical career to the study of the causes of yellow fever. The city of Mobile was plagued by the disease, and epidemics occurred regularly. Nott lost four of his eight children to the yellow fever epidemic of 1853, although his interest in the disease had begun well before that time. Most people believed that yellow fever came from noxious vapors released by decaying vegetable and animal refuse; when they heard of yellow fever outbreaks in other cities, Mobile residents would clean waste from streets and public areas as best they could. Nott believed that the illness came not from gases but from some kind of insect or other form of animal life; he mentioned the mosquito as a possible carrier of yellow fever. The discovery that a particular type of mosquito did, indeed, transmit the virus that caused the disease would not be made until the early twentieth century; nevertheless, Notts theory that an organism was responsible for spreading yellow fever was closer to the truth than were the beliefs of most mid-nineteenth-century physicians.

Racial Theory. In the 1840s Nott began to express publicly his ethnological ideas. His writings on the subject stemmed from his desire to justify slavery, but they also revealed a scientific interest in the subject. Like many Southerners, Northerners, and Europeans, Nott believed that the black and white races were unequal. While this theory caused little controversy among white Americans, Notts rationale for the belief was another matter: from the moment of creation, Nott argued, blacks had existed as a separate and inferior species. Notts claim challenged the biblical account of creation and aroused opposition in the religious community. By the late 1840s the debate over separate human races had reached a climax in American science, with Nott one of the leading figures. In 1854 Nott and the British ethnologist George R. Gliddon published Types of Mankind, which further elaborated the theory of multiple creations and separate human species. Notts most important ethnological publication, the work stood as the standard scientific explanation of the origins of the races until Darwins theories became widely accepted. In 1857 Nott and Gliddon published a sequel, Indigenous Races, but it did not attract the attention that their first book did.


Reginald Horsman, Josiah Nott ofMobile: Southerner, Physician, and Racial Theorist (Baton Rouge & London: Louisiana State University Press, 1987).