Bigelow, Jacob (1787-1879)
Jacob Bigelow (1787-1879)
Physician and botanist
Early Life. Jacob Bigelow was born in Sudbury, Massachusetts, in 1787, the son of a Harvard graduate who was a Congregational minister and a farmer. Educated in a country grammar school until age thirteen, Bigelow then studied privately under Reverend Samuel Kendall in Weston to prepare for the university. He attended Harvard from 1802 until 1806, graduating Phi Beta Kappa. Late in life he recalled that “my original distaste for the profession of medicine was removed by the eloquence of Dr. John Warren, the oldest of a line of distinguished physicians, who, at that time, lectured on anatomy to the senior class of undergraduates. I thought I discovered that a physician might be fluent and accomplished, and serve his generation in other ways than as a mere vehicle of pills and plasters.”
Medical Education. Upon his graduation Bigelow taught for one year at Boston Latin School while attending medical lectures. In 1808 he held an apprenticeship in the medical practice of a leading Boston physician, John Gorham. Because the Harvard Medical School did not yet offer a full medical degree, Bigelow went to Philadelphia in the fall of 1809 to attend the medical school of the University of Pennsylvania, there studying under the famed Benjamin Rush. In a letter to his parents dated 6 March 1810, he wrote, “In this place I have obtained a degree after four months’ residence, a thing very uncommon, as most students spend two or three winters in the city before obtaining it.” A newly minted doctor of medicine, Bigelow returned to Boston where he became junior partner in the medical practice of James Jackson, who was also professor of the theory and practice of medicine at Harvard.
Botany. While studying medicine in Philadelphia, Bigelow acquired what would become a lifelong interest in botany. In 1812 he joined the head of the Cambridge Botanic Garden to offer a series of public lectures. To prepare he studied the botany of the Boston area, which led to his first book, Florula Bostoniensis. Initially published in 1814, it went through two more editions, expanded to cover all of New England. That work gained for him recognition from leading naturalists in Europe. In 1819 the Linnaean Society of London elected him to its membership, and he developed an extensive British and European scientific correspondence as a result. Bigelow’s growing expertise in botany opened new avenues of professional development as a physician as well, since pharmacology and botany were intimately related. In 1815 he began lecturing on materia medica for the Harvard Medical School. By 1817 he was appointed professor of materia medica and later also joined the faculty of the Massachusetts General Hospital in the same capacity.
Early Publications. Between 1817 and 1821 Bigelow published a three-volume work titled American Medical Botany, Being a Collection of the Native Medicinal Plants of the United States, Containing Their Botanical History and Chemical Analysis, and Properties and Uses in Medicine, Diet, and the Arts, with Colored Engravings. The first book published in the United States with color illustrations, the work contained sixty plates. The standard way to produce color illustrations at that time was to paint them by hand in each volume. To speed up this slow and expensive process, Bigelow invented a new method of printing, called aquatint, that applied the color mechanically at the same time that the engravings were printed. While working on American Medical Botany he also played a leading role on the committee that produced the first Pharmacopoeia of the United States (1820), for which he also published a reader’s guide commonly known as Bigelow’s Sequel (1822).
The Rumford Professorship. In addition to his botanical lectures on what would soon become the lyceum circuit, Bigelow held the endowed Rumford Professorship at Harvard. Established to promote the “application of the Sciences to the Useful Arts,” the position entailed the delivery of public lectures, illustrated with demonstrations and models, to show the applicability of science to technology. Bigelow became a popular lecturer and, having considerable mechanical and artistic skill himself, made all of his own models and drawings. In 1829 he collected and published the lectures under the title The Elements of Technology, Taken Chiefly from a Course of Lectures Delivered at Cambridge on the Application of the Sciences to the Useful Arts, Now Published for the Use of Seminaries and Students. Bigelow’s interest in the relationship between science and technology led him to participate in the effort to found the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Professional Activities. In addition to his teaching and lecturing responsibilities and activities as a botanist, Bigelow maintained an extensive medical practice. He held membership in both the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Massachusetts Medical Society, serving as an officer in each for many years. In 1812 he joined with his mentor, Dr. James Jackson, and others in establishing the New England Journal of Medicine. In 1832 Boston’s Board of Commissioners of Health sent Bigelow and two other physicians to New York to investigate the cholera epidemic raging there. Although the real cause of cholera would not be discovered for many years, the sanitary measures that the three men recommended for Boston may well have contributed to the city’s relatively low death rate.
Self-Limited Disease. One of his contemporaries, the celebrated Oliver Wendell Holmes, maintained that Bigelow’s greatest contribution to science and medicine in the United States came in the form of a lecture delivered before the Massachusetts Medical Society in 1835. With his “Discourse on Self Limited Diseases” Bigelow became one of the leading physicians to attack the harsh treatments of “heroic” medicine that had dominated the profession since the late eighteenth century. Bigelow’s influential lectures and writings on the subject played an important part in the gradual restoration of the medical profession to a position of prestige and authority in American society.
George Ellis, Memoir of Jacob Bigelow (Cambridge, Mass.: John Wilson &, Son, 1880).