(b. St. Croix, Virgin Islands, ca. 1755; d. St. Croix, 26 September 1834)
Steven’s father, Thomas, a prosperous merchant, was reputedly also the father of Alexander Hamilton. Nothing is known of his mother. In his youth Stevens moved with his family to New York. He graduated A.B. from King’s College (now Columbia University) in 1774; and the following year he began studies at the University of Edinburgh, enrolling in the medical school in 1776 and again in 1777. He graduated M.D. on 12 September 1777.
Stevens’ inaugural dissertation, “De alimentorum concoctione,” presented with ingenuity and insight his experiments and observations on gastric digestion, and clearly confirmed him as the first investigator to isolate human gastric juice. It removed the confusion and contradictions presented in the doctrines of fermentation and trituration, the latter championed by Leeuwenhoek, Borelli, Pitcairn, and Pecquet, and decried by Astruc and Stephen Hales. It also repudiated such views as those of John Pringle and David Macbride. Stevens’ work formed a vital bridge linking the experiments of Réaumur before him and Spallanzani and later workers after him. Réaumur had shown, in 1752, that digestion was due to the solvent power of gastric juice. Stevens confirmed this, isolated human gastric juice, and performed experiments both in vitro and in vivo in man and animals.
Stevens was admitted to the Royal Medical Society (Edinburgh) on 20 January 1776 and served as its president in 1779 and 1780. At Edinburgh he was awarded the Harveian prize for an experimental inquiry on the red color of the blood. He returned to St. Croix about 1783 and practiced medicine there for ten years. In 1793 Stevens moved to Philadelphia. where he received public support from Alexander Hamilton and became embroiled in a controversy with Benjamin Rush over methods of treating yellow fever in the great epidemic of that year. On 18 April 1794 he was admitted to the American Philosophical Society, and the following year he was appointed professor of the practice of medicine in King’s College (later Columbia University). It is probable that Stevens’ presence and reputation in Philadelphia, as well as his contributions in gastric physiology, contributed to the marked interest in gastric studies that took place round the turn of the century in that city. Of these studies, that of John R. Young is best-known. He undoubtedly was familiar with Stevens’ work; indeed, his experiments with bullfrogs and small frogs are reminiscent of Stevens’ observations of partially digested small fish inside larger ones.
Stevens was United States consul-general in Santo Domingo from 1799 to 1800. His consular dispatches to Timothy Pickering, Adams, Jefferson, and other leaders, revealing a critical, observant mind, outlined the geopolitical problems facing the United States in the Caribbean at that time. Controversy marred his political life, however, and he returned to the United States in 1801. He made appearances at the American Philosophical Society meetings in 1803 and 1804, probably returning to St. Croix shortly thereafter. Little is known of Stevens’ last years. David Hosack wrote to him in St. Croix on yellow fever in 1809, and in 1823 he wrote Hosack a letter introducing his son, who had also graduated at Edinburgh.
Stevens’ fundamental and sound gastric studies were confirmed by Spallanzani, who augmented and added to them in masterly fashion, assuring that from then on, gastric physiology would be a well-founded science.
I. Original Works. “Dissertatio inauguralis de alimentorum concoctione” (1777) is transcribed, in the original Latin, in Thesaurus Medicus, III (Edinburgh, 1785), a selection of medical dissertations from Edinburgh, repr. by William Smellie. An incomplete English trans. of the experimental section is appended to Spallanzani’s Dissertations Relative to the Natural History of Animals and Vegetables (London, 1784). In 1778 Stevens read a paper to the Royal Medical Society of Edinburgh entitled ’What Is the Cause of the Increase of Weight Which Metals Acquire During Their Calcination.” A MS copy is in the library of Edinburgh University. No copy appears to have survived of Stevens’ Harveian prize thesis, “An Experimental Inquiry Concerning the Red Colour of the Blood.”
II. Secondary Literature. Stevens has received remarkably little attention. Stacey B. Day appears to be the only one who has endeavored to piece together his life and to correct the fragmentary and incorrect notes that are commonly found. See Stacey B. Day and Roy A. Swanson, “The Important Contribution of Dr. Edward Stevens to the Understanding of Gastric Digestion in Man and Animals,” in Surgery, 52 no. 5 (1962), 819–836. The most comprehensive account available is Stacey B. Day, Edward Stevens, Gastric Physiologist, Physician and American Statesman, With a Complete Translation of His Inaugural Dissertation De Alimentorum Concoctione and Interpretive Notes on Gastric Digestion Along with Certain Other Selected and Diplomatic Papers (Cincinnati–Montreal, 1969), which presents most of the biographical details of Stevens’ life known today. Possibility of his kinship with Alexander Hamilton is examined. The book presents the first complete English trans. of “De alimentorum concoctione” a trans of the German précis by Friedrich August Weiz (1782); the exchange of letters between Stevens and Benjamin Rush: the controversy between these two physicians over the treatment of yellow fever; and a review of Stevens’ role as United States consul-genseral in Santo Domingo. The book Provides reference sources: Jefferson MSS, Pickering MSS, Hamilton Papers, Stephen Girard Papers, National Archives records, and source materials in Edinburgh and elsewhere.
Stacey B. Day