Young, John Richardson

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(b. Hagerstown, Maryland, 1782[?] d. Hangerstown, 8 June 1804)


Young received his early education at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton), graduating in 1799. Before beginning his formal medical education at the University of Pennsylvania in November 1802, he evidently served as apprentice to his father, Dr. Samuel Young, a native of Ireland who is reported to have received his medical education in Edinburgh. Few other biographical facts are known about John Young or his family beyond the information on their gravestones. His mother, Ann Richardson young, died at the age of thirt-one and two sisters at ages twenty-one and thirty. John himself died in his twenty second year, after a twomonth illness. There is a family tradition that he and his sisters died of tuberculosis. An obituary, describing Young’s fatal illness in detail, suggests this disease. All were survived by the father, who lived to the age of 108, not dying until 1838.

Young’s claim to historical notice rests on his inaugural dissertation for the M. D. deree, An Experimental Inquiry, Into the Principles of Nutrition, and the Digestive Process (Philadephia, 1803), Dedicating this student effort to his father and to Dr. Benjamin Smith Barton, his professor of materia medica, Young argued that “acid” is not nutritious, and that digestion is a process whereby foodstuffs are dissolved in the stomach, are mixed with bile and pancreatic juices in the duodenum, and then converted into chyle by a secretory process in the ducts of the lacteals. He rejected the notion, that digestion involves fermentation and supported the view that the gastric juice naturally contains phosphoric acid. His opinions were supported by a number of animal experiments.

A variety of claims have been made for Young’s contributions to our understanding of gastric physiology and to our methods of experimentation. A study of the knowledge of his time and the work of other scientists and medical students, however, does not support the view that Young’s work should be singled out for special acclaim. There is clear evidence, on the other hand, that even his contemporaries recognized in him a young man of “uncommon talents and great industry,” and, in his work, “a very ingenious Thesis.”


I. Original Works . Note reference in the text . This thesis was republished several times, and recently as facsimile reprint no, 1 in the history science sponsored by the History of Science Society of the University of lIIinionis, with an introductory essay by William C. Rose (Urbana, 1959), His only other writings were two letters published posthumously; “A Case of Tetanus Cured by Mercury,” in Philadelphia Medical and Physical Journal1 (1804), 47–51, and one on the use of Saccharum Saturni in three cases of uterine hemorrhage, ibid 145.

II. Secondary Literature. See Howard A. Kely, “John R. Young, Pioneer American physiologist,” in Bulletin of The Johns Hopkins Hospital29 (1918), 186–191; and Dictionary of American Medical Biography (New York - London, 1928), 1352. D. G. Bates, “American Theapeuties in 1804: the Case of John R. Young,” in Bulletin of the History of Medicine,38 (1964), 226–240 quotes in full the obituary notice of Young and the details of his last illness. In “The Background to John Young’s Thesis on Digestion,” ibid.,36 (1962), 341–361, Bates evaluates Young’s work in the light of the knowledge and research of his contemporaries.

Donald G. Bates