The history of West Point during its earliest years has always been a topic of importance to researchers of early United States medicine.
The following article details this important piece of our local history.
The purpose of this page is to put into context a variety of other topics covered throughout this site, especially regarding late Colonial and early post-colonial medicine.
Even though this article tells us little about the roles of doctors in the military during the earliest post-Revolution Years, we can still produce an impression of what these doctors were like. The historical medical books and journals like to rely upon the very prejudicial pre-war writings in which the United States physicians are a blending of untrained, poorly trained, family trained, and on occasion European trained and well apprenticed physicians. But this period of United States history, since it is so closely attached to the Revolutionary War period, is very much a consequence of numerous acts passed by State and National congressional members. Much of the first years of United States history and many of its physicians were military-trained, as post-war foot patrol members, usually assistances to a field surgeon whose responsibility it was to treat injuries, infection and chronic diseases experienced by members of the local militia.
A number of biographies I review (along with some yet to be reviewed and added) are of these types of physicians. We see the role of military medicine in the training of the younger children (probably James and most certainly Peter) of Dr. Cornelius Osborn, a Surgeon and Physician active during the Revolution. We see a similar history for Quaker doctor Shadrach Ricketson, who was trained by a ship surgeon active during the war. Perhaps unlike his teacher Shadrach had a strong tendency to belive in metaphysical medicine, which during this time was reaching its first period of influence in American medicine. Suspended animation was now an accepted paradigm on life; the fact that a person could seemingly pass away, only to have his or her soul recovered and the body brought back to life with the help of the newly discovered skill of artificial respiration, or the use of an electrical shock to revitalize the body, each of these medical discoveries had their believers and their dissenters. Some parts of this paradigm fit the military way of thinking, although military men and leaders tended to remain more attached to the physical world, but the likelihood that this would lead to any major changes in how medicine and surgery were practiced on the battlefield seemed very little.
We know that as a part of the Hudson Valley, West Point cadets were surrounded by physicians and individual with opposing points of view. To the north, the locally famous Caleb Childs, given his license to practice in 1798, was a strong promoter of medical electricity. Nearby, in the rapidly growing hamlet of Wappingers, there was Cornelius Remsen (b. Newtown, LI, removed to Fishkill, c1800), Revolutionary War physician Cornelius Osborn’s nephew. Cornelius Remsen was trained specifically in the new medicine then being taught by Bartow White, the son of Revolutionary War Surgeon Ebenezer White of Westchester County area, and later served as a surgeon in the War of 1812. Another physician of the immediate vicinity was Dr. Van Voorhis of Fishkill, also trained by Bartow White, and who at a very young age decided to serve the Government and President Thomas Jefferson as a doctor, removing to the first Fort to be built at Chicago–Fort Dearborn–in 1803. Less than a year later he was killed due to an Indian Raid.
Military medicine formed an essential part of profession between 1790 and 1806/8. This is when state laws were passed no longer supporting the state’s and local government’s desires to secure field surgeons and surgeons’ mates as part of their State government-defined security and militia requirements. The 1797 Act was poorly written and not really promoted or enforced. By 1794/5, military training seemed to be the only way to go for those without connections. After the 1797 licensure Act, this belief on how best to learn remained unchanged. From 1797 on there are good enrollment and service records for foot soldiers indicating this to be a norm (Bartow White appears in these beginning 1799). This continued into the early 1800s, but by 1805 there were some habitual practices that included recommendations and perhaps even requirements that anyone serve a year or two before being allowed to practice. However, 1805 was the last year this was an assumed standard.
In 1806 the state laws for validating a person’s right to practice medicine required state committee or medical board approval and an oral exam; this same law made sure military service was not required of any and all wishing to become physicians.
The military topics of study other than medicine were interesting, to say the least, during these first two decades of United States history. It was typical at this time for those interested in Natural Philosophy to become intersted in medicine, and any cadets who wanted to become surgeons were probably inspired by this topic and its teacher(s). Natural philosophy was not the first topic to be officially taught at West Point however. The first official classes with teachers were in the Arts and in French, not at all topics we expect to see promoted at such a school during its first official combined classroom and tutoring years. We can only assume that the students at this institution spent most of their time training in military skills, a topic for which official classes had not been developed, just the most widely accepted forms of military exercises, some produced and taught by followers of the Fishkill Site educators in military practices who came here from France and Germany.
The earliest teachers to be employed at West Point–specialists in French and Drawing–seem to be strange topics for a military school to have. However, this seemingly lopsided way of employing outsiders to become west point teachers was probably the main reason West Point cadets came to learn the earliest skills in facial recognition and how to use this skill to identify spies, enemies and criminals. This was the craft of the very unique artisan known as a physiognomist or physiognomotracer. (See coverage on this topic in a much larger section elsewhere.) The primary physiognomist to introduce physiognotracing and physiognomy teachings to the region was one of West Point’s French teachers. His own removal to New York may have been a consequence of the French Revolution a decade earlier, if not directly, then at least due to the exposure of US citizens for the first time to the language, music, arts, and philosophy of the French during the very late 18th century. The French Language teacher’s teachings of Lavater’s work are evidenced by a book on this topic (Lavater’s Pocket Book) once in possession of the Military Library (again covered elsewhere). It is also no coincidence that the French are the first to perfect this practice of knowing people–such a skill common to 1800 to 1840 mimics some early form of psychology and criminal psychology then being promoted. If the French Revolution alone was not enough, then the Napoleanic War further promoted this recognized need for training United States military leaders in western European languages like French. Like the German March and its music, or the teachings and philosophy of Lafayette, the skills of drawing and the art of foreign language were more than just crafts to a West Point Cadet-turned-Graduate, they were essential skills needed for a new military leader to find work at home or abroad, both on and off the battlefield.
The following historical events are noted either in this article (regular text), or on related pages at this site (italics).
- 1790 – General Knox states the need for a military school
- 1793 – George Washington’s Speech
- 1794, May 7 — Congress passes an act on Military, includes 10 cadets.
- 1796 – George Washington’s recommends military school in his speech
- 1797 – An early version of the medical licensure act is passed.
- 1798, March – a strong advocate of vital force thinking gets his medical degree from Justice Livingston. This sets the stage for further promotion of the medical electricity philosophy throughout the valley from 1802 (when a Thomas Gale’s book printed in Troy is published on it) to about 1815.
- 1798 – Congress passes an act to increase the military; recruitment increases to 56 cadets
- 1802, March 16 — “Military Peace Establishment” defined with 10 cadets enrolled in the 27th Section stationed at West Point
- 1803, Feb. 28 — Two teachers assigned: French and Drawing
- 1806 – Alden Partridge graduates from West Point. Presumably he initiates his surveying of the mountain ranges in the Hudson Valley and from there into nearby ranges and states. This is when the strategic position used to lay one of the first beacons of the Revolutionary War, Mt. Beacon’s north peak, was replaced by recommended use of the nearby ridge (south peak), found to be 50 to 100 feet higher.
- 1806 – A more complete version of the medical licensure act is passed, implemented, and strongly enforced.
- 1809 – Thomas Jefferson, concerned with quality of West Point staff and military, redefines this institute and its learning and teaching responsibilities and process. The government now has control of this facility. 156 additional members were then added to the Corps of Cadets.
- 1809 – Alden Partridge promotes his findings of the local topography and climate, using an innovative technique–the measure of barometric pressures — to define the elevation of a place. This survey and its subsequent information are considered highly valuable by NY Congressman, Samuel Mitchell. Physicians by now are interpreting this information with respect to disease causality and epidemic/endemic event patterns.
- 1810 – Partridge presents his findings publically at the Lyceum in New York City. Over the next two years he perfects this methods and republished a corrected set of findings regarding the local elevations.
- 1812, April 29 — the Academy and Corps of Engineers are better defined. Natural philosophy, math and engineering professors are finally added to the staff. These teachers are provided with assistants. 1802 to 1812 constituted earliest Corps of Engineers years, with General Jonathan Williams in charge.
- 1812-1815 — Math, French and Drawing are major topics being taught. Math, Natural Philosophy and Engineering professors noted. A mathematics professor was busy surveying the local coastline. Captain Alden Partridge becomes Prof. of Engineering.
- 1815 – Captain Alden Partridge appointed as Superintendent. Relieved of duty in 1817.
- 1820 – Prof. of Chemistry James Cutbush is noted.