Illustration: Daniel Hertzberg
John Archer 1760 *1763 (1741-1810)

Dr. John Archer 1760 *1763 was the first medical graduate in the American colonies. He owed the achievement to American spleen at the English and the machinations of Princeton College.

After graduating from Princeton with a master’s degree in theology, the usual prerequisite to a life in the ministry, Archer decided to devote his career to the body instead of the soul and enrolled, in 1768, in the medical school of the College of Philadelphia — now the University of Pennsylvania. As the inaugural class in the first medical school in the colonies, Archer and his classmates studied the best and latest “physick” of the era. (Doctors wouldn’t figure out the necessity of washing their hands for another 80 years, but no matter.)

When the time came to graduate, the question on everyone’s minds was who would be the first person to cross the stage at graduation, thus receiving the first medical diploma in the country. These were ambitious years in a young polity, and everyone was jockeying to be the first at something. The class had just nine students, eight of them Americans, one of them English. The faculty, who belonged to a more deferential generation, argued that, as a gesture of gratitude to the motherland, the first diploma should go to the Englishman.

His patients often paid him in trade. One patient gave him 126 pounds of pork; another, four cords of wood; another, a horse and a cow; another, a third of a year’s rent for his church pew.

The American students would have none of this. They worked up a plan to take, after they’d finished their last class, the certificates that showed they’d completed all their classes, then run up to Princeton before their graduation ceremony and use the certificates to ask Princeton College to award them medical diplomas. Princeton was game, apparently, and because its charter allowed it to give medical diplomas — it just never followed up on building a medical school — this plan could have actually worked.

But then the College of Philadelphia wouldn’t get to award the first medical diplomas in the country. Not wanting to relinquish that first, the medical faculty relented. The students crossed the stage in alphabetical order — and so Archer, the first in the alphabet, was the lucky man to earn the first diploma.

Archer returned to his home in Maryland and set about building a busy medical practice, as John Finney 1884 writes in a lively account of his career. He treated ague, fever, smallpox, and somewhat happier conditions like childbirth, trekking all over the countryside on horseback with saddlebags packed full of medical equipment. Once, when someone came to his house looking for him, his wife said drily, “There’s a man by that name who gets his washing done here.”

His patients often paid him in trade. One patient gave him 126 pounds of pork; another, four cords of wood; another, a horse and a cow; another, a third of a year’s rent for his church pew. For his treatments, he favored purging, which had a centuries-old reputation as a panacea. In one handwritten prescription, labeled “Treatment of the Small Pox,” he instructs a family to glut themselves with jalap, a purgative drug:

“They are to take their first purges in morning after the 3rd pill, which will be on Saturday the 8th in the morning, Mrs. Amos is to take two of her purging pills on Saturday night, four next morning, to repeat two every three hours until she has a loose motion. They are to wash down their purges with small beer, gruel, or broth. Their second purges are to be taken on Tuesday morning the 11th, if their sinus inflame. Their child is to take a little magnesia a day after the second purge.”

In his notes on interesting cases, he documented another first: the country’s first recorded stomach suture. Apparently, a shoemaker got in a brawl and used one of his shoemaking knives to slit his adversary. Afterward, the shoemaker, feeling guilty, grabbed his needle and used his own training to sew the wound closed. When a doctor arrived, he said he could not improve upon the stitch, and let it be. The patient returned swiftly to health.