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 John Swinburne, M.D.

Biography: A Typical American or, Incidents in the life of Dr. John Swinburne of Albany, New York, 1888.  Compiled and Published by The Citizen's Association, Albany, N.Y.

   

 

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Richard Cosway: Portrait of John SwinburneDr. John Swinburne. He was born in Lewis county in 1820. He was graduated from the Albany Medical College in 1846, and opened here an office for the practice of his profession. He was eminent as a surgeon. He served in his profession in the army during the civil war.

He was also at Paris during the Franco-Prussian war, and received the Cross of the Legion of Honor for lib notable services. He was a professor in this college from 1876 to 1880.

SWINBURNE, John, surgeon and creator of the quarantine station, New York harbor, was born at Deer River, Lewis, CO., N. Y., May 20, 1820. His father died when he was twelve years old, and at that early age he had to face the realities of life, and not only support himself, but contribute to the support of his mother and sisters. He worked on a farm during the summer, and attended the public schools in winter. These poor educational advantages were supplemented by a two years' course at the Fairfield Academy, and in 1842 he entered the Albany Medical College, where he was graduated in 1846, first in his class; having meanwhile entirely maintained himself. He had such a thorough knowledge of anatomy that he was at once appointed demonstrator of the college. Dr. Swinburne filled this position for four vears and then established a private school of anatomy, which he afterwards closed in order to attend to the demands of his large practice.

 

In 1859 and 1861 Dr. Swinburne read papers before the New York State Medical Society that were published in the society reports, mid in the latter year was appointed, by Gen. John F. Rathbone, chief medical officer in charge of the sick at the Albany, N. Y., depot for recruits. The need of surgreons on the battle-field becoming more urgent, the doctor tendered his services to Gov. Morgan as volunteer surgeon without a compensation, find on Apr. 7, 1862, was duly commissioned, and was ordered by Gen. McClellan to repair to Savage Station, which was to be an important point in the approaching conflict.

 

From the Medical and Surgical History:

GENERAL HOSPITAL, Savage Station, Va., July 24, 1862.
General WINDER.
SIR: I address you at this time on behalf of the sick and wounded soldiers now in confinement in your city and at this place.
I had supposed from assurances received from the medical director and purveyor of the Confederate Army that we should not be retained any time within your lines, and hence we remained quiet and have so continued until forbearance has ceased to be a virtue.
When I send a surgeon to look after the interests of the sick and wounded you place him in a lock-up, where he can do no good and can only see patients under guard; only two of these surgeon's have returned to report, and theirs is a sad one.
I send you a copy of my instructions from General McClellan and then ask you--

1. If I can visit the place where the sick and wounded are imprisoned and again return to this place without any obstructions or delay?
2. Are we at liberty to return to our lines in accordance with these instructions, of course under proper regulations which you shall specify and arrange?
3. Can I send or take some of our surgeons who are ill to our transports that they can recuperate? If they stay here they are sure to die. Yesterday we paid the last sad tribute to a departed surgeon of our mess; others will soon go unless relieved.
4. Can we have rations suitable for the sick and wounded? I am sure you do not know the limited and in some instances the absolute bad character of the food furnished for us all. Up to three days since the only rations furnished us was flour and bacon. Yesterday we had rations sent for three days, consisting of good flour, while bacon and shoulders were absolutely filled with maggots. Now if you judge this the kind of food furnished your sick and wounded prisoners North, or is in accordance with the usages of war among civilized nations, you are mistaken. I have had to buy fresh meats for soups and bread to supply the deficiency, since we have no means of cooking flour suitable for the sick. Now I submit that flour and poor bacon alone are entirely unfit for the sick and wounded, since many have died from sheer exhaustion or starvation, and many more will die unless more carefully fed. Many of those taken to Richmond and retained so long in the depot without proper attention have also died. Now, sir, all I ask is to have the sick and wounded who have become the recipients of my care receive the attention due them as prisoners of war agreeably <ar117_278>to the usages of civilized people, and that the surgeons to whose care they are intrusted be treated not as felons but in accordance with the precedents which have been established and which you publish in all your papers as the law of the land. If we cannot be fed in accordance with the common usages of Wary in other words if you have not the material wherewith to feed us so as to keep us from starvation, I feel assured that your elevated sense of humanity will assist us to reach our own lines where we can be attended to. I have seen and attended your sick and wounded at New York, Philadelphia, Fortress Monroe and in this hospital, and have never seen any distinction made between them and our own. Now with the insufficient nourishment supplied us, our own funds failing, what are we to do? I leave the answer to your impulses of humanity and ask you in the name of the common obligations due from man to man that you interpose your dictum and change the status of our condition.
I am, respectfully,

JOHN SWINBURNE,
Surgeon in Charge.
-----
OFFICE COMMISSARY-GENERAL OF PRISONERS,
Washington, D. C, July 24, 1862.

Surgeon Swineburne established there a depot, and was given full powers and command so far as pertained to a surgeon in charge of the sick and wounded. The army of the Potomac retreated from Savage Station on June 29th, and thousands of wounded soldiers were necessarily left on the battlefield. Although Dr. Swinburne was free to retreat with the army, as did the majority of the surgeons, he remained to care for the sick and wounded, braving capture rather than desert his post. He remained in the neighborhood a month until all the wounded were removed. He won the esteem of the Confederate authorities, and paid the same attention to their wounded soldiers as he did to those belonging to the Federal army. Dr. Swinburne applied to Gen. Stonewall Jackson for a pass to visit the various hospitals in the vicinity, where the wounded Federal prisoners were confined, and the general, in granting the pass in a very complimentary note, informed him he was not to be considered a prisoner of war, and that the pass would carry him safely through the lines wherever he desired to go.

 

From the Medical and Surgical History:

CREW'S HOUSE, VA., July 3, 1862.

General R. E. LEE, Commander-in-Chief C. S. Army.
SIR: I am left here by order of General McClellan to look after the welfare of the sick and wounded, and since there are numbers of them placed in temporary hospitals extending from Gaines' house to this place, an area of twelve to fifteen miles, and inasmuch as it is impossible for me to oversee and insure proper attention as to medication, nursing, and food, I would therefore propose that some suitable arrangement be made either for condensing them at Savage Station, that these ends might be attained, or, what would be still more agreeable to the demands on humanity, viz, the unconditional parole of these sufferers. From what I have seen and know of you and your ideas of humanity I feel assured that this application will meet with favor, even if the Federal Government does not recognize the principle of mutual exchange of prisoners. I trust that this rule ought not to be extended to the unfortunate sick and wounded. The real prisoners of war should be treated as belligerents, while humanity shudders at the idea of placing the wounded on the same footing. Your surgeons have performed miracles in the way of kind attention both to us surgeons as well as the wounded. If this proposition does not meet with favor I will, with your approbation, communicate with the Federal Government that some basis of transfer may be arrived at. The majority, in fact <ar117_799> all of the medical directors in your army with whom I have conferred, fully agree with me as to the humanity of carrying out this proposition.
Hoping to hear from you soon, I remain,
Very respectfully, &c.,
JOHN SWINBURNE,
Acting Surgeon in Charge of the Sick.

P. S.--My object of asking an immediate and unconditional parole is that time should be saved and that the sufferers should be relieved more speedily, and as in the case of the surgeons' parole, which I believe was inaugurated by General Jackson, of your army, and advised by Doctor McGuire, so in this I feel assured that my Government could not fail to reciprocate the attention and favor.
I am, &c.,

In 1804 he was appointed by Gov. Seymour health officer of  port of New York, and the Republican legislature at once confirmed the appointment. He was reappointed by Gov. Fentou in 1867. When he assumed control of the quarantine there were absolutely no provisions for effectually carrying out its purpose. There was but one floating hospital, and llii.s vessel was in a leaky condition. During his administration, 1864-70, lie succeeded in constructing, at a minimum cost of $750,000, and in face of the greatest opposition, the present docks and buildings in the lower bay, known as Swinburne Island and Hoffman Island, both built on banks that we're near the surface at low tide, and which to-day constitute the best quarantine in the world. After his retirement from office, Vol.. VII.—3.  and while traveling in Europe in 1870, he was invited to form the American ambulance corps. From his arrival in Paris, Sept. 7, 1870, to his departure, March 18, 1871, his efforts and those of his assistants were such as to excite the wonder of the people and the admiration of the medical profession. The ambulance was conducted on the most extensive scale, with results that far surpassed those obtained by the French surgeons, and the entire expense was defrayed by Americans residing in Paris. The French government decorated Dr. Swinburne a chevalier of Ihe Legion of Honor and with the Red Cross of Geneva in acknowledgment of his services. After he returned from Europe he settled at Albany, where he had an extensive practice. He was elected mayor of that city in 1880, and a member of congress in 1884. He also established the Swinburne Dispensary, wherein 10,000 persons were yearly treated entirely at his expense. As an expert he was, perhaps, more frequently called to the witness stand, in the most important medico-legal cases, than any other member of the medical profession in the stale. Dr. Swinburne's biographer has written that "There is something phenomenally grand in the active, self- denying and busy life of John Swinburne as a surgeon in the battle field; as a health officer contending with the terrible diseases of cholera, smallpox and yellow fever, saving the people from their destructive ravages for years, and finding the means not only to check but to suppress these diseases ; as a philanthropist, establishing sanitariums, hospitals, and dispensaries for the care and treatment of the poor. His quiet benevolence, yet bold aggressiveness in lighting error and corruption in high places, both in professional and official stations, has given his life a charm unequaled in the past, and lias won for him the admiration of the masses of the people." He died at Albany, N. Y., March 28, 1889.

 

His biography has been compiled and published by the Citizens' Association of Albany, N. Y.

 

From the Medical and Surgical History:

 

Medical/Surgical History--Part II, Volume II
Chapter IX.--Wounds And Injuries Of The Upper Extremities.
Section IV.--Injuries Of The Shaft Of The Humerus.

 Dr. JOHN SWINBURNE (Treatment of Fractures of Long Bones by Simple Extension, Albany, 1861, p. 33) proposes to treat all fractures of the shaft of the humerus by extension and counter-extension. He describes his method as consisting in the use of a thin lath or board (FIG. 573) surmounted by a crutch piece, which supports a heavily padded axillary belt (1) secured by tapes (2 2). For convenience in packing, the splint may be folded by the hinge (3). At its lower end some holes are bored (4). The crutch is fitted accurately into the axilla (FIG. 574) and the tapes (3) are carried around and fastened over the shoulder (7). "This crutch apparatus extends from the axilla along the inside of the humerus to about six or eight inches below the elbow. Strips of adhesive pleater (2) are placed longitudinally about the lower end of the humerus so as to form a loop, through which is passed a cord, and thence through a hole in the lower end of the instrument (1) six or eight inches below the elbow; by tightening this cord, extension is made to the normal length of the bone, when it will be seen (FIG. 574) that the arm appears as natural as its fellow. All that now remains is to surround the arm and splint with an occasional strip of adhesive plaster to steady the limb at the seat of fracture. The object of con-nearing the elbow to the apparatus at so great a distance, is that the angle of extension shall not be too obtuse, otherwise it would draw against the splint."

Dr. SWINBURNE sometimes places the splint externally and lets it extend above the shoulder (FIG. 575), so as to make counter-extension more in the axis of the limb. "The splint does not go below the elbow, but is fastened to it by adhesive plaster (2) after full extension is made." The auxiliary belt is passed through holes in the splint (4). Strips of adhesive plaster (2 2) are placed circularly at intervals "to prevent any kind of lateral motion in the parts." The arm thus dressed is kept in a sling (FIG. 576). "These forms of apparatus," the author says, "have succeeded most admirably, and are well adapted to the treatment of fractures occurring in any portion of the humerus, from the surgical neck down to within two inches of the elbow Joint."   (Drawings of the appliances are shown in the Med. and Surg. History.)

(The personal edited research notes of Michael Echols, the source of which may or may not be completely documented)

 

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Civil War Medical Collections 

 

Direct links to all medical & Civil War collections on this site                         

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American Civil War Medicine & Surgical Antiques

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