Annamaria on Monday
The heart-bursting truth is that amid the worst moments on the planet good human beings can do the right and the achingly beautiful thing.
Case in point: The Quaker Doctor—John Jay Terrell
During the American Civil War, most of the fighting took place in the State of Virginia. Ordinarily in previous wars, the injured remained near where they fell, treated as best as could be arranged in tents. But with the railroad nearby, in 1861, wounded confederate soldiers were taken to Lynchburg, where all the available spaces were turned into makeshift hospitals.
Fate had been preparing a hero to receive them.
John Jay Terrell was born nearby in 1829, the son and grandson of physicians. His family were Quakers. In those days, most doctors were trained through apprenticeship, but John decided on a formal education in modern medicine at Emory and Henry College and then at Jefferson College in Philadelphia—where he graduated first in his class in 1853.
As Quakers, John’s family had moved away from the slave-holding state, but he returned to his family’s ancestral homestead after completing his education. He had barely settled into life back home near Lynchburg when the Civil War broke out. One would have expected a Quaker to be a conscientious objector. He could have paid someone to serve in his place, but he could not bring himself to put another man in danger in his stead, so he joined the Confederate Army. Rather than waste his talents on the battlefield, Dr. W. O. Owen, chief of staff assigned him to help the wounded.
Pest houses were common in those days, places—usually located near or in the public cemetery—where people suffering from communicable diseases would wallow in filth until their illness saw them off. During the Civil War, the Lynchburg Pest House was hell. Full of soldiers suffering from smallpox, attended by nurses who did little but guzzle the booze meant to be stave off the pain of the suffering. You can hardly blame them. What would it have taken for any of us to go to work in such danger and squalor? J. J. Terrell volunteered to work there.
He waded in, armed with new ideas about health and cleanliness from his recent formal training. With him went a Jesuit priest, Father Gache’ and Catholic nuns of the Daughters of Charity. John’s new fangled techniques, ridiculed by the local medicos as Quaker fetishes, included using a thermometer, boiling instruments. injecting medicine into the sick person, and chloroforming patients undergoing an operation. Terrell cleaned up the dirt, made sure the patients were kept clean and warm, painted the interior wall of the rooms black to keep the light low and soothe their eyes. He had their bodies oiled to cut down on bed sores and pain.
He also vaccinated the well, using cowpox from a sick cow he had shipped in from Maryland. In the process, he also inoculated the local slave children.
Terrell’s methods reduced the death rate in the Pest House from 75 to 5 percent!
After the war, John Jay Terrell returned penniless to his ancestral home in the nearby countryside. He practiced medicine there until he died at age 94.
His story is a tribute to the healing power of human kindness. He is memorialized in the Pest House Museum in the Historic public cemetery in Lynchburg.