Swinburne: champion of the limbs

His biographer (perhaps Joseph McKelvey — the book is unclear) barely sketched the early life of Dr. John Swinburne, once Albany’s foremost surgeon. Fatherless and supporting his family at 12, Swinburne nevertheless managed to get an education from local public schools in Lewis County, and then managed to attend the Fairfield Academy, one of the earliest medical schools in the country, in the somewhat remote community of Fairfield in Herkimer County.

“Like the other eminent names which grace our history, starting to work out their destinies from the tailor and shoemaker’s shop, from the tanyard and wood-chopping, and ending with the presidency and vice-presidency, this man, from sleeping on the floor and living on seventy-five cents a week while a student, who has attained the highest pinnacle in his profession, is an eminently typical American.”

His biographer, who while Swinburne was still alive put out “A Typical American, or, Incidents in the Life of Dr. John Swinburne of Albany, the Eminent Patriot, Surgeon, and Philanthropist,” was more than a little impressed with his subject:

“Brave as a Wellington, yet tender as a woman; eminent as a surgeon and physician, yet plain as a man; polished and learned as a gentleman, yet humble as a peasant;  a hater of fraud, chicanery, and dishonesty, yet jealous of no man; constantly moving about among the people, looking only to their interests, sacrificing time and money to make the condition of the masses better; supplying with a liberal hand the wants of the poor, caring for their sick and unfortunate; fighting error and corruption wherever he finds them, either in his profession or in government; and sacrificing all personal comfort for the good of others, — is the man to whom we would lead public thought, knowing that the American people love the brave and humane, and only require to be reminded, to awaken to the according of deserved honors.”

Much of his work, on Civil War or Parisian battlefields, or among the poor who came to his Albany dispensary, was focused on proving that amputation was often unnecessary, that there could be other treatment for wounded limbs. He was running somewhat against the tide on this question. Swinburne wrote:

“On my return to this city in 1871, after an absence of seven years, I was warmly welcomed by the profession; and sought to show the great advance that could be made in surgery by the use of conservative modes. . . in other words, having long known that it was but rarely needful to cut off an injured limb, that the maimed member could almost always be saved; and feeling that to despoil, deform, or to perpetuate deformity in any patient, however poor, of a limb which could by reasonable means be saved, was wrong, and not in accord with the object of our profession, — I undertook to prove, on a scale large enough to obtain conclusive results, that this harm could be avoided. I can only say my efforts have been misunderstood . . . My work has not been done in the dark, and I leave it to the verdict that time may bestow.”

I think time came down on the side of keeping the limbs.

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