Cherry Valley, Otsego, NY
Joseph White Biography
By Holice and Debbie
JOSEPH WHITE, M. D.
Joseph White, the subject of this memoir, was born in Chatham, Conn., Sept. 26, 1763. At an early age he had the misfortune to lose his father, and was left an only child, with a widowed mother with scanty pecuniary means, to breast his way alone in the world. During the war of the Revolution he embarked on board of a public armed ship, and was in one or two naval engagements. He remarked that the roar of the cannon affected his organs of hearing so intensely that he was nearly or quite deaf after one of the battles.
His early education, from the necessity of the case, was defective, irregular, and miscellaneous; yet, from his habits of perseverance, and the distinction which he subsequently attained in his profession, it is inferred that it was continually in progress, and that his acquisitions of knowledge were steady, if not rapid.
He exhibited his fondness and preference for the medical profession, and commenced his studies under a Dr. Fuller and a distinguished surgeon names Percival. He applied himself to his studies with such diligence and attention that he was admitted to practice before he had arrived at the age of twenty-one years. Like many of the distinguished men of that early day, as well as in our own time, his circumstances were such that he was obliged to teach school to enable him to prosecute his studies. Soon after receiving his license to practice he came to this State, tarried a short time at Catskill, afterwards stayed about a year at Bowman's Creek in Canajoharie, and, as early as 1787, came to Cherry Valley, where he spent the rest of his active and useful life.
In that early day, cherry Valley was the extreme western outpost of civilization in this State. Books, the scholar's best food, and surgical instruments, then in our cities rude when contrasted with the improvements of the last three-quarters of a century, were difficult to be obtained even by the wealthy, and often forbidden to the enterprising and ambitious. But the genius and experience of Dr. White, then an ardent aspirant for usefulness and distinction, made every help known and attainable to his purpose. He took at once an elevated and enviable stand among his brethren of the profession, and through a long life continued to maintain it. Though his life was one of action, he stole time, when others were sleeping, to become familiar, through the medium of books, with the discoveries and improvement in the healing art, as promulgated by the best practitioners both in this country and in Europe.
His perceptions were quick; but, before he acted in his professional character, he carefully examined and noted all the symptoms, and his judgment was not formed or acted upon until he made use of all the lights in his power. Hence his usefulness, the value of his opinions, and the confidence which his practice enjoined. He filled a large space in his profession, and his calls and rides extended from Albany to Buffalo, about three hundred, and fifty miles asunder, and no one acquainted with his character will pretend that this wide-spread fame rested on anything like quackery or empiricism. He was a friend and admirer of the Baconain philosophy. Induction was with him the governing principle. Theory, however specious, unsupported by facts, had no charms for him, and was no guide to his practice. He read and noted with care all genuine, useful discoveries, and it was wonderful, considering his numerous calls, some of which he even neglected, how well and exactly he knew what each modern had added to the science and practice of physic and surgery, and how readily he applied the acquisitions to each to his own business.
His surgical operations were numerous, and very generally successful. In lithotomy ha had an early and extensive practice. Many cases of this kind, the efforts to cure which seemed desperate, he undertook and performed, and the patients survived to bless and venerate his name after he was gone. As a surgeon, Dr. White had no superior in this State, and few if any equals. He performed for the first time a number of most remarkable operations, which have proved of great service to the medical world. He was deemed a neat as well as scientific operator, and excelled in judgment of the time and necessity for every painful operation.
In 1817 he was chosen president of the medical college of Fairfield, and professor of surgery in the college of Physicians and Surgeons of the western district of New York, located at that place. During that and several successive years he lectured on surgery in that institution. His lectures attracted a respectable number of students thither, and in conjunction with learned and skillful coadjutors, among whom were Drs. Beck and McNaughton of Albany, he rendered the institution popular and useful. He wrote well, and was a clear and forcible speaker. He obtained the highest honors of the profession, and for a period was president of the State medical society; and was also first president of the Otsego county medical society, organized in 1806.
While he loved his profession with the ardor which those destined to adorn either of the learned professions must feel and cherish, he was also a patriot, and was alive to the prosperity and welfare of the republic that had risen into existence before him. In 1794 he was chosen senator for the western district of New York. In 1798 he elected as a member of the council of appointment, when that patriot, John Jay, was governor; and in 1800, during his administration, was appointed first judge of the court of common pleas for Otsego County, of which court he had previously been a side or assistant judge. This station he continued to creditably and usefully fill for more than twenty years, and till the amendments of the State constitution took effect, in 1822. Through that long period of political change and party excitement he discharged his duties as judge with scrupulous integrity and fearless impartiality. He was a Federalist of the Washington school, and gloried in the name when its pure practice had ceased to be fashionable
His industry and economy, which he practiced to the hour of his death, and his extensive professional business soon placed him in affluent circumstances, and in 1793 he purchased a large and beautiful farm, which remained his residence the remainder of his life, and is now occupied by a daughter, widow of Jacob Livingston, Esq., and a granddaughter, Mrs. Cox, widow of the late Abram Cox.
Dr. White died June 2, 1832, in the seventieth year of his age, leaving two sons, Delos and Menso, also celebrated physicians. (The History of Otsego, NY, Duane Hamilton Hurd, 1878)
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Transcribed by Holice B. Young
Copyright Debbie Axtman and Holice B. Young
December 23, 1999