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James Gilbert New Haven
Posted by: Michael Potter (ID *****1211) Date: June 30, 2012 at 14:50:35
  of 8229


He was the eighth and youngest child and only son of Dea.
James and Eunice (Nichols) Gilbert, and was born in a wood
house which stood on the south-westerly corner of George and
Broad streets, (where the late Dr. V. M. Dow lived and died,)
October 25th, 1779. I can learn little of his childhood except
that he was (very naturally) the pet of the family, and loved
like other boys to tease his sisters. While a member of Yale
College, where he graduated in 1800, his scholarship, it is said,
was of a high order, as "attested by the honors conferred on
him by the faculty."* He was elected into the Phi Beta Kappa
Society; but I do not find that he recieved any ''appointment"
at graduation. During his last year in college, he began the
study of medicine, giving most of his time to Chemistry and
Botany. In the former science, more especially, he made
honorable proficiency, and might, it is thought, have become
distinguished. In the winter of 1801-2, we find him in the
celebrated medical school of Philadelphia, attending the lectures
of Push, Wistar, Barton and Woodhouse. By too close appli-
cation, aided doubtless by unaccustomed confinement, his
health gave way so that he was obliged "to relinquish his plan
of continuing his studies in Philadelphia." Soon after, he
accepted an invitation from Dr. Conklin to settle in Southold
(L. I.), where he practised with reputation for more than two
years. He then (1805) left the place to attend the medical
lectures in New York. At the end of the course, thous:h ura'ed
to establish himself in that city, his friends persuaded him to
return to New Haven.

Dr. Gilbert probably joined the New Haven Medical Associa-
tion as early as the middle of the year 1806. His name is first
mentioned on the record book, November twenty-fifth, 1806.

* For the materials of this notice T am partly indebted to a biographical sketch
of Dr. Gilbert, written by his pupil, the late Dr. Punderson, of this city, and pub-
lished in the Columbian Register, March 14th, 1818, soon after the death of Dr.
Gilbert ; which sketch, with some additions and omissions, was republished in
Thatcher's American Medical Biography, 1828.


It does not again appear, except when meetings were held at
his house, till March fourteenth, 1810, when a letter was read
from him giving notice of his withdrawal from the association.
It is evident from what followed that this was not the beginning
but the clumination of some ''unpleasantness" or personal
difficulty. With the exception of Dr. G. himself, the members
were all present, called together, perhaps, in expectation of the
message. Be this as it may, they were very wroth at the
boldness of the young man, and discoursed m this wise :
"Voted, that as Dr. James Gilbert, lately a member of this,
association, has withdrawn from the same, without assigning
any reasons, that we will withdraw from him so far as not to
consult with him in any medical case until he returns to the
association, and that the clerk notify him of this our vote by
transmitting to him a copy of the same." And then, as if to
give weight to the sentence, and to extinguish any life which
might remain, the names of those present were added as follows :
"Drs. Eneas Munson, Levi Ives, John Barker, Obadiah Hotch-
kiss, Elijah Munson, John Skinner, Nathaniel Hubbard, Elias
Shipman and Eli Ives." The disturber defied his late associates,
and never returned to the fold of the faithful. Indeed, he held
himself aloof from the profession at large (at least formally),
for he never became a member of the Connecticut Medical

In extenuation, it is charged by Gilbert's friends that the old
physicians did not, when he first came to New Haven or after-
ward, treat him cordially. Thinking perhaps that he obtained
business faster than was seemly, "they talked about him," used
detraction when opportunity offered, and made the most of his
mistakes. On the other side, it is affirmed that he was guilty
of practices generally esteemed disreputable resorted to the
tricks of the mountebank to attract notice and secure business.
He wore a broad brim hat. had his coat cut in Quaker style,
and drove at a fast gait in a small, very low, one-seated, queer-
looking vehicle, and pretended that his practice was different
from that of other physicians. These affectations, perhaps in
his case exaggerated, do not win the good opinion of sensible


men. They are the arts of the imposter and capture only fools,
but the fools in medicine are too numerous to be despised.
The explanation is probably this Dr. Gilbert was ambitious
and energetic. Conscious of his own strength, he was deter-
mined to succeed, and used the appliances which for the
moment seemed best suited to his purpose. He acliieved
success a success which his merits, not the appliances,
deserved. Persuaded that he was ill-used ; thinking probably
that open opposition would be more profitable than the hollow
forms of friendship, and confident that he could stand alone,
he cut loose from his medical associates, and thenceforth
pursued his divergent career untrammelled. Steadily with
unfaltering courage, he worked his way upward. His practice
in physic, surgery and obstetrics increased from year to year,
and extended into the neighboring towns. In the mean time,
the necessary intercourse between him and his brethren of New
Haven could not have been governed by much delicacy as to
prescriptive rights or professional etiquette. Dr. Gilbert may
not have been guilty of dishonorable intentions, but his course
in connection with the circumstances named was calculated to
excite jealousy and dislike, particularly in those whose business
interests were perjudiced by his success.

Dr. Gilbert had long cherished the hope of visiting Europe.
After the death of his wife, and the accumulation of some
property, he, in the spring of 1814, sailed from New York for
France. Having attended the hospitals in Paris, he crossed the
Channel, and spent the ensuing winter in the hospitals and
lecture-rooms of London, reading as he had opportunity. In
consequence of unremitting application to study, assisted by an
abstemious diet and the exchange of an active for a sedentary
life, his health again broke down. (Jnwilling to abandon his
purpose, he persevered till spring, when a severe pulmonary
affection came on, threatening a confirmed consumption. By
Sir Astley Cooper's advici', he promptly left London, and re-
turned to America. During the voyage his naturally vigorous
constitution got the better of his disease, and he reached home,
in the spring of 1815, unexpectedly restored.


Dr. Gilbert's triends had not forgotten him in his absence,
and his business speedily returned. He put aside the eccen-
tricities and supposed affectations which before distinguished
him. Taught a lesson in simplicity by his intercourse with
distinguished men abroad, he discarded that foolish little
vehicle, and those whimsically cut garments, and appeared on
all occasions as a plain, unpretending, well-bred gentleman.
Hitherto he had dwelt with his mother under the parental roof,
but he now built a house on Crown street with an office adjoin-
ing, (the latter looking up High street), where he afterward
lived. Here he pursued his profession with augmented zeal
and increasing reputation, giving particular attention to sur-
gery. His health was so good that he was able to endure the
fatigues, irregularities and responsibilities of a practitioner fully
occupied. His fame w^as extending, and about this time he
was elected an honorary member of the Physico-Medical
Society of New York, to which several eminent medical men
of New Haven and Connecticut belonged. But early in
August, 1817, he was taken with what was called catarrhal
fever, which continued several weeks, and- reduced him greatly.
After a partial recovery, and the lapse of several weeks more
without improvement, the symptoms of phthisis once more
appeared. These not yielding to medicine, he determined to
try a milder climate. He sailed from New Haven, December
twenty-sixth, and arrived in Charleston, S. C, January eighth,
1818. The season proving wet and cold, after remaining
several weeks without benefit, he took passage for Havana.
Though alarmed by an " abscess which burst in his lungs" the
day before his expected departure, he sailed at the appointed
time, and died five days out from Charleston, February sixth,
1818. He left a widow and two children, and about $5,000 in
property. His books w^ere appraised at $108.22 ; his medi-
cines, surgical instruments, etc., at $337.48.

The death of Dr. Gilbert was felt to be a great calamity. He
died too early before his sun had reached its zenith and yet
not till he had become distinguished, and given promise of still
greater eminence. It is doubtful whether there has lived in


New Haven another man who acquired in a medical practice
of only ten years a reputation more brilliant and solid. He
had an active, acate, discriminating and philosophical mind,
and a marked individuality of character. His views were
often original, his investigations thorough, and his scholarship
respectable. The aptness and tact which he displayed in the
application of knowledge were remarkable. He had much
theoretical knowledge, but he was also an earnest, enterprising,
assiduous and practical man of business, challenging the
respect of all. I do not learn that his practice was peculiar,
as popularly supposed, unless peculiar mean discriminating.
He had, however, his chosen remedies, and favorite methods
of management, as every observing and skillful practitioner
has. Cantharis was with him an important medicine in the
low, apathetic forms of typhus fever. He gave it, sometimes
to the extent of causing strangury, to wake the dormant ener-
gies and rouse action. He was sometimes accused of "experi-
menting," as doctors are wont to be who are supposed to depart
in the least from the beaten track. In a case of uterine
hemorrhage admitting of no delay, he gathered up some hand-
fuls of snow and applied to the abdomen. The patient died,
and the gossips charged her death to the practice, doubtless
without sufficient reason. The late Dr. Eli Ives used, in his
lectures, to speak of him and of his treatment of disease with
the greatest respect. For surgery he had a predilection. His
quick eye, steady hand and skillful manipulation qualified him
for eminent success in this department. Though his best
energies were given to his profession, his knowledge was not
confined to it. As every physician should be, he was well
informed on all those subjects which most interest the intelli-
gent world outside. A portion of his time was given to
medical instruction. His nephew, the late Virgil M. Dow,
and the late Samuel Punderson, were among his later pupils.
There was in Dr. Gilbert a vein of humor. Near the Milford
road in Orange, he was shown a place where the lightning had
torn up the soil. To the owner of the land, who was standino-
by, he remarked : "Deep into that hole has entered a thunder-


bolt of malleable iron. Whoever finds it will make a fortune."
The hint was taken and the search made ; the excavation which
still remains proving how thoroughly the work was done. Nor
was the doctor indifferent to the sports requiring skill, having
a particular fondness for duck-shooting. Armed with a long
gun, he often went in a boat down the harbor, shooting the bird
on the wing.

Dr. Gilbert was twice married first, to Grace Mix, Septem-
ber, 1808. She died September sixth, 1818, aged twenty-one ;
secondly, to Juliana Tyler, a daughter of Samuel Tyler, of
Wallingford, May, 1816. After the death of Dr. Gilbert, she
married Dr. Joseph Palmer, Jr., and died in Ashford, February
fourteenth, 1821. (See N. H. Herald, March 6, 1821.) His
children, all by his first wife, were Matthew J. ; b. August 14,
1809; d. May 24, 1848, in Ohio: Edward; b. Jan. 9, 1811; d.
August 20, 1813 : Grace E. ; b. August 29, 1813 ; d. December
8, 1833.

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