How do we compare our heroes from the past? Quite often our measure is based on the popular opinions we learn from others. Using such a gauge, individuals with great skills and accomplishments are often left in obscurity by concurrent events and their successes become “interred with their bones”. So it has been with the truly amazing man named John Allan Wyeth (1845-1922), a Confederate soldier and an outstanding surgeon. Other than in his native State of Alabama his story has become a faint one compared to more widely proclaimed contemporaries. With Sabre and Scalpel, The Autobiography of a Soldier and Surgeon clearly demonstrates the intellect, moral fibre, and outstanding accomplishments of a southern boy marching into manhood and a successful medical career. Told as a primary source of history, this book projects first hand observations and opinions in a flowing narrative.
The list of Wyeth’s accomplishments both as a soldier, prisoner, student, and surgeon are truly incredible. His real time observations of individuals of the era, such as John Brown, often differ from those projected in history books. Still they hold the authority of personal observation of an intelligent contemporary. The excellent description of places and events projects the reader into his world allowing a personal reliving of the elements of this man’s interesting life.
This is a good read for the student of both southern history and American Medicine. It outlines the remarkable adaptability both of John Wyeth as an individual and the society of Medicine as a whole. Personal ability triumphs in the face of considerable political adversity. Pick up this older autobiography and you will receive incredible inspiration and knowledge from our American past.
The early portion of this work describes the geography and economy of the rural south in the beginning of the nineteenth century. Wyeth offers a detailed review of the elements of wilderness and pioneer settlement of the northern Alabama region. The story of his interaction with the White and Black population of the area, along with the struggles of living in a primitive rural environment, present a dramatic contrast to his ultimate disposition as a New York surgeon and President of the American Medical Association. The intervening time period describes the growth of a country -boy to industrious Physician. As the War begins the reader is led to feel the excitement and urgency of the politics of the time and the boy’s need to participate despite youthful restrictions. As one reads forward it is clear that the danger and intensity of involvement with Morgan’s Calvary leading to participation in the Battle of Chickamauga mould the boy into manhood. After this battle his events are left for discovery by the reader as are the trials that follow. The post war education of Wyeth is indeed remarkable when one realizes how many Confederate Veterans returned to their devastated homeland only to pass their life in despair and poverty. Not so with Wyeth. His experience with a southern medical education spurred a drive to become an expert in his Profession. A desire for completeness led to international experiences in medicine. Wyeth’s tenure at Belleview Hospital in New York City is clearly outlined and his recognition for professional dedication is heartening. One learns of the magnificent contributions of this man to American Medicine and to his students in the later portion of this work.
This is a remarkable read and prompts one to test his other works like The Life of Lieutenant- General Nathan Bedford Forrest or A Historical Essay on the Struggle for Oregon. The possibility of success for the diligent and capable individual is a clear message from the life of John Allan Wyeth.
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Jackson Evans Butterworth, Jr., M.D.
2 June 2014