If Dr. Jeremiah Barker (1752-1835) had ever printed his landmark study, “Diseases in the District of Maine, 1772-1820,” it would almost certainly have become a standard on Maine bookshelves. Odds are it might also have been selected, in 2000, by the University of Maine and the Baxter Society book club as one of the 100 books of enduring value to represent our state over the centuries. It is full of information and case studies that are available nowhere else, and it provides a unique view of Mainers and medical practices during the Federal Period.

Cover courtesy of Oxford University Press

As it happened, Dr. Barker completed the manuscript, published a prospectus, to which more than 100 readers subscribed, and then failed to ever bring it to book form. The text, prospectus and attendant material remained in the family until 1942, when Barker’s great grandson, J. Henry Clark, presented the lot to the Maine Historical Society. And there it sat until July 2020, the publication of “Diseases in The District of Maine, 1772-1820: The Unpublished Work of Jeremiah Barker, A Rural Physician in New England.”

A historian and a doctor, Richard J. Kahn puts the fascinating story of the physician and his lifelong work into beautiful context, including clues to why it never saw print until 200 years after it was written.  To say that  Kahn, the author-editor and a resident of Rockport, knows his stuff would be an understatement. Kahn paints a picture of 18th and early 19th century life by illuminating the earliest firsthand account we have from a doctor in Maine. By weaving together the story of the remarkable Jeremiah Barker with details about the state of medical practice at that time in America, Kahn has produced a masterpiece.

Readers of Myrtle Lovejoy’s “This Was Stroudwater” (1985) will have learned a bit about the doctor and the house he built, which still stands at 1168 Westbrook Street. “Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Barker was that had five wives,” Lovejoy wrote. “Though the marriages occurred at seemly intervals, the number and life spans of the brides do not speak well of Jeremiah’s medical success.”

Where Lovejoy focused on Portland’s Colonial and Federal period architecture, Kahn tells us far more about the man and his enduring contributions to Maine and American medical history. Born in Scituate, Massachusetts, Barker apprenticed under Dr. Bela Lincoln. The latter had an M.D. from King’s College in Aberdeen, Scotland, and as Kahn writes, “…apprenticeship was in Barker’s time the most common form of training for American physicians who had any training at all, bearing in mind that one could simply hang out a shingle and declare oneself a physician, and remembering that there were only two medical schools in the colonies, neither of which was in New England.”

In 1772, Barker was invited to Newcastle in the Massachusetts District of Maine to deal with an epidemic of “malignant fever.” After a year he returned to Massachusetts proper, then joined the Penobscot Naval expedition of 1779 as a military surgeon. Though this disaster was the worst American Naval defeat before Pearl Harbor, Barker made out alright. “I have saved a good assortment of medicine from the flames of our ships,” he wrote. “This gave me some advantage, as medicine was scarce, and I soon commanded an extensive range of practice into all the towns of the county.” The next year he and his wife took up life in Gorham, and in 1800, they moved to Stroudwater.

In addition to faithfully reproducing Barker’s two volume manuscript history, Kahn’s volume greatly enhances the original by adding an Epilogue Glossary of Medical Terms, Bibliography, and Author and Subject Indexes, thus giving the average reader quick access to arcane terms and practices.

“Although Barker displayed an unusual scholarly approach to medicine, demonstrated by his determined efforts to use, cite and add to the medical literature, he may be considered an ‘Average physician,’ Kahn wrote, in that “he had only preceptorship.” That meant Barker had formal training but no college education, Kahn explains, and further that Barker did not practice nor teach in the large cities or medical schools.

Kahn describes how Barker corresponded with his colleagues up and down the East Coast and beyond to share medical information as well as his own work, which appeared in medical journals. Of particular interest is his correspondence with America’s best-known and most influential physician, Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia. Kahn reproduces their letters, with footnotes in abundance, showing that even Downeast, a practicing doctor could be aware of many of the latest advances in the field, and write of his own observations, successes and failures. Writing about complaints against his practice, Barker notes he was “accused of using alkaline in ‘putrid fevers,’ which had been considered by some physicians, as tending to promote putrefaction and dissolving the blood!”

Some of the case studies he presents are soul searing. Stephen King himself might have nightmares over Esther White, a cancer patient of Barker’s. The disease  “destroyed the whole of the face, skin & muscles, as well as bones, except about half the lower jaw. For six months previous to her death, she had become a moving spectacle of horror, her bodily health being perfectly good; but totally blind, deaf, and speechless,” Barker wrote. “She prepared her own food, after it was cooked and with a spoon or her fingers, put it into the esophagus or passage to the stomach.”

“Diseases in the District of Maine” opens a remarkable window on our region at the time of statehood.

William David Barry is a local historian who has authored/co-authored seven books, including “Maine: The Wilder Side of New England” and “Deering: A Social and Architectural History. ” He is at work on a history of the Maine Historical Society. He lives in Portland with his wife, Debra, and their cat, Nadine.


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