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This biography is from ANNALS of the Medical Society of the County of Albany, 1806-1851, by Sylvester D. Willard, M. D.

John Stearns

There are few names in the Annals of American Medical Biography deserving of more honorable mention than that of John Stearns. Not that his achievements in his profession were either bold or brilliant, but that through a long life he devoted himself with unwearied assiduity to the care of the sick, and to advancing the interests, and contributing to the science of a noble profession. His eminent position among men distinguished in professional life was not suddenly thrust upon him, but gained as the reward of unceasing application in the work to which his life was set apart.

John Stearns was born in Wilbraham, Massachusetts, on the 16th day of May, 1770. He was early fitted for college, and was graduated at Yale with distinguished honor in 1789. His medical studies were prosecuted with Dr. Erastus Sergeant of Stockbridge until 1792, when he went to Philadelphia and attended the lectures of Shippen, Wistar, Rush, and others at the University. The year following, in 1793, he entered upon practice, near Waterford in the county of Saratoga, New York, where in 1797 he married a daughter of Colonel Hezekiah Ketchum. Dr. Stearns pursued the ordinary duties of his profession with success, and more than this, the energies of a vigorous mind, and the sympathies of a generous heart were cordially enlisted to elevate the dignity, and extend the usefulness of his profession, to incite vigorous measures for a radical reform among its members, and to relieve it from the odium of ignorance and empiricism. He believed, and well, that as the public mind became enlightened, it would abstain from the dangers of charlatanry. A series of newspaper articles appeared in Saratoga, relative to the importance of establishing Medical Societies, and a society was instituted in the county of Saratoga, about the year 1800, but it was composed of discordant materials for a scientific body, and was ultimately dissolved.

In November, 1805, a meeting was held at Ballston inviting the cooperation of the physicians of the adjoining counties of Washington and Montgomery, and a printed circular was issued calling the attention of the profession to the importance of legislation on the subject. The leading spirit in this enterprise was John Stearns of Saratoga. Associated with him were William Patrick and Grant Powell. The meeting was adjourned to January 16th, 1806, when the friends of the measure met and memorialized the legislature, for the establishment of a medical society. The memorial did not at first contemplate that it should embrace more than the three counties of Saratoga, Montgomery, and Washington. Fortunately for the cause of science, Dr. Alexander Sheldon of Montgomery was elected speaker of the assembly in 1806. The memorial was referred to a committee of the house, a majority of which were medical men, who upon examining the subject became at once in favor of making a general law for the whole state. A bill was matured and presented to the house, and strange to record, it met with a powerful opposition, and feeble hopes were entertained of its success. The bill had been wisely framed, and at the critical juncture of its final passage, the honorable William W. Van Ness became its most eloquent and powerful advocate. In a speech of remarkable parliamentary eloquence he refuted the arguments of the opposition to the bill, and portrayed its benefits with such zeal and energy, that its success became certain. The law was enacted April 4, 1806. To this new institution the Medical Society of the State of New York, whose inception was received from John Stearns, it would be almost needless to add that he gave it his future influence. He was elected its Secretary at the first meeting in 1807, and continued to fill the office for several years. In 1807, Dr. Stearns communicated to the profession through Dr. Ackerly, in an article published in the^leventh volume of the New York Medical Repository, his observations on the medical properties of ergot in facilitating parturition. Whatever may have been known of this substance before, Dr. Stearns was the first to elicit attention to it, in the United States, and his observations were doubtless original.

In 1809, he was elected to the senate of the state ofNew York, and served as senator for four years until 1813. He removed to Albany in 1810, and for nine years was actively engaged in practice, enjoying largely the public confidence. The Regents of the University conferred upon him the honorary degree of Doctor of Medicine in 1812. In 1817, he was elected President of the Medical Society of the State of New York, and was deservedly reelected in 1818, 1819, and 1820. No other person has for so many years occupied this distinguished position. On the anniversary of each election, he delivered the annual address, except on the last, when he was detained from being present, and it was communicated through a friend. The subject of each presents an entirely different range of thought, and evinces a mind familiar with the learning of his profession.

In 1819 Dr. Stearns removed to New York, where formany years he adorned the profession, and contributed largely to the medical periodicals of the day. Upon the organization of the New York Academy of Medicine in 1846, it was appropriate that its first President should be a man distinguished for honorable position, for liberality of sentiments, for devoted love to the profession, for consistency, uprightness, and purity of character. The selection might properly have been made from such men as Cook or Francis, or John B. Beck, but the mantle of office fell upon John Stearns, then venerable in professional life. In his address before the Academy on its final anniversary he enjoins upon its members "That no impostor obtain admission within its sacred walls. Let the inscriptions of your portals be esto perpetua ; remember it is consecrated to health, to happiness, and to harmony, which I trust will always be its prominent characteristics, and may it be the nursery of thousands and tens of thousands, and rise like the sun in all its meridian glory to shed its scientific rays over the whole world." At the close of the address he says: "Could I be assured of the uninterrupted, enduring prosperity of the Academy, in disseminating health, happiness and sustaining principles of life, I should die in peace with effusions of gratitude and praise to Almighty God for his permanent blessings upon our labors."

A little more than one year later, on the 18th of March, 1848, Dr. Stearns died a martyr to the profession in which he had so long lived. His life was the last oifering that he could lay upon its altars. His death occurring as the result of a poisoned wound. He was in the 79th year of his age. His private life was adorned by the virtues of Christianity. Several years since, in leaving St. George's church, New York, my eye rested gratefully on a tablet near the entrance, on which was inscribed the name of John Stearns.

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