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John Cochran

Photo John Cochran

Surgeons General

JOHN COCHRAN (Sept. 1, 1730 - April 6, 1807), Director General of the Military Hospitals of the Continental Army, Jan. 17, 1781 - Nov. 3, 1783, was born at Sadsburyville, Chester County, Pa., the son of James and Isabelle (Cochran) Cochran.  His parents, cousins to some degree, of Scotch Irish descent, had both emigrated from Ireland. The Cochran family, members of the Dundonald clan, crossed from Paisley, Scotland, to Northern Ireland in 1570 and to Philadelphia about 1700.  John received his early education in the grammar school of Dr. Francis Alison at New London, near his home.  He studied medicine with a Dr. Thompson of Lancaster, Pa., and at the beginning of the French Colonial war in 1755 be joined the Northern army based on Albany.  He accompanied the expedition, headed by Colonel John Bradstreet, which captured Fort Frontenac in 1758, and served with the force of Lord Amherst around Lake Champlain in 1759.  In the expedition against Fort Frontenac he formed a close friendship with Major (later General) Philip Schuyler, who induced Cochran to settle in Albany for practice after the close of hostilities in 1759.  In the next year he married Mrs. Gertrude Schuyler, widow of Peter Schuyler and sister of his comrade in arms.  Soon thereafter he removed to New Brunswick, N. J., where he practiced "physic and surgery" with marked success until 1776.  He was one of the founders of the New Jersey Medical Society in 1766 and in 1769 became its president.  He took an active part in procuring the passage of the act of 1776 to regulate the practice of medicine and surgery in New Jersey, for which he received a vote of thanks from the state society.  An early partisan of the colonies in their difficulties with the mother country, Cochran volunteered for duty without pay in the hospital department of the Continental Army in the latter part of 1776, and, while still occupying that status, collaborated in February 1777 with Medical Director Shippen of the Flying Camp in a plan for the reorganization of the medical service of the army.  This plan, based on that of the British service, received the approval of General Washington who submitted it to Congress from his headquarters at Morristown,    N. J., under date of February 14, 1777.  At about the same time Washington recommended Cochran to the consideration of Congress in the following terms:

"I would take the liberty of mentioning a gentleman who I think highly deserving of notice, not only on account of his abilities, but for the very great assistance which he has afforded in the course of this winter, merely in the nature of a volunteer.  This gentleman is Dr. John Cochran, well known to all the faculty.  The place for which lie is well fitted and which would be most agreeable to him, is surgeon general of the middle department; in this line lie served all of the last war in the British service, and has distinguished himself this winter particularly in his attention to the smallpox patients and  the wounded."

In the reorganization that followed the submission of the plan and in accordance with Washington's resolutions, Cochran was appointed on April 10, 1777, physician and surgeon general of the army of the middle department, which included that part of the theater of war between the Hudson and the Potomac rivers.  In this capacity he served through nearly the whole of the next three years, including the trying winter at Valley Forge.  Cochran's previous military experience and sound judgment made him Shippen's chief reliance for advice and counsel during the latter's term as director general.  He attended the Marquis de Lafayette through a serious illness at Fishkill, N. Y., during the latter part of 1778.  In the reorganization of the medical service which took place in the latter part of 1780, Cochran, presumably the author of the plan, was appointed under date of October 6, 1780, chief physician and surgeon under Shippen as director general.  On the resignation of the latter on January 3, 1781, there were nominated to Congress to fill the place the names of Cochran, James Craik, John Morgan, and William Brown.  On January 17, Cochran was chosen by vote of Congress as Shippen's successor, with Craik promoted to Cochran's former position.  These selections were undoubtedly influenced to some extent by a letter from Washington to a member of Congress, dated October 9, 1780, commending a number of medical officers, but singling out Cochran and Craik for the highest commendation.

In contrast with the experience of his three predecessors Cochran served to the end of the war under happy auspices and to the satisfaction of Congress and the military command.  Though his office was with the headquarters in the field, he did not participate directly in the Yorktown campaign, but remained with the northern forces based on West Point.  While his term as director general was in the main a happy one, it was not without its problems and troubles.  He was immediately faced by a more than ordinary scarcity of medical supplies and by numerous resignations of medical officers.  The latter were due somewhat to their unsatisfactory status, but more particularly to the fact that their pay was badly in arrears.  Legislation favorable on the whole to the medical service was passed.  The medical committee of Congress was abolished and its functions taken over by a Board of War.  Promotion by seniority was established by an act of September 20, 1781, and the offices of chief physician and surgeon of the army and chief hospital physician were abolished on January 3, 1782.  Inspections of the medical service by officers of the Inspector General's Department were instituted by the act of January 10, 1782, and regulations provided for the operations of the medical purveyor's service.

The relative rank of medical officers was fixed by a resolution of Congress January 3, 1781, providing that those who served to the close of the war should be entitled like other officers to half pay for life, the director to the half pay of a lieutenant colonel and the others except mates, to the half pay of a captain. Cochran's outstanding qualities, those that brought him safely through troubled conditions which wrecked the careers of others, were industry, sound judgment, and unfailing tact.  Thacher, the medical historian of Revolutionary days, regarded him highly, saying that “he united a vigorous mind and correct judgment with information derived and improved from long experience and faithful habits of attention to the duties of his profession.  He possessed the pure and inflexible principles of patriotism and his integrity was unimpeachable.  It is gratifying to have this opportunity to express respectful recollections of his urbanity and civilities and of affording this small tribute to his cherished memory.”

He was mustered out of the service November 3, 1783.  His home in New Brunswick having been burned by the British troops he took his family to New York City, and there resumed the practice of medicine.  Shortly after Washington became president in 1789, retaining, to use his own words, “a cheerful recollection of his past services,” he appointed Cochran to the post of commissioner of loans for the State of New York.  This office he held for a number of years, until a paralytic stroke incapacitated him for its duties.  He retired to Palatine, Montgomery County, N. Y., where he resided until his death in his seventy-seventh year.

Source:  L. C. Duncan, Medical Men in the American Revolution, 1775-1783 (1931);  T. H. S.  Hamersly, Complete Army and Navy Register of the United States 1776-1887 (1888);  J. Thacher, American Medical Biography (1828);  Dictionary of American Biography, Vol. IV (1930);  American Medical and Philosophical Biography, 2d Ed.,  I  (1814);   J. E. Pilcher, Surgeon Generals of the Army (1905).

[Extracted from "Chiefs of the Medical Department, U.S. Army 1775-1940, Biographical Sketches,"  Army Medical Bulletin, No. 52, April 1940, pp. 14-17, compiled by James M. Phalen, Colonel, Medical Corps, U.S. Army retired]

For a more recent account of John Cochran, see Morris H. Saffron, Surgeon to Washington: Dr. John Cochran, 1730-1807  (New York: Columbia University Press, 1977).