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HISTORY OF THE OFFICE OF MEDICAL HISTORY
JAMES CRAIK (1730 - Feb. 6, 1814), Physician General of the United States Army, July 19, 1798 - June 15, 1800, was born on the estate of Arbigland in the parish of Kirkbean, County of Kirkcudbright, near Dumfries in Scotland.; His father, Robert Craik, a member of the British Parliament, had a gardener, John Paul, whose son, born on the estate emigrated to Virginia and under the name of John Paul Jones became America's most famous naval hero. James Craik is said to have been an illegitimate son, but was acknowledged, protected, and educated by his father. He took his academic and medical training at the University of Edinburgh, joining the medical service of the British army immediately after graduation. In 1751 he went to the West Indies as an army surgeon but resigned soon thereafter, settling in Norfolk, Va., where be began medical practice. Later he removed to Winchester, a frontier village and the base for military operations to the West. On March 7, 1754, he was commissioned surgeon of the Virginia Provincial Regiment, commanded by Colonel Joshua Fry. With this force, later commanded by George Washington, he participated in the capture of the French force at Great Meadows and in the surrender of Fort Necessity to the French. In this campaign began the lifelong friendship of Craik and Washington. In 1755 Craik was with Braddock's army in the ill-fated advance against Fort Duquesne, was in the thick of the battle in which the English were routed by the French under Beaujeu and their Indian allies under De Langlade. He dressed the wounds of Braddock on the field and attended upon him until his death on the following day near Great Meadows.; He accompanied the retreating army to Fort Cumberland and later accompanied Washington to Winchester, Va. Here from 1755 to 1758 Washington was in command of the Virginia provincial forces charged with the protection of the Virginia and Maryland frontier from the depredations of hostile Delawares, Shawnees, and Mingos from the valleys of the Allegheny, Muskingum, and the Scioto branches of the upper Ohio. Craik was the chief medical officer and shared in all the hardships and privations of these hardy troops until the fall of Fort Duquesne on November 25, 1756. Following this event and the consequent cessation of Indian raids, Craik retired from the army and bought a plantation at Port Tobacco, Maryland, where he established himself for medical practice and built himself an imposing home. Here he brought his bride, Marianne Ewell, of Prince William's County, Virginia, whom he married on November 13, 1760. She was the great-aunt of General Richard S. Ewell of the Confederate army. In 1770 he accompanied Washington on a trip into the Ohio valley for the purpose of examining lands subject to military claims. They journeyed by horseback to Pittsburgh, then down the Ohio by canoe to the mouth of the Big Kanawha, and back by the same route. In 1784 after the close of the Revolution they made a similar journey, this time striking by horseback directly across the Appalachian mountains to the Ohio, thence up that river and the Monongahela, thence southward through the mountains, emerging into the Shenandoah valley near Staunton.
In the midst of his practice at Port Tobacco, Craik took an active interest in the stirring events leading up to the Revolutionary War. As early as 1774 be took an active part in a meeting of Charles County citizens at Port Tobacco in which resolutions were adopted protesting against the blockade of the port of Boston and pledging aid in commercial reprisals against the British. His first service with the Continental Army began in 1777 when Washington tendered to him a choice between the positions of physician and surgeon to the hospital or assistant director general in the Middle Department. He chose the latter which gave him the opportunity of serving close to his oldtime friend during the war. It was he who in 1778 warned Washington of the so-called “Conway Cabal” to make General Gates Commander-in-Chief. He attended the wounds of General Mercer on the battlefield of Princeton and of Lafayette at the Brandywine. When the French under Rochambeau landed at Newport, R. I., Craik established the hospital service for their sick and wounded. In 1780 a reorganization of the medical department made Craik the senior of four holding the title of chief hospital physician and surgeon. With the resignation of Director General Shippen in 1781, Craik was Washington's choice for the succession but the place went to John Cochran, Chief Physician and Surgeon of the Army, and Craik was advanced to second place with the latter title. In this capacity he served until the close of the war, participating in the final campaign against Yorktown.
With the close of the war, Craik, at the suggestion of Washington, took up his residence in Alexandria, Virginia, and resumed the practice of medicine. He was a frequent visitor at Mount Vernon and attended whatever sickness occurred there. When in 1798 Washington was summoned from his retirement to command the army in a threatened war with France, he made it a condition of his acceptance that he should have the naming of the principal members of his staff. He chose Craik for his chief medical officer, who was appointed physician general on July 19, 1798, with the pay and emoluments of lieutenant colonel but without rank. By 1800 it became a certainty that there would be no war and Congress passed a bill, on May 14, 1800, directing the discharge of nearly all the troops involved in the emergency increase. Craik was mustered out of the service on June 15, 1800, leaving in the medical department but six surgeons and twelve surgeon's mates. For over a decade again it was without a chief.
While Craik was still the army medical chief he had the unhappy duty of attending his old friend and commander in his last illness. On Dec. 13, 1799, be was called to Mount Vernon in attendance upon Washington and found him in a serious condition from a throat ailment upon which was made a diagnosis of “cynanche trachealis”, a term denoting what might now be called a streptococci cellulitis of the throat. Dr. Elisha C. Dick of Alexandria was called in consultation and later Dr. Gustave R. Brown of Port Tobacco, Maryland. Despite every effort the condition proved fatal on the evening of the following day.
The only known published writing of Dr. Craik was a pamphlet relating to Washington’s illness, A Sermon Occasioned by the Death of General Washington - - - Preached Dec. 29, 1799, By the Rev. Hezakiah N. Woodruff, A. M. - - - To which is added An Appendix Giving a Particular Account of the Behaviour of General Washington During his Distressing Illness, Also of the Nature of the Complaint of which he died, by Doctors James Craik, and Elisha C. Dick, Attending Physicians (1800). Craik survived his illustrious friend for fourteen years. He gave up his practice in Alexandria and retired to his nearby estate, Vaucluse, where he and his wife lived with his daughter-in-law, Mrs. George Washington Craik, until his death here in his eighty-fourth year. His burial place is in the cemetery of the old Presbyterian meeting house on South Fairfax Street in Alexandria. He was an original member of the Maryland Society of the Cincinnati. His son studied medicine but abandoned a career in that profession to become Washington’s private secretary.
Sources: W. B. Blanton, Medicine in Virginia in the Eighteenth Century (1931); J. Thacher, American Medical Biography (1828); L. C. Duncan, Medical Men in the American Revolution, 1775-1783 (1931); H. E. Brown, Medical Department of the U. S. Army from 1775 to 1873 (1873); Dictionary of American Biography, Vol. IV (1930); J. M. Toner, Medical Men of the Revolution (1876).
[Extracted from "Chiefs of the Medical Department, U.S. Army 1775-1940, Biographical Sketches," Army Medical Bulletin, No. 52, April 1940, pp. 18-21, compiled by James M. Phalen, Colonel, Medical Corps, U.S. Army retired]