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Thomas Lawson

Photo Thomas Lawson

Surgeons General

THOMAS LAWSON (August 29, 1789 - May 15, 1861), Surgeon General, Nov. 30, 1836 - May 15, 1861, was born in Virginia, in Princess Anne County or in the nearby part of southern Norfolk County.  He was the son of Thomas and Sarah (Robinson) Lawson, the grandson of Colonel Anthony Lawson and of Colonel Tully Robinson, and descended from Anthony Lawson who came to Virginia from Londonderry, Ireland, about 1668.  The Lawson family and its affiliates were for two centuries prominent in the two counties which make up the southeastern corner of the state.  No information is available in regard to his early education or of his medical studies, hence it is probable that he studied with the practitioners of his home community.  However obtained, his medical education was completed early, for at nineteen years he entered the navy on March 1, 1809, as a surgeon's mate.  After two years of shipboard life be resigned on January 12, 1811, and in the following month, on February 8, 1811, he was appointed to the position of garrison surgeon's mate in the army.  On May 21, 1813, he was promoted to the post of surgeon, 6th Infantry, in which position he went through the War of 1812.  With the reduction and reorganization of the army at the close of the war he became surgeon of the 7th Infantry on May 17, 1815.  Upon the reorganization of the medical department in 1821 his name appeared upon the roll as the senior officer in the grade of surgeon and remained so until his advancement to Surgeon General in 1836.  During his early service in the field with the 6th Infantry, he won the official commendation of Hospital Surgeon Mann, the medical director, for his attention to the wounded and for his courage under fire, particularly during the investment of Plattsburg by the British forces.  His high relative rank in the corps insured him an interesting and varied service.  In 1832 be was president of a board of medical examiners which visited practically every post in the army for the purpose of holding entrance and promotion examinations in accordance with War Department orders which prescribed for the first time these examinations for the corps.  He had a decided inclination toward field service and was much disappointed when his application for duty with the forces operating against Black Hawk in 1833 was disapproved.   As in the case of many other medical officers his garrison duty was varied by details as adjutant, quartermaster, or even as a company commander.  His qualities of military leadership were recognized when, following the Seminole outbreak, a regiment of volunteer infantry was raised in Louisiana with Colonel P. F. Smith in command and Lawson was tendered the office of lieutenant colonel.  He served in this capacity with credit from Feb. 5, 1836, until the regiment was mustered out on May 15 following.  With the concentration of troops for the Seminole War he was appointed medical director with headquarters at Fort Mitchell, Alabama, where he was serving when he was appointed Surgeon General on November 30, 1836.

Surgeon General Lovell died on Oct. 17, 1836, and there immediately followed a movement to appoint a civilian in his place, the claims of Dr. Henry Huntt, a hospital surgeon in the War of 1812, being very strongly advocated.  It is said that Dr. Huntt refused the office when tendered him by President Jackson.  The army was almost unanimous for Lawson, senior officer of the corps, and he was appointed on Nov. 30, 1836.  He arrived in Washington only in the late spring of 1837 and was then detailed to accompany ex-President Jackson to his home.  Other duties incident to the Seminole War kept him away from his Washington office until May 1838.  Assistant Surgeon Benjamin King had charge of the office during the absence of the chief.  The years between the Seminole War and the Mexican War were relatively uneventful ones for the office of the Surgeon General.  However, Lawson had some very definite ideas for the improvement of the service and battled valiantly for them.  He was able to obtain for the corps military rank, two increases in numbers, improved uniform, stewards enlisted in the department, and increased pay for soldiers detailed to it for duty.  In 1839 there was issued the first volume of Army Medical Statistics prepared by Assistant Surgeon Samuel Ferry.  It embraced the sickness and mortality of the corps from 1819 to 1839, the medical topography and meteorology of the various posts, a report on the construction and condition of the barracks and hospitals, and other information in reference to prevailing diseases and their treatment.

There was a small reduction in officer personnel in 1842, following the close of the Seminole campaign.  The clouds of war were gathering again however, and in 1845, with a concentration of troops at Corpus Christi, Texas, medical depots were established at this place and at New Orleans.  The bombardment of the American camp across the river from Matamoras, by the Mexicans in that town on May 6, 1846, precipitated the Mexican War. Surgeons P. H. Craig and C. A. Finley were at different times medical director of the troops operating in Northern Mexico.

In December 1846 Lawson left Washington for New Orleans, where General Scott was preparing plans for the capture of Vera Cruz.  In February 1847 he accompanied General Scott as chief of his medical staff to Lobos Island where troops were gathering for the attack on Vera Cruz.  On Feb. 11, 1847, Congress passed an act to increase the army temporarily (9 Stat. 124), which act gave an increase in medical officers, and at the same time gave for the first time definite military rank to medical officers.

Lawson accompanied General Scott from Vera Cruz to Mexico City, but only in an advisory capacity, Surgeon B. F. Harney being the medical director.  In the medical service of this campaign Surgeons R. S. Satterlee, C. S. Tripler, and J. J. B. Wright played the leading parts.  With the cessation of hostilities Lawson returned to his office in Washington, which had been under the charge of Surgeon H. L. Heiskell.  On May 30, 1848, he was given the brevet rank of brigadier general for meritorious conduct in the late war.  For more than a decade following, Lawson filled the office of chief, years of comparative tranquility after the strenuous ones of his earlier service.  In July 1856 appeared a second volume of Medical Statistics with much the same class of information brought up to date.  This volume brought forth general and generous commendation from the medical profession.  Other equally valuable contributions to science were the Meteorological Register of 1826 to 1830 and that from 1831 to 1842.  The first volume of this series, covering the years 1822 to 1825, had been published by Surgeon General Lovell in 1826.  Though Lawson is credited with the authorship of these volumes on medical statistics and meteorology, they were in fact compiled by officers of his staff to whom full credit was given at their time of issue.  In 1850 Lawson obtained authority for representation of the Army Medical Corps at meetings of the American Medical Association and Surgeon C. S. Tripler attended the Cincinnati meeting that year as a delegate.  Legislation passed August 16, 1856 (11 Stat. 51), increased the number of medical officers, provided for the appointment or enlistment of hospital stewards, and for extra pay for special duties in hospitals.  A third volume of Medical Statistics was issued in 1860.  The closing years of Lawson's term were clouded by the oncoming shadows of the Civil War.  On January 1, 1861, the corps consisted of one surgeon general, thirty surgeons and eighty-three assistant surgeons.  Of these, within a few months, twenty-four resigned to enter the Confederate service and three more were dismissed for disloyalty. The fall of Fort Sumter broke upon Lawson in his seventy-second year and found him in impaired health.  With a situation which called for all his abilities and experience he was compelled to leave his office and seek treatment at Norfolk, Va.  He entered the home of Dr. Daniel C. Barraud, where on May 15 he was stricken with apoplexy and died within a few hours.  He served his country's military establishments for fifty years, twenty-four as Surgeon General.  With him passed from the corps the last of the participants in the War of 1812.

Lawson was a man of originality of intellect, of unflagging industry, with an intense enthusiasm for the military service.  He had a high sense of the usefulness of the medical service and a determination to gain for it every consideration to which it had a right.  There were at the time numerous glaring wrongs to be righted and he was in good measure successful in their elimination.  He was also implacable in his pursuit of medical officers whose actions he considered discreditable to the corps.  These traits in his character brought him into frequent conflict with his superiors in the War Department and with his subordinates in the service; but he was dismayed neither by display of authority on the one hand nor by the threats of political influence on the other.  In consequence, while he was universally held in respect, he never was able to gain the confidence and affection of his subordinates, a gift which was possessed in high degree by Surgeon General Lovell.  But it can be said with confidence that no other member of the corps of his day could have carried on the persistent and successful fight for the right of rank for his corps as did Lawson.  For this and for his other notable services it is easy to forget his lack of graciousness and personal charm.

Though credited with having been something of a beau, he never married.  However, during his long years in Washington he kept house in a large mansion in a fashionable district to the west of the White House.

Sources:  H. E. Brown,  Medical Department of the U.S. Army from 1775 to 1873 (1873);  P. M. Ashburn,  History of the Medical Department of the U. S. Army  (1929);  W. H. Atkinson,  Physicians and Surgeons of the U. S. (1873);   J. E. Pilcher, Surgeon Generals of the Army  (1905);  Kelly and Burrage,  American Medical Biographies (1920); Evening Star (Wash, D. C.), May 20, 1861.

[Extracted from "Chiefs of the Medical Department, U.S. Army 1775-1940, Biographical Sketches,"  Army Medical Bulletin, No. 52, April 1940, pp. 33-37, compiled by James M. Phalen, Colonel, Medical Corps, U.S. Army retired]