Nathaniel Chapman Biography (1780-1853)


Nathaniel Chapman was a prominent Philadelphia physician and medical leader in the United States during the early 1800s. As professor of Materia Medica and then professor of the theory and practice of medicine at the University ofPennsylvania, Chapman held what were then the most prestigious medical postsin the country. He authored several important early medical works and was thefirst president of the American Medical Association.

Chapman was born at Summer Hill in Virginia to George and Amelia Chapman, whohad six sons and one daughter. Growing up in a comfortable upper class life,Chapman was a clever child who dabbled in poetry. After graduating from theAlexandria Academy, he began his medical apprenticeship in Maryland at the age of 15. He eventually studied under Benjamin Rush at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and graduated with honors in 1801. Chapman then wenton an academic tour of Europe and returned to the United States in 1804 to begin his career. During the intervening years, Chapman showed an intense interest in politics and patriotism and wrote several articles on European politics that were published in popular magazines of the time.

Known for his wit and winning personality, Chapman established a successful medical practice in Philadelphia (then one of the most populous and scientificcities in the young country) and began the independent teaching of midwifery. Chapman, however, had higher ambitions, namely to join the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania's prestigious medical school. Although not considered to have a brilliant medical mind, Chapman was popular and well respected by his colleagues, who appreciated Chapman's firm grasp of medical science atthat time. In 1813, Chapman's former teacher Rush died, leaving vacant Rush'sprestigious position as chair of the theory and practice of medicine. That same year, Chapman joined the University of Pennsylvania as chair of Materia Medica. Although much infighting went on to determine who would be appointed to Rush's chair, Chapman finally won out and became chair of the theory and practice of medicine in 1816. Not yet 40 years old, he now held one of the mostinfluential medical positions in America.

In 1817, Chapman founded the Medical Institute of Philadelphia, the first post-graduate medical school in the United States. He also authored several medical works, including his major work, Discoveries on the Elements of Therapeutics and Materia Medica, in six volumes. Although extremely popular with his students and colleagues, Chapman refused to accept new ideas inmedicine during a period of significant advances in the understanding of howthe human body functions. By 1820, many of his beliefs, such as the usefulness of "bleeding" patients, were considered anachronisms. Chapman, however, held little faith in the new medical discoveries based largely on the growing field of pathology. In the end, his refusal to accept the proven results of medical experimentation cost him many followers.

Despite no longer at the forefront of medical science, Chapman continued to influence the field, primarily through his training of students, his membership in many medical organizations, and his founding of the medical magazine Philadelphia Journal of the Medical and Physical Sciences in 1820. Chapman alsomaintained his national medical reputation among the populace until the end of his career. He was the attending physician when President James Buchanan'sestranged fiance, Ann Caroline Coleman, died and was called to Washington asa consulting physician in 1841 when President William Henry Harrison became ill. In 1848, towards the end of his career, Chapman's colleagues recognized his life-long efforts in medicine by electing him the first president of the American Medical Association. Chapman retired in 1850 due to illness, thus ending the "Medical Age of Chapman" in Philadelphia.

Chapman's personal life was marked by a wide acceptance among the young country's most elite and influential personages and by deep personal tragedies. Adevoted family man, he and his wife, Rebecca Biddle Chapman, had six children, with only three surviving to adulthood. Then, in 1845, Chapman's son, John,died at the age of 33. His son, George, followed in 1850, and his beloved daughter Emily died in 1852. Crushed by these losses, Chapman lingered on untilJuly 1, 1852, when he died in his Philadelphia home. A long-time patriot andproponent of America's growing importance in the arts and sciences, Chapmanwas buried on July 4, 1852.

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