The story of one of New York’s brightest and most dedicated physicians is often eclipsed by his reputation as America’s first wood engraver. Both stories, however, are tied together in a biography of tragedy, strife, hope, and renewal. Alexander Anderson (1775-1870) was not only a doctor and an artist, but a man of great sentiment, sensitivity, and wit, as exemplified in his various papers and collections found at New-York Historical Society Library.
Born to Sarah Lockwood and John Anderson, printer of The Constitutional Gazette (the rebel counterpart to Rivington’s arguably loyalist Royal Gazette), Anderson and his brother lived with their parents on Wall Street in Manhattan during a time of great uncertainty and change: the American Revolution. Anderson recounts in the brief and only autobiographical sketch of his life that when the British invaded and seized the city in August 1776, his father and his family fled. Anderson was just over a year old. Some pieces of type-metal ornaments survived the wrecking of his father’s printing office, and these cherished relics “became interesting objects” to a young Anderson. So began his fascination with engravings, an appreciation that was further charmed by “the grotesque vignettes in old editions of books” and “the old Dutch tiles around the fire place” of his childhood dwelling.
Anderson first learned how to engrave from an encyclopedia owned by a school fellow. Consequently, he rolled out pennies, small pieces of copper, and pewter to practice. He “did a head of [John] Paul Jones,” the American Revolution naval hero, with the back spring of an old pocket knife as his first graver. He recalled making an impression of this engraving with red oil paint using a rolling press of his contrivance. Soon he was selling his engravings of ships and the like to newspaper offices. Being one of two engravers in the city, he began to “feel of some consequence.” Anderson’s obvious aptitude heartened his parents, but they disapproved of his artistic passions; they sent him to apprentice to Dr. Joseph Young, hoping to send him down a more respectable and prosperous path in medicine.
Despite Anderson’s preference for engraving, he proved an apt and studious pupil, but his mind for art persevered. Most likely before the turn of the nineteenth century, Anderson penned a manuscript entitled “A Medical Grammar” illustrated by dramatic and humorous sketches of armed soldiers fighting back visages of illness and death with rifles and pistols. “A Medical Grammar” is a basic and short treatise of medical science and surgery, as understood in the 1790s. One might imagine Anderson intended it to be a helpful resource for his studies.
His hopeful sketches of defeating death and disease were not purely for entertainment. Anderson witnessed the loss of life on a daily basis. After obtaining his medical license in 1795, he was appointed as Resident Physician at Bellevue Hospital, where patients in the advanced stages of yellow fever were sent. Anderson admits to experiencing a great depression in his grim recollections of New York’s 1795 epidemic. In a detailed list written in his hand, 238 yellow fever patients were admitted between August and October. One hundred and thirty-seven died.
Although there was little to treat yellow fever at the time besides home remedies that were often more harmful than helpful, Anderson was praised for his doctoring. His mother writes to him on October 3, 1795, “[Mrs. Hunter] says it gives her great pleasure to hear the Committee talk of you […] she always Listens with pleasure because she knows the[y] speak the truth when the[y] say that every feature of you[r] face, is expressive of Humanity & Compassion.”
Anderson’s experiences and prevailing spirit were expressed in his affectionate, thoughtful, and often whimsical correspondence with his brother, John Anderson Jr., during his residency at Bellevue Hospital. The brothers wrote to each other often, sometimes daily; Anderson confided in John Jr. his musings and feelings, sometimes including small sketches for amusement.
Rarely absent from Anderson’s letters to John Jr. is an update on the patients at Bellevue Hospital. “One Death today. No new arrivals,” writes Anderson on October 22, after a lengthy note regarding a quote by Scottish poet and philosopher James Beattie. (The Andersons were Scottish, their patriarch hailing from that country. A selection of John Anderson’s old Scottish proverbs, recollected by Anderson, can also be found in his papers.)
Other letters featured Anderson’s daily rounds more prominently and with tongue-in-cheek humor. On October 21, Anderson writes to his brother, “Mr. Cauley is alive, but not yet out of danger – his carcase shatter’d by excessive drinking has been roughly handled by Mr. Epidemic Fever* […] *They tell me this Mr. Fever has been sometime a Resident at New-York* – he is a person of a violent temper especially when subjected to bad treatment and even when left to himself – we have hopes that he is now going to leave us to ourselves. *N. B. he has deputies at Belle-vue as well as opponents.”
Anderson’s diaries, the originals of which reside at the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Columbia University, are likewise far from rote. He married Ann Van Vleck in 1797, remarking upon their engagement that the “conduct of this amiable person towards me with ‘all my imperfections upon my head’ deserves my gratitude as well as Love while God grants me life.” Anderson’s happiness was unfortunately short-lived.
Yellow fever returned to New York City in epidemic magnitude during 1798. In a harrowing series of diary entries, Anderson recounts how he lost his wife, infant child, brother, father, mother, and almost all of his friends to the disease, despite his every effort to prevent it. “All within three months,” he writes in the sketch of his life. “This succession of calamities seem’d rather too severe.”
Prior to the second epidemic, Anderson had dutifully practiced medicine, though he soon discovered the practice was “a different thing” from the study of it and the responsibility appeared “too great for the state of my mind.” After the death of his family, Anderson retired from medicine and turned his hopes towards a new successful chapter of his life and to his first and everlasting passion: engraving.
Anderson’s devastating losses, however, would forever alter him. Undated, within his papers, is a single sheet, on it a poignant poem written and signed (“A. A.”) by his hand:
Ah! what avails a long protracted life,
A hopeless, helpless misery of years,
A tortured witnessing of madmen’s strife,
Their blasted hopes, their rage, their groans & tears.
We pity those who fall in youth’s gay bloom,
Far happier they than those who mourn their fate.
The tranquil rest, the slumber of the tomb
Is bliss compar’d with Life’s mysterious state.”
A second installment regarding Anderson’s later life and career as a wood engraver will be posted in the near future.
(Alexander Anderson’s diaries have been published within a handful of biographies. The sketch of his life has also been published. The sketch and some diary extracts can be found in Frederic M. Burr’s 1893 Life and Works of Alexander Anderson, M. D., the First American Wood Engraver.)
This post is by Crystal Toscano, Reference Librarian for Printed Collections.