Dr. Nathan Smith
Nathan Smith was born on September 30, 1762, in Rehoboth, Massachusetts. He first began practicing surgery in Chester, Vermont, at age 21. In 1790, he earned his MB from Harvard College’s medical department, only the third person to do so. From 1803–1804, Smith attended more medical classes at the University of Edinburgh, and in 1811, Harvard awarded him an MD.
Smith became one of New England’s most respected hysicians. He was responsible for single-handedly founding the Dartmouth Medical School, where, for a time, he was the entire faculty. He taught anatomy, chemistry, surgery, and clinical medicine.
In addition to founding the Dartmouth Medical School, Smith co-founded the University of Vermont College of Medicine, the medical school at Bowdoin College, and the Yale School of Medicine. Smith became the first professor of physics, surgery, and obstetrics while working at Yale.
Smith was well ahead of his time in practices and procedures. He was not only a skilled practitioner, but also a teacher, writer, and surgeon. Contrary to the common practice of the time, Smith disdained the procedures of bleeding and purging. He recognized the body’s self-healing powers and saw how bleeding could negatively affect those powers.
Saving Joseph Smith, Jr.
When Joseph Smith, Jr., future founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (often inadvertently referred to as the “Mormon Church”), was only 7 years old, a typhoid epidemic swept New England. All of Lucy Mack and Joseph Smith Sr.’s children were afflicted with the disease, but young Joseph suffered complications after his fever. His left leg had become severely infected with osteomyelitis. Two surgeries on the leg failed to effectively drain the infection and the doctors treating little Joseph recommended amputation.
Joseph’s mother, Lucy, however, told the doctors, “You will not, you must not, take off his leg, until you try once more” (LeRoy S. Wirthlin, “Nathan Smith (1762–1828) Surgical Consultant to Joseph Smith,” Brigham Young University Studies, Spring 1977, p. 337).
Fortunately for Joseph Smith, Jr., at a time when most physicians in the United States were poorly educated, Dr. Nathan Smith was close by.
Providentially, “the only physician in the United States who aggressively and successfully operated for osteomyelitis” in that era was Dr. Nathan Smith, a brilliant physician at Dartmouth Medical College in Hanover, New Hampshire. He was the principal surgeon, or at least the chief adviser, in Joseph’s case. In his treatment of the disease, Dr. Smith was generations ahead of his time. (Church History in the Fulness of Times, p23).
Remarkably, Joseph refused to drink any alcohol (the only anesthetic available to him) and promised to lie still if his father held him, but he sent his mother out of the room so she would not see him in such pain. The surgery was a success, and both Joseph’s leg and life were spared thanks to Dr. Nathan Smith’s efforts.
Joseph and Lucy’s Descendants Honor Dr. Nathan Smith
Two hundred years after this surgery took place, thousands of descendants of Lucy Mack Smith and Joseph Smith, Sr. gathered in Utah to honor Dr. Nathan Smith and his skill. In gratitude for his service, descendants held what will become an annual 5K to raise funds for a scholarship in Joseph Smith’s name. This scholarship, honoring Dr. Nathan Smith, is for Dartmouth Medical School, which Nathan Smith founded.
On August 3, 2013, any who wished to participate were invited to run in the 5K. Since the scholarship this run is raising money for is meant to honor Dr. Nathan Smith, representatives contacted his living descendants. Dr. David Lancope, fourth-great grandson of Dr. Nathan Smith, continues to carry on the tradition of medical service in his family. What an honor to Dr. Nathan Smith’s memory that such gratitude is shown 200 years after a surgery was performed for one young boy.
Dr. Nathan Smith died on January 26, 1829, but his memory will continue to live on in the schools he helped found, the medical service from his descendants, and in the scholarship given in his honor.
Joseph Smith, Jr., was called by God to be a prophet in our day. Learn more about his service and the word of God that was revealed through him.
Doris White is a native of Oregon and graduated from Brigham Young University with a degree in English and a minor in Editing. She loves to talk with others about the gospel of Jesus Christ.