The Drakes and Valentine’s Day

The DrakesI would argue that there was a major change in the study of history that began sometime around 1961 roughly with the publications of Edward Hallet Carr’s work, “What is History?” Although I use that as a marker I think the change had more to do with the G I Bill financed history professors coming into their professional prime about that time. They had a wider life experience than the WASP professors of earlier times. After the 1960s a wider range of players began to turn up in scholarly works of history. By the 1990s history was told in a way that included both sexes and all genders, all colors, all nationalities, and most economic levels.

What does this have to do with Dr. Daniel Drake and Valentine’s Day? When something out of the ordinary turns up in historical writing, even secondary sources like biographies, is needs to examined. The unusual feature that turns up in Drakes biographies is Harriet Sisson, his wife. Older histories mention wives as a gateway to mentioning children or important male relatives, or for a few decades in the mid 20th century just as assurance that the male being written about was not homosexual. But Harriet, who did have Drake’s children and did have important male relatives*, is mentioned far more than just for that information.

I have not yet read any of Drake’s letters so I won’t go out on a limb and say that Drake “loved” his wife in the modern sense but I will say that from all accounts it looks like he was very fond of her. Most healers of Drake’s time rode a horse to visit patients outside the city or village. “Doctors on Horseback” was even the title of James Thomas Flexner’s 1937 book of biographies of Early American physicians. Drake drove a carriage so he and Harriet could be together. In the fall of 1815 Drake traveled to Philadelphia to attend his second and final year at the medical college to earn his medical degree. Daniel and Harriet left their two small sons with his brother’s family and they went together. The trip, like much of their life together was bitter-sweet. On the road to Philadelphia Harriet became sick and delayed them for three weeks. Daniel stayed by her side even though he arrived two weeks after classes began. Before the term ended Drakes brother arrived with news from home. Charles Daniel, their eldest son, had fallen and badly broken his leg and John Mansfield, their youngest, had fallen ill and died. According to the sources Daniel took his heartbroken wife to Annapolis to grieve the loss of their baby with family. I can only imagine that Daniel was also heartbroken but even when his most recent biography was published. 1961, you would not say that for fear of making him look “unmanly”.

Shortly after returning to their family in Cincinnati Daniel Drake, now M.D., received an offer to teach at the Transylvania College Medical Department in Lexington. In the autumn of 1818 the Drakes relocate for the school term to Lexington. Except for two years that Drake spends founding the institutions that would become the University of Cincinnati and the UC College of Medicine, the family moves between summers in Cincinnati and winters in Lexington. Harriet’s health suffers but Daniel is always there to give her the best care available in the 1820s. One year they leave Cincinnati early so Daniel can take Harriet to “health spas”, resorts built around mineral springs where they believed the water restored health. At one they met and became friends with Henry Clay.

By the end of the 23-24 school term it was obvious that Harriet’s health was failing again. Daniel resigned his position and took Harriet home to Cincinnati. She rallied enough that they attended a celebration of the official opening of the Miami Erie Canal which connected Cincinnati and the Ohio River system to the Great Lakes and the New York Erie Canal System. Then she really became sick. Daniel, a professor of Medical Materia, think pharmacology, vowed that she would have only the best, the purest medicine that could be made and he made it with his own hands.

Unfortunately for the couple he did just that. I don’t know exactly what “medicine” he prepared for her but mercury and arsenic were then considered important medications. Daniel’s mentor at the Philadelphia Medical College, Dr. Benjamin Rush, was a big advocate of both mercury and bleeding. It is likely that Harriet was bleed by her husband in his quest to save her. She died September 30, 1825 at the age of 37. Their youngest daughter, Harriet Echo, was 6. Daniel never remarried. On November 5 of 1852 he was found dead, according to rumor in a pool of blood. He had been sick and although bleeding was out of favor he still believed in the practice. He opened his own vein looking for relief but, at age 67, he passed out before he stopped the flow of blood. He and Harriet rest next to each other in Cincinnati’s Spring Grove where he had her and his parents moved when it opened in 1851.

* Her uncle, Jared Mansfield, who she was living with him when she met Drake.


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Filed under Daniel Drake, History, Science

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