Usher Parsons (1788-1868), professor of anatomy and surgery in the early medical school, was born in Alfred, Maine, on August 18, 1788. He attended the village school and worked on his father’s farm, and in 1800 attended Berwick Academy for about a year. He worked in stores in Portland and Wells, and in 1807 began the study of medicine with Dr. Abel Hall of Alfred. In 1809 he attended a course of anatomical lectures by Dr. Alexander Ramsay, a Scotsman, given in Fryeburg, Maine. He would gladly have attended a second course, but, being unable to afford this, he took the occasion to reconsider his life:
“Being disappointed of a remittance from my father of some money to enable me to attend a second course of lectures in Portland, by Dr. Ramsay, I walked about fifteen miles in the night, nearly to Saco, slept a few hours on some hay in a barn, and reached Keenebunk the following noon, and Alfred in the evening. During my moonlight walk, I meditated on the past and future course of my life. ... I was now wanting in preparatory education, unable to parse the most simple sentence in Latin, and hardly able to write a common letter in English grammatically. I had no means of educating myself but by school-keeping. ... I determined to obtain the degree of A.M. and M.D., and to become a teacher of anatomy. On arriving at Alfred, I packed up my Latin books, and went to Sanford, four miles off; and placed myself in the family of Parson Sweat.”
His studies did not progress as quickly as he wished, so he decided on a return to medicine and in or about July 1811 began his studies with Dr. John Warren of Boston. On February 7, 1812, he was licensed as a “Practitioner of Medicine.” In July 1812, through the good offices of Josiah Bartlett, congressman from New Hampshire, Parsons received a commission as surgeon’s mate in the navy. In the winter and spring of 1812-13, he found himself at Black Rock, near Buffalo, in charge of the sick and wounded, many of whom were felled by an epidemic of pleuro-pneumonia, about which he wrote an article for a Buffalo newspaper. He joined Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry’s expedition on Lake Erie, which met the enemy on September 10. On this occasion he acquired a great deal of medical experience, as the two other surgeons were confined by illness. Later he described the situation in a published account of the battle:
“Having sole charge of the wounded of the whole fleet, and the wounded being passed down to me for aid faster than I could attend to them in a proper manner, I aimed only to save life during the action by tying arteries or applying tourniquets to prevent fatal hemorrhage, and sometimes applying splints as a temporary support to shattered limbs, &c. In this state the patients remained until the following morning, under the free use of cordials and anodynes. At sunrise, I began amputations, and in the course of the whole day and evening, was able to finish all operations and dress at least once or twice, and to do justice to them all. On the following day, I visited the other vessels and brought all the wounded on board the Lawrence and treated them in like manner.”
He was promoted to the rank of surgeon on April 15, 1814. During 1815 and 1816 he was attached to the frigate Java under Commodore Perry, which served in the Mediterranean, and returned to Newport in March 1817, bearing a new treaty with Algiers and eighteen mild cases of smallpox, which Parsons had induced through inoculation with the small pox virus to prevent more serious illness. In July 1817 Parsons came to Providence and boarded with Major Samuel McClellan. In November of that year he began attending lectures at the medical school in Boston, and in March 1818 he received an M.D. degree from Harvard, having written his dissertation on “the epidemic pneumonia of 1812-1813, as it appeared about Lake Erie.” His travels as surgeon of the frigate Guerrière took him to Russia and Italy, where he left the ship and went on to Paris and London to attend medical lectures and visit hospitals.
In 1820 Parsons was named professor of anatomy and surgery at Dartmouth, and lectured there for a year. Moving to Providence in April 1822, he entered into medical practice with Dr. Levi Wheaton and was appointed professor of anatomy and surgery at Brown. He lectured to both medical students and undergraduates at the college, but left as a result of President Wayland’s newly instituted requirement that all professors occupy rooms in the college during the hours of study. After the death of his wife in 1825, he boarded with McClellan until 1831. In 1832 he built an office on Waterman Street. For many years he took his meals at boarding houses and slept at the office. He had an extensive practice and wrote on medical subjects, and other diverse topics, such as the Battle of Lake Erie, early Rhode Island physicians, and Indian place names. He died in Providence on December 19, 1868.