Wandering Wide-Eyed in America: An Immigrant Photographs His New Country's History

In this first of a nine-part series reflecting on Eric Anderson, MD's travels throughout the US, he look at the early days of Massachusetts and Virginia.

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a nine-part series by Physician’s Money Digest’s longtime travel writer, Eric Anderson, MD, reflecting on his exploration of America as an immigrant from Scotland.

Georges Clémenceau, the Prime Minister of France in the early 20th century, but still a radical, once famously—or rather, infamously—said, “America is the only nation in history which miraculously has gone directly from barbarism to degeneration without the usual interval of civilization.”

How unkind! Damned French with their three-hour work week.

Boston’s signature steaming teapot has been a Boston landmark since 1873, until Starbucks bought the Oriental Tea Company milestone around 1994.

After relocating to New England from rural Texas in 1965 we faced a striking contrast. We were now confronted with an almost overwhelming profusion of interests. When we finally managed the easy one-hour drive down to Boston and wandered around the State House we found the statue of former Massachusetts governor Roger Wolcott and, like countless others before us, we rubbed the now polished tip of his right bronze boot because that was supposed to bring luck. Our eye caught the touching 1914 Bella Pratt tribute to the Army Nurses from 1861 to 1865, “Angels of Mercy and Life Amid Scenes of Conflict and Death.” And when we walked outside and saw the memorial to another celebration of life, that from the introduction of ether anesthesia in 1866, we were reminded of Boston’s place in both medical and national history.

Natives rub the toe of Governor Roger Wolcott for luck and acknowledge Bella Pratt’s 1914 tribute to nurses in the State House. They share the respect merchant Thomas Lee accorded ether when he erected this monument to ether in 1868. The letter written by the physicians in Massachusetts General Hospital can be seen in the hospital.

Most writers find, the more they get published, the more they increase their credibility. It’s easier to get access to whatever interests them, the more they increase their output. I found this out as a contributing editor to the physician trade journal Private Practice, when I was researching an article on “Documents” in July 1981. I had been permitted by the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh in the previous year to photograph, arguably, the most important document in Scotland, the letter Mary Queen of Scots wrote to her former brother-in-law Henri III of France on Feb. 8, 1587, six hours before she was executed by Queen Elizabeth, her cousin.

Shortly afterwards, I photographed the letter that physicians at Massachusetts General Hospital wrote to the Senate in support of the hospitals claim that the first documented time ether was used in the United States of America was in their hospital. Their letter didn’t clarify that Crawford Long in Georgia was actually the first to use ether but I did use the published article to get me easy access at the Yale Medical Library for its marvelous array of interesting documents from Harvey Cushing’s diaries to letters signed by America’s greatest physician, William Osler.

After Yale why not Harvard? I soon met Richard J. Wolfe the curator of rare books and manuscripts at the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine, Harvard University. He had been at the Countway since it opened in 1965 to be one of the largest medical libraries in the world. And in a moment, he had me looking at, amongst other treasures, letters written by William Heberden, the 18th century English physician (whose nodes on the ends of my fingers I have noticed for too, too long a time), and by Joseph Lister whose letter shows not only a knowledge of infection but a charming style of courtesy.

Author’s images taken at Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine, Harvard University.

I mention all this because it leads into this story. Wolfe, learning my interest in things medical was part of a greater interest into the very beginnings of America, sent me as a curious and devoted immigrant on to John D. Cushing, at that time the librarian of the Massachusetts Historical Society in the Fenway in Boston’s remote Back Bay.

I was asking Cushing some general questions about documents when he brought up the subject that some documents had more substance than others. I learned that letters from prolific letter-writers might not interest collectors or historians as much as those written by those who wrote less — and that letters written by a president when he was president might be more important than those he wrote before. “But,” Cushing says, “there’s substance, too, even in a small slip of paper, a receipt for a cord of wood when it’s signed by, say, Paul Revere.”

“But,” I ask, “Do such documents exist?” My innocent question became one of the most significant I’ve asked in my life because it sent me off on this journey to explore America.

Cushing gives me a strange look. Then he shrugs and leads me upstairs. Past the oldest piece of furniture made in America. Past Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation pen. Through doorways and up an elevator opened only by special keys. And along corridors with shelves containing the complete, private papers of Thomas Jefferson. We come to a safe. Cushing bends down. He opens a drawer and holds out a document. He is smiling.

The lines swim in front of me: “I crave your name, I answered my name is Revere…”

It is Paul Revere’s account of his ride of 1775.

Cushing explains that Revere’s ride essentially begat the Massachusetts Historical Society. As Revere drank from a tankard of ale some days later, friends in the tavern called out to him, “Hey, Revere! Better write up the story of your ‘Ride.’ It may be important one day!”

Not only did Revere oblige, says Cushing, but he rewrote the account in more detail two years later and again in 20 years, this time from the perspective of history.

Revere’s derringer and his Rides notes at Massachusetts Historical Society.

My photograph shows those accounts at two years and 20 years post event.

The writing, enlarged on my computer, lets me read the insert more easily.

It goes: “Paul Revere of Boston, in the Colony of Massachusetts Bay in N. England of Lawful age doth testifye and say: that I was in Boston on the Evening of the 18th of April 1775, that I was sent for by Docr Joseph Warren about 10 of clock that evening, and desired, to go to Lexington and inform Mr. Samuel Adams & the Hon’ John Hancock Esq that there was…”

Revere’s derringer and surveying tools (author’s images at Mass Historical Soc.); the one remaining North Church Lantern (photographed at Concord, Mass Antiquarian House; Boston Statue of Paul Revere beside North Church; Revere’s grave Granary Buying Ground Boston; Paul Revere House 19 North Square, Boston’s oldest downtown house.

Paul Revere at that moment inflamed my enthusiasm about coming to America even though I have since read his ride achieved little and was not considered all that important until—at the start of the Civil War—the North felt the nation wanted a hero to encourage its armies and Longfellow composed his poem to answer that need.

We are not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy, we are not even in Massachussetts. We have moved down the coast to Virginia, to an earlier moment in American history to Newport News and a better and earlier hero to Christopher Newport (1561-1617) one of the sea captains sent by the Virginia Company to establish its colony at Jamestown. A former buccaneer, he captained the largest of the three ships that arrived in 1607 and he actually returned three times to Jamestown to resupply the colony. Apparently when he again returned to London with the Jamestown colony known to be starving, the question on everyone’s lips from King James I to the business men who were financing the colony was, “Have you heard Newport’s news?” In time the apostrophe and the possessive “s” were dropped.

Newport lost his right arm in 1591 as a privateer fighting Spain. His statue in Newport News, VA was not liked by the locals. Created by Jon D. Hair it shows him with his limbs intact. “Why not?,” says his sculptor, he had that hand most of his life! And why shouldn’t he stand 24 feet tall? We agree: Those men, who set off across the Atlantic Ocean in the Age of Discoveries as nonchalantly as some men today ride the bus to their work were giants. Indeed even when European explorers were exploring the New World’s coast using the best navigation charts of the time from, of course, the Dutch, the 1590 maps engraved by Theodor de Bry (illustrated in our image at The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News) still suggests there might be monsters off the unknown shores.

Statue of Christopher Newport in Newport News. DeBry Map of 1590 showing the Virginia Coast.

History comes with challenges, of course. Truth often gets lost along the way. Did Newport have a hook on his right arm? Does the liberty taken by his sculptor in ignoring Newport’s loss of his right arm matter?

But at least talking about Jamestown brings us into the start of the American 17th century, an earlier time than Paul Revere’s and a more appropriate beginning for any immigrant to walk wide-eyed in America.

Photography by the author

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the New Hampshire Academy of Family Physicians, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.