Jane Phillips: The Washington family dynasty of Kinston -- Part 6
Dr. James Augustus Washington
In 1803, Thomas Jefferson was president and the Louisiana Purchase took place. It was also the year James Augustus Washington was born to Elizabeth Cobb and John Washington in the small village of Kinston, North Carolina.
His mother was a kind and caring woman and often would be seen going about the town caring for and giving to the sick. She made an indelible impression on her son that would be a part of him for the rest of his life.
He attended the University of North Carolina, where he was a model student. It was said James was known at UNC for being an earnest and gentle person. He had his mind set on becoming a doctor. After graduating from UNC, James traveled to Philadelphia to attend the University of Pennsylvania. It was one of the leading medical schools in America of that time.
Upon finishing Penn, he wanted to continue his education to best prepare himself for his career in medicine, so he traveled to Paris — at the time, the medical center of the world. He remained for the next three years.
Author David McCullough states in his excellent work, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, “not all pioneers went west. Some voyaged to Europe in search of, and returned home with, intellectual capital.”
Such was the case with Dr. James Augustus Washington. he was ambitious to excel in work that mattered greatly to him, and he saw time in Paris, essential to achieving this dream.
James did find time for the social scene; in letters to his sister, Eliza, he tells of having met Marquis de Lafayette known in the United States simply as Lafayette. He was a French aristocrat and military officer that soldiered in the American Revolution with Gen. George Washington. At the time James met him, he was an elder gentleman who became close friends with James, perhaps because of Lafayette’s connection to his old friend, Gen. Washington.
Lafayette introduced James to France’s King Phillipe. This introduction led to gaining the king’s favor and patronage. Because of this, James readily gained access to all the leading institutes and academies, where he formed an extensive acquaintance with the great men of the day.
James was part of an eclectic group in Paris of medical students, artists and writers. Many of these people became lifelong friends. Among this group were such men as Samuel Morse, Charles Sumner, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., James Fennimore Cooper and Washington Irving.
However, what was most important to him was gaining medical knowledge to enable him to be of benefit to his fellow man. This was always his goal and where his focus was.
James returned to America in 1830 and he decided he wanted to work in New York City. He was soon into a lucrative practice and became a beloved doctor. He attracted the rich by his personal magnetism and great ability as a physician.
However, he never neglected the poor. His peers told of his visits to some of the homes of most squalid wretchedness and poverty to treat the needs of the sick.
He gave time and served on the staff of the Bellevue Hospital, as well as other hospitals in the city. He was elected Clinical Professor of Medicine in the University of New York by a unanimous vote of his peers.
James married Anna W. Constable, who was connected to families of some of the oldest and most socially accepted families in New York. They had six children — Elizabeth Washington, Infant Washington, Susan Washington, Anna Washington, James Augustus Washington and Catherine (Kate) Washington, and resided at 752 Broadway, New York City.
James would make trips back to North Carolina several times a year to visit his mother, brothers and sisters in Kinston and New Bern. When visiting, there were always people that would seek his aid with their medical concerns. He would perform operations and whatever the need might be.
He once was sent to the home of a poor woman that was quite ill and with no one old enough to assist. He cut wood, built a fire and boiled water. He treated her and gave her unclean body a bath. He gave no thought as to this was beneath him to act in this matter. The woman was sick and needed his help and it was his calling to help her.
He was always researching and looking for new ways to treat his patients. One day in 1839, James and an associate — Dr. Isaac Taylor — used an Anel syringe with morphine and inserted the syringe nozzle into a skin incision made with a lancet. It was wrote up in medical journals of the day, as it was the first time this treatment had been used to treat pain.
One of the patients of Dr. Washington was and elderly gentleman name John Trumbull, an American painter, diplomat and architect. He is noted for his four large history paintings in the United States Capitol Rotunda, which depict pivotal moments before, during and after the Revolutionary War.
As a young man Trumbull served in the Revolutionary War for a while as the aide-de-camp to Gen. Washington. During that period, Washington gave Trumbull, as a token of his esteem, a lock of his hair inside a breast pin.
Trumbull died in 1846 and in his will he left the breast pin to his esteemed friend and his personal physician, Dr. Washington. He thought it was fitting James should have it, as he was a relative of Gen. Washington. The breast pin remained in the Washington family for years.
Some years ago, my friend Cindy Brochure and I became interested in the Washington Dynasty. She began to track the breast pin. Over a time, she found it; it was up for auction. The asking price was about $1 million. From that point, we lost track of it.
The box that holds the breast pin has a leather cover over the wood from the ship Constitution. The breast pin has George Washington’s plated hair set in solid gold with 41 seed pearls surrounding it; it is inscribed and dated on the back. There are 13 gold stars representing the 13 states, or colonies, that have long since sifted under the hair. In 1893, President George Washington had the gold pin made in France expressly for Trumbull.
During the 19th century, famous American financier, banker and art collector J. Pierpont Morgan offered the family $17,000 for the breast pin, but the family had no desire to sell it.
Washington took several more trips to Paris to learn the latest in medicine and always returned with new medical knowledge.
Dr. Washington worked long hours and went the second mile on more than one occasion. He was always occupied with teaching, researching and caring for others. With his days and nights so full, he was neglecting his own health. Death came to this genius of a man at the early age of 44 on Aug. 20, 1847. He was taken ill and within a few days died. Cause of death was described as inflammation and mortification of the bowels.
Today, an antibiotic would have probably cured him. His mother was still living and was grieved beyond what she could hardly bear, as were other family members. The New York newspapers wrote at length of Dr. Washington’s passing and told of his intellect, his benevolent nature and how he was beloved by so many of the city’s citizenry.
His fame as a doctor brought patients from far and wide to be treated. The day of his funeral, Broadway was lined with the rich and poor that came to pay respect to this honorable and noble man of medicine. The funeral service took place at his residence on Broadway.
New York newspapers reported how much he was esteemed by his fellow physicians and beloved by so many New Yorkers. He is buried in the small and unique New York Marble Cemetery. Today, the cemetery is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Kinston has probably never sent forth into the world a man of James Augustus Washington’s brilliance, decent morality and love for his fellow man. In the prime of life with so much promise to reach the heights of greatness in his profession, James was taken. There is no doubt the people that knew him were thankful for the time he had walked among them.
I feel honored that the study of history has enabled me to come to know the people of the Washington Dynasty of Kinston. Their’s is an awesome story.
This is the final chapter in the Washington Family Dynasty of Kinston. I hope you have enjoyed their stories.
The Papers of William Alexander Graham
Eliza Herritage Cobb Washington Grist Knox
New York Census Records
Find a Grave
The story of Liberty – Legendary piece of George Washington’s History Resurfaces After 150 Years By Jennifer Feafeather
Forbes.com. How American Expatriates In Paris Built The United States
The National Society of Colonial Dames in the State of Rhode Island
Dr. Henry Hyatt Newspaper article
1889 Industrial Edition of the Kinston Free Press
James A Washington death notices New York Tribune Aug. 31, 1847 and other New York Newspapers
North Carolina newspapers.