Plymouth County Biographies

Part of the Massachusetts Biographies Project

Dr. James Thatcher

There is a record of Dr. James Thatcher, a native of Barnstable who became a surgeon in the Revolutionary War, and afterwards was author of several books. Among them were: "Revolutionary Journal," "Medical Biography," "History of Plymouth," "American Orchardist," and "Medical Dispensary." He had studied medicine with Dr. Abner Hersey. After serving seven and a half years as an army surgeon he settled in Plymouth and there is this testimony recorded as coming from his quill: "I have seen public offices courting competent men to fill them; and I have seen them filled by men who with a religious conscientiousness acquitted themselves of the duty: but this now seems an antiquated morality."

Dr. Thatcher in his "Military Journal of the Revolutionary War," refers to an occurrence in Barnstable in 1774: "A body of men assembled and obstructed the passage of the court-house door. The leader of this assemblage was Dr. Nathaniel Freeman of Sandwich, a bold Son of Liberty. Col. James Otis, the venerable chief justice, preceded by the sheriff, approached and demanded admission. Dr. Freeman replied that it was the intention of the people to prevent the court being opened to exercise those unconstitutional powers with which Parliament had invested them. The chief justice, in his majesty's name, commanded them to disperse and permit the court to enter and proceed to business. But his majesty's name had lost its power. It can have no charms with the "Sons of Liberty." The judge then said he had acquitted himself of duty, and retired. The proceedings had been discussed and concerted prior to the court term, and Col. Otic, himself a staunch whig, was, it is believed, not only apprised of, but actually acquiesced in their bold measure.

To return to Dr. James Thatcher, during his long term as a physician and surgeon in the Revolutionary War, he first served as surgeon's mate under Dr. John Warren. He was later, in a different regiment, in the expedition of Ticonderoga, was at the siege of Yorktown, witnessed the surrender of Cornwallis and the execution of Major Andre. He retired from army service in 1783, and settled in Plymouth. Through his efforts the canopy was erected over Plymouth Rock, a picture of which for generations appeared in most of the geographies studied throughout the united States. The canopy had built into it the bones of some of the Pilgrim Fathers. It was torn down ad replaced by another canopy previous to the celebration of the Tercentenary of the Pilgrims in 1920.

Dr. Thatcher and his brother-in-law, Dr. Nathan Hayward, established the first stage line between Plymouth and Boston, in 1796. He heard of the burning of anthracite coal in Pennsylvania and was the first to use that fuel in Plymouth. He introduced the tomato plant in Plymouth. It was in those days called "love apple," and by most people not considered suitable for food.

Many books on medical subjects were written by Dr. Thatcher. In one of these books on "Observations on Hydrofobia," published in 1812, he expressed the opinion that there might be methods of prevention or cure and that study along that line should be encouraged. He had been a member of the Massachusetts Medical Society at that time nearly a decade and his inclination to adopt new ideas and his thoughts in advance of his generation attracted much attention among his fellow-members. Among the student whom he instructed in his office was Dr. Benjamin Shurtleff, of Carver, and ancestor of Dr. W. D. Shurtleff of Kingston. He received the honorary degrees of Master of Arts and Doctor of Medicine from Harvard college and from Dartmouth College in 1810 and was made a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He died in 1844, one of the most progressive citizens of Massachusetts.

Source: "History of Plymouth, Norfolk and Barnstable Counties Massachusetts; Volume I" by Elroy S. Thompson. Pub. 1928. Pages 120-122