Special Collections: A Portsmouth Doctor Gets Some Special Attention

Dr. Lyman Spalding, 1810
Dr. Lyman Spalding, 1810

Hands down, the best part of working in special collections is exploring the lives of local citizens who walked the same streets we do today. Wading into the circumstances of their lives allows us both a glimpse into what preceded and created our current environments and occasionally, offers examples of contribution on a larger scale. The Lyman Spalding Papers, detailing the subject of former Portsmouth physician Dr. Lyman D. Spalding (1775-1821), is a small collection housed in the PPL Special Collections room gives researchers an opportunity to look at the local and larger contributions of a single citizen.

Aside from his vital role in the daily lives of the nineteenth century Portsmouth population during the years 1800-1812, Dr. Spalding was a prominent figure in the inception of modern day medicine. He is perhaps most well-known as a pioneer in the use and distribution of the smallpox vaccine. Spalding was instrumental in bringing the vaccine to the northeast directly from England and its founder Dr. Edward Jenner during his tenure in Portsmouth, and in recognizing the efficacy of vaccination in the spread of disease during his 1801 experimental trials.[i]

Selection of personal correspondence from the collection.
Selection of personal correspondence from the collection.

While the PPL collection has few sources regarding Spalding’s vaccine work, the Harvard University Library holds a larger portion of materials relating to this part of his career and through their Open Collection Program, has digitized a portion of them, accessible here. For additional information about the smallpox vaccine and Dr. Edward Jenner, try this article from History Channel’s “This day in History” series. On May 14, 2015, the series highlighted Jenner’s early vaccine trials and provide a succinct overview of his work.[ii]

During the smallpox vaccine trials, Dr. Spalding became acutely aware of the importance of accurate record keeping which resulted in perhaps one of the most interesting and diverse portions of the Spalding Papers, the inclusion of nine of his innovative Bills of Mortality of Portsmouth, New Hampshire from 1802-1811. These Bills of Mortality exist today as some of the earliest comprehensive, quantitative medical data available in the area. Spalding’s Bills… were printed and distributed throughout the United States and England as examples of the importance of tracking infectious disease and community development, and prompted replies of admiration and inclusion to the 1803 American Academy meeting agenda by both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.[iii]

Bill of Mortality, 1802.
Bill of Mortality, 1802

Prior to his work in Portsmouth, Dr. Spalding attended Harvard University and worked as first a student and then colleague to Dr. Nathan Smith, serving as his primary assistant in founding the Dartmouth Medical School in Hanover near his hometown of Cornish, NH. He taught the inaugural chemistry courses for the program and standardized the terminology used in the course curriculum. This work culminated in his edited New Nomenclature of Chemistry from 1799. Two copies of this early glossary of chemistry terms and uses are also part of the Spalding Papers at PPL and are also available in digital format by the U.S. National Library of Medicine for the Internet Archive. The link can be located here.

Dr. Spalding's New Nomenclature of Chemistry, 1799
Dr. Spalding’s New Nomenclature of Chemistry, 1799

Dr. Lyman Spalding’s contributions to the early American medical community are numerous, but perhaps his most visible was the reading of his proposal for a national Pharmacopoeia before the New York County Medical Society on January 6, 1817. Essentially, the idea of a national pharmacopoeia was the creation of an institution to standardize and regulate drugs and usage. In 1817, there was a wide range of communication between medical providers and colleges but no standards or measurements for pharmaceutical creation and distribution. Spalding’s proposal emphasized its need by highlighting the discrepancies between the sources used to create drugs, to instruct in procedure and the varying levels of effectiveness caused by the inconsistencies.[iv] Spalding’s proposal exists still as the first call to action for the medical profession to address the inadequacies in pharmaceutical production and use.[v]

Spalding's Pharmacopoeia proposal address.
Spalding’s national pharmacopoeia proposal address.

Dr. Spalding’s papers in the PPL Spalding Collection emphasize both his career and personal life from the end of the eighteenth century through the first half of the nineteenth. The collection consists primarily of personal and medical correspondence and family genealogy, punctuated by pieces of his publications described above. This collection will soon undergo digitization to minimize physical use and will eventually be available to the public online.

For those interested in reading more about Dr. Spalding’s life, the library has two comprehensive biographies available. The first, Dr. Lyman Spalding: Originator of the United States Pharmacopoeia, was written by his grandson Dr. James Alfred Spalding in 1916. This title has also been digitized for the Internet Archive by the New York Public Library and is available online here. The second biography, Lyman Spalding: His Life and Times, was published in 2003 by its author Rylance Allen Lord and is available for use at PPL. For researchers interested in the history of the United States pharmacy and what Spalding’s proposed pharmacopoeia looked like upon establishment, try the 1898 title, Medicine: Volume 4 by Joseph McFarland and Harold Nicholas Moyer available in free e-book or pdf format on google books.

For any questions or suggestions regarding the Spalding Collection or any resources listed above, please contact the Portsmouth Public Library Special Collections at 603-766-1725.

[i] Spalding, J. A. (1916). Dr. Lyman Spalding: The Originator of the United States Pharmacopoeia. Boston: W. M. Leonard.
[ii] The History Channel. (2015, May 14). Jenner Tests Smallpox Vaccine. Retrieved from This day in History: http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/jenner-tests-smallpox-vaccine.
[iii] Spalding, J.A., 100.
[iv] Spalding, 335.
[v] Lord, R. L. (2003). Lyman Spalding: His Life and Times. Springfield: Rylance Lord.

Jessica Ross, Special Collections Assistant, has an MA in Public History. When she’s not getting to know past Portsmouth citizens, she likes to surf and hike with her kids, bake and travel. She can be reached at jjross@cityofportsmouth.com.

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