For Black History Month this February, I wanted to focus my research on someone local, and by local, I mean really local. I love Philly and live in the Greater Philadelphia Area, but on the other side of the river in New Jersey, specifically Burlington County (no Jersey jokes please, we're not that bad). There were many fascinating people to choose from (I already have my project for February 2021!) but this year my focus was on Dr. James Still, the "Black Doctor of the Pines", who lived and practiced herbal medicine in Medford, NJ, in the mid-late 1800's.
Despite growing up just a short drive from Dr Still's Office site, I had never heard of him before I started my research last fall. Luckily, Dr. Still published an autobiography of his life in 1877, still in print and available at the library, which made my job a lot easier. Next, I visited the Dr. James Still Historic Office and Education Site and interviewed Samuel Still, director and second great nephew (!) of Dr. Still.
I made the Dr. James Still illustration above based on his suggestions and feedback, and it will be sold at their museum store and events. Their organization is fundraising to restore and re-open Dr. Still's original office on Church road in Medford, and sales of my design will help this cause and expand the offerings at the Education Center.
As I read through Early Recollections and Life of Dr. James Still I found it very fascinating how he managed to become a doctor at a time when many black people in the United States were still enslaved, people of color were not allowed to go to medical school and racism was not only legal, but also the norm– yet he treated both blacks and whites and his practice became so successful he became one of the biggest landowners and richest men in Burlington County, NJ. Read on to hear a bit of his story.
The Son of Slaves
James’ parents were both former slaves; his father, Levin, had bought his own freedom and helped his wife, Charity, escape from slavery. They moved from Maryland to Shamong, New Jersey a few years before James was born. While his parents enjoyed their freedom, they were also very poor. They lived in a simple log cabin without a stove or windows and were often short of food and clothing.
In 1815, when James was 3 years old, a local doctor visited to give vaccinations to James and his siblings. Of that day James said,
“ The doctor performed the duty and I have sometimes thought that the virus being inserted in my arm must have taken better than usual, for the sting of the lancet yet remains.”
From this day forward, James felt strongly in his heart that he wanted to be doctor, he found piece of glass and attached a little bit of bark to be the needle and would play and pretend to be healing the sick. As he grew older he began to realize it was an impossible goal - the only doctors he knew were white, medical schools did not accept black students and even if they did, he was from a poor family with no money to pay for college.
Life and Loss as an Early Adult
James became an adult, and as many adults do, put his childhood dream aside and busied himself with other jobs. While he continued to be very poor, he was able to buy a small plot of land, build a cabin in Medford, NJ and start a family. Sadly, he would lose both his wife and young daughter, one of his brothers and his father in the span of a few years. Seeing his father die with just enough money to pay his debts, with nothing left over for his wife and children, motivated James to find a more lucrative profession than farming & laboring.
A Self Taught Herbalist
At age 31, James bought a still and began to distill herbs like peppermint and sassafras into oils. His oils were not medicinal but he sold them to pharmacists in Philadelphia and going into pharmacies reminded him of his past interest in medicine. So he decided to expand his knowledge and bought two books about medical botany. Reading through the books awakened a passion inside of James and a feeling that this was what he was born to do. He started by making tinctures for his family and then a neighbor offered to let him dig up some sassafras roots in his yard if James would give him something to cure him of the piles.
James studied his books, gathered some herbs and borrowed a mortar and pestle from a friend to grind them. He gave the treatment to his neighbor and within a few days, his neighbor was delighted to find he was well. Word quickly spread about James’ work and more and more people were beginning to call on him for his herbal medicine. He found he had a natural ability to know just the right medicine for a particular disease despite not having formal medical training. So many neighbors called upon James for his treatments, he built a wagon so he could attend to them faster. The local doctors would see James riding in his homemade wagon made of rough pine boards and make fun of him, “There goes black Jim, healing the sick!” James would sometimes laugh at himself, but it also occurred to him that he was fulfilling his childhood dream of practicing medicine.
James continued to improve his knowledge and bought a book about disease and the human body. His popularity as an herbal doctor was spreading fast, and he continued to tend to the sick, but was not charging any money for his services as he considered it “a friendly service to a fellow being”. He needed to keep up his distillery business so he could make a living but so many people were requesting his treatments, he had little time for distilling. His work with herbal medicine felt more important but he was afraid of charging money because he didn’t have a medical license.
A Small Change = Better Prospects
James consulted with a lawyer who confirmed he couldn’t legally charge money for medical treatments, but he could charge for his medicines and delivering them to him patients. So, in 1849, nearly six years after he bought his first book on medical botany, James adjusted his way of working and was finally able to benefit financially from all his hard work. From this point on, James said,
“it seemed as though the dark and cloudy morning of my life was about to give way to a bright and shining day.”
He was able to get a more respectable wagon, pay off his debts, buy several plots of land and a new house along the main road in Medford, where he eventually built an office to see patients and dispense his medicines.
The Legacy of Dr. James Still
James enjoyed a long career in medicine and treated the sick from his office on Church Road in Medford, NJ, until his death in 1882. He attended a great range of patients, from babies a few weeks old, to people in their 90s, and even other doctors, who would call on him when their own treatments failed. Despite being born into poverty and not being allowed to go to medical school, Dr. James Still achieved an impossible goal and became the “Black Doctor of the Pines”.
The Dr James Still Education Center is small but definitely worth a visit! There is a outdoor garden and two mile nature trail behind the center and you can enjoy both in a two hour visit.
211 Church Road, Medford, NJ 08057
Open 1st and 3rd Sundays from 1 to 4 pm every month
Early Recollections and Life of Dr. James Still - Autobiography by James Still, available on Amazon or at the Dr James Still Education site.