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Dr. Usher Parsons
(1788-1868) ~ Inducted 2002
Dr. Usher Parsons (1788-1868) of Providence was Rhode Island’s foremost physician of the early 19th century. Born in Alfred, Maine, the youngest of nine children, Parsons had little formal schooling, but began the study of medicine as an apprentice to physicians in Alfred and Boston. Parsons was licensed to practice by the Massachusetts Medical Society in 1812 and immediately gained valuable experience as a surgeon for Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry in the Battle of Lake Erie (1813). His distinguished naval service brought him not only a medal and prize-money but the praise and friendship of Perry.
After several years of naval service, including duty against the North African pirates, Parsons earned his M.D. at Harvard (1818) and became professor of surgery and anatomy at Dartmouth College (1820). In 1822 he took up permanent residency in Rhode Island as a professor of anatomy and surgery at Brown University’s short-lived medical school. In that year Parsons married Mary Holmes of Cambridge, elder sister of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. Mary died in 1825 leaving Usher with one son who also became a physician.
In 1820, Parsons published a manual of sea medicine for use on merchant vessels. Entitled the Sailor’s Physician. The volume went through several editions and remained a standard work in its field for decades. Dr. Parsons was several times president of the Rhode Island Medical Society; one of the organizers of the American Medical Association, and its vice president in 1854; and a founder of Rhode Island Hospital.
He wrote voluminously on medical topics and other subjects including the Battle of Lake Erie, native Americans, folklore, and a biography of his ancestor, Sir William Pepperrell who commanded the British expedition which captured the French fortress of Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island in 1746. Parsons himself has recently been the subject of a scholarly full-length biography by Dr. Seebert J. Goldowsky entitled Yankee Surgeon.
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