Franklin District Medical Society

      Dr. James Deane.—This eminent physician was descended from James Deane, one of the earliest settlers of Stonington, Conn. Christopher and Prudence Deane, his father and mother, removed from Stonington early in their married life to Coleraine, Franklin Co., Mass., where the subject of this notice was born, on the 24th of February, 1801, being the eighth child of the family.1 The home of his childhood, which was a very humble one, was situated near the summit of one of the picturesque hills of Western Massachusetts, within full view of the Grand Monadnock and the lesser up-lift of gray Wachusett, while the whole vast horizon was bounded by a magnificent line of undulating hills and mountains, with the intervening space filled up with quiet vales and beautiful pastoral scenery. He was from his early years a close student of Nature, watching the growth of the forest-trees, pondering the multitudinous forms in which she arrayed herself, and adapting himself but indifferently to the busy duties of farm-life. His education was such as the district schools of the time afforded, supplemented by one term at the then somewhat noted Deerfield Academy. He also, as his tastes developed, was allowed the privilege of taking lessons in the Latin language, under the instruction of Isaac B. Barber, Esq., an attorney of his native town.2 This last required a daily journey of three miles on foot through the woods. The entire family were studiously inclined, as is illustrated by the fact that each of the sons became in turn teacher in the district school, while three of them studied medicine.
      When James was nineteen years of age his father finally gave up the idea of making a farmer of him, and consented that he might seek a more congenial occupation. He accordingly made his way to that goal of a Yankee's boy's ambition, the wonderful city of Boston, scarcely comprehending what he wanted or why he went. He was disappointed in finding employment, and after a few days' absence returned to his father's house. About all the remark he made of the trip was, that "he had met with some lonesome places."
      But he could not content himself upon the farm, and upon arriving at his majority he bade adieu to his home, and, coming to Greenfield, offered his services to Elijah Alvord, Esq., then clerk of the courts and register of Probate. Here he remained during the four succeeding years, which were among the happiest of his life.
      While in the employ of Mr. Alvord, he began the study of medicine as a pupil of Dr. Brigham, an eminent practitioner of Greenfield, spending a few hours of each day in this pursuit. In 1829-30 he attended his first course of medical lectures, given by Professors Delafield, Stevens, Smith, Beck, and others, of New York. He received the degree of M.D. in March, 1831, and immediately afterward commenced practice in Greenfield, where he soon established an excellent reputation as a physician and surgeon, and eventually built up a large practice. A number of respectable medical gentlemen, at various periods, located in the place, but retired from competition with him after brief experience. His success was steady and sure, and he soon took the first rank as a surgeon in this vicinity.
      His services in the department of surgery, and in rare and difficult cases of disease, were in demand over a region covering a radius of thirty miles around Greenfield. He felt the need of additional knowledge, and in 1849 spent several weeks in New York, studying the latest and most approved works, and bringing himself fully up with the advance thoughts of the time. This was subsequently of immense advantage to him.
      His experience as a contributor to the press began in 1837, with a communication to the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, and continued until January, 1855, during which period his correspondence with that publication was extensive and highly appreciated.
      As a member of the Franklin District Medical Society, and the Massachusetts Medical Society (of the latter of which he was vice-president for two years), he prepared and contributed several interesting and valuable papers and addresses, among welch may be properly mentioned a communication in May, 1855, to the last-named society, upon "The Hygienic Condition of the Survivors of Ovariotomy," a paper evincing remarkable research and ability.
      But Dr. Deane's extensive reputation did not wholly rest upon his thorough knowledge of, and his masterly skill in the practice of, medicine and surgery.
      Great as were his attainments in his legitimate profession, he added new laurels by his investigations in the fields of geology and ichnology, for the study of which the regions of the Connecticut Valley and of Western Massachusetts, generally, offer most excellent opportunities.
      As early as the beginning of 1835, Dr. D., in common with others, had noticed the remarkable impressions found in the shaly strata of the red sand-rock formation of the Connecticut Valley, slabs of which had been quarried and used as flagging in the sidewalks of Greenfield. People often noticed them, and jokingly spoke of them as "bird tracks" or "turkey tracks," without giving them any further thought.
      But Dr. Deane was not satisfied with a cursory glance. To his investigating mind here was a leaf from Nature's book opening for the student, which promised new and wonderful discoveries. He at once began a careful investigation by visiting the quarries whence they were procured, and on the 7th of March, 1835, wrote to the elder Prof. Hitchcock, stating his belief that the impressions were made by the feet of birds. To this proposition Prof. H. replied on the 15th of the month, declaring that "they could not be the result of organization." But the doctor reiterated his belief, and continued his re-searches. He prepared casts and sent them, with a written communication, not only to Prof. Hitchcock, but likewise to Prof. Silliman, editor of the American Journal of Science. This was in April, 1835, and the communications met with a very cordial reception from Prof. Silliman, and caused Prof. Hitchcock to make a visit to the locality where the specimens were obtained. At the request of the latter gentleman Dr. Deane's communication was not published in the journal, he promising to make an investigation and furnish a "more full and satisfactory paper."
      Dr. Deane continued his studies, and during subsequent years published many interesting papers, some of them accompanied by most elaborate drawings. In 1845 he published a paper giving a description of what he denominated "a batrachian reptile," and in 1847 and 1848 gave to the world accounts of different species of quadrupeds.
      As early as 1842 he forwarded specimens, accompanied by a letter, to Dr. Mantell, of London, England, who laid them before the Geological Society of London. Mr. Murchison subsequently acknowledged Dr. Deane as the "first observer" of the tracks, and the thanks of the society were unanimously tendered him.
      In 1849 he sent a very elaborate memoir, accompanied with many plates, to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, which was published by the society. Similar papers were published in 1850 and 1856 by the Academy of Natural Sciences at Philadelphia, in one of which he first describes the minute tracks of insects.
      During all these years he was busy preparing descriptions and drawings of new fossil specimens, with a view to future publication. A large amount of this work was presented to the Smithsonian Institution a short time before his death.
      Justice has not been fully meted out to Dr. Deane by the scientific world in relation to his connections and investigations in this matter; but there is little doubt, among those who are best qualified to understand the whole subject, that he is justly entitled to the honor of being the first to investigate the fossil foot-prints of the valley, and to give scientific descriptions and conclusions for the benefit of the world.
      Dr. Deane married, in 1836, Miss Mary Clapp Russell, of Greenfield, by whom he had three children,—daughters,—who all survived him. His death occurred in the very zenith of his powers, on the 8th of June, 1858, when he was fifty-seven years of age. His funeral obsequies were attended by a great gathering of friends and acquaintances from all the surrounding region.
      Dr. Deane is described as a man of lofty stature "and a well-knit and compact frame," producing a most commanding and powerful presence. He is remembered as a "most tender husband and loving parent," who ever found in the circle of home his greatest enjoyment. His political and religious opinions were based upon the broadest views of humanity, and he was wont to remark that "he believed no profession compared with a life of goodness." In all the relations of life he bore an unblemished reputation, and was often spoken of by his professional brethren as "the beloved physician." His death was an irreparable loss to his family, to the profession, and to the community.

1 He was half-brother of Dr. Christopher Deane, previously mentioned. 2 Later in life he studied the French language.

These pages are © Laurel O'Donnell, 2005, all rights reserved
and cannot be reproduced in any format without permission
This page was last updated on
06 Aug 2005