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Medical Education: Charleston Medical College, 1857-1858

CHARLSTON, SC, APRIL 24, 2003.

James Pressley completed his doctoral dissertation at Charleston Medical College (now Medical University of South Carolina) 15 months after graduating from The Citadel.

He had begun his studies under a Dr. Williams who lived a few miles from his father's plantation toward the town of Kingstree, South Carolina. James's brother, John, reported, "He...saw his preceptor as he had occasion. When the proper season arrived he went to the Charleston Medical College, and graduated at that institution after completing the usual course."

A central requirement in those days was an extensive doctoral dissertation. The archivists at the University aren't sure of the exact date that the practice of dissertations for MDs ended, although it appears to have been abandoned somewhere before the turn of the (20th) century. What they do know is that all the dissertations after 1860 no longer exist.

Fortunately, the earlier dissertations do exist. They have been bound into volumes, housed in the Waring Historical Library at the Medical University of South Carolina.

This classic old building with its sweeping, creaking staircase to the second floor houses not only the archives, but an interesting collection of historical medical devices and potions.

     

Earlier today, I held Dr. Pressley's original dissertation in my hands. It was hand-written by him on fine quality paper, is in fine condition, and it appears it could last for hundreds of years more.

The subject of his dissertation was Variola, a disease very much in the news today under its common name, Smallpox.

While, the cause of Smallpox was still unknown in Pressley's time beyond it being a "contagion," effective treatments existed.

Pressley's dissertation lays out the pros and cons of treatments with inoculations and vaccinations, along with their dangers and benefits, the same debate going on today.

Following the war, Pressley worked in public heath in Solano County, California. His research into Smallpox undoubtedly did him service in that practice.

   

Cover page of James F. Pressly Thesis

Photo of Cover Page of James F. Pressley Thesis

After graduation from medical school, his brother wrote, "[James] set up practice in the neighborhood in which he was reared. On the 15th day of April 1858, he married Emma Wilson, daughter of David D. Wilson and Sarah Wilson (Nee Britton). He settled soon after marriage on the West side of Black Mingo Swamp on a tract of land presented to him by Col. David D. Wilson, his father-in-law. His practice soon became lucrative and extensive."

Variola Variation

Writing a 65 page legible document with a fountain pen would be a difficult task for any man. For a doctor, it must have been Herculean.

This is a fragment of the beginning of the thesis.

Note Pressley's clear, clean handwriting, certainly far better than that of most of my generation.

Now compare that opening page to the last page. Only the first few pages are as pretty as the first. Soon, the writing begins to stretched horizontally and lose some of its fine character.

First Page fragment of J. F. Pressley Thesis

First Page of James F. Pressley Thesis

By the end, he appears to have been rushing head-long just to get it done, probably so he could shift his research to Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, brought about by handwriting 65 pages of text.

The thesis, like most contemporary documents, was written in blue or black ink. The sepia color we have come to expect from old documents is caused by the ink color changing over time.

Last Page fragment of J. F. Pressley Thesis

Last Page of James F. Pressley Thesis

 
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