University of Virginia Historical Collections at the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library

Robley Dunglison and U.S. Presidents Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, & Jackson

Robley Dunglison and Thomas Jefferson

Robley Dunglison, aside from his routine duties as professor of anatomy and medicine, served as Thomas Jefferson’s personal physician. He was aware of the former president’s general distrust of medicine:

[Mr. Jefferson] has often told me he would rather trust to the unaided, or rather uninterfered with, efforts of nature than to physicians in general. ‘It is not,’he was wont to observe, ‘to physic that I object so much as physicians’ (Radbill, 26).

Goblet given to Dunglison from Jefferson

Silver-plated goblet. Jefferson gave this to Dunglison in 1826. Historical Collections, Claude Moore Health Sciences Library, UVa

Dunglison added, however, that, despite Jefferson’s opinion of medical practice, he never failed to administer Dunglison’s prescriptions and proved to be “one of the most attentive and respectful of patients.” Dunglison was at Jefferson’s side during his final illness in July of 1826:

Until the 2nd and 3rd of July, he spoke freely of his approaching death; made all his arrangements with his grandson, Mr. Randolph, in regard to his private affairs, and expressed his anxiety for the prosperity of the University; and his confidence in the exertions in its behalf of Mr. Madison and the other visitors. He repeatedly, too mentioned his obligations to me for my attention to him. During the last week of his existence, I remained at Monticello; and one of the last remarks he made was to me. In the course of the day and night of the 2nd of July, he was affected with stupor; with intervals of wakefulness and consciousness; but on the 3rd, the stupor became almost permanent. About seven o’clock in the evening of that day, he awoke, and seeing me standing at his bedside, exclaimed ‘Ah! Doctor are you still there?’ in a voice, however, that was husky and indistinct. He then asked ‘Is it the 4th?’ to which I replied ‘It soon will be.’ These were the last words I heard him utter… Until toward the middle of the day—the 4th—he remained in the same state, or nearly so; wholly unconscious to everything that was passing around him. His circulation was gradually, however, becoming more languid; and for some hours prior to dissolution, the pulse at the wrist was imperceptible. About one o’clock he ceased to exist (Radbill, 32-3).

Robley Dunglison and Other U.S. Presidents

Dunglison’s association with presidents did not stop with Jefferson. James Madison, James Monroe, and Andrew Jackson all sought his advice. He saw Madison often, his last visit being in late May of 1836 when the ex-president was suffering from an acute “rheumatic ailment.” Madison died just four weeks later. Monroe, who suffered from chronic malaria and pulmonary tuberculosis, was for a short time his patient in 1830. Jackson called in Dunglison during his second term in the White House to treat his “pleurodyne,” or intercostal neuralgia, which, according to Dunglison, “was probably owing to wounds he had received in different encounters” (Radbill, 54-6).