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. Shortly after he arrived in Charlottesville, Jefferson consulted the young doctor about a urinary problem that was troubling him. Dunglison clearly felt it was an honor to treat the former president when he wrote to him on July 2nd, 1825:

Dear Sir,

I know not how to express my gratification
which I feel, at the subsidence of your troublesome
affection, nor the fervor with which I hope the
favorable prognostication in which you have indulged
may be verified. With respect to the subject of
compensation for any trifling attentions which I may
have been able to pay you – I beg that I may be allowed
to fix my own terms, and to declare most firmly but
respectfully, that the only compensation which I shall
accept of, is – that which has already afforded me the
greatest satisfaction – the being able in any respect to
add to the comfort of one whose existence is so valuable
to all but perhaps as much so to the Alumni of this
Institution as to any; – and that I may be permitted in
future whenever I may consider it necessary to afford
the same attentions.

Believe me, Dear Sir,
with the greatest respect,
sincerely yours,

Robley Dunglison

Dunglison was aware of the Jefferson’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, the year of Jefferson’s death. Historical Collections, Claude Moore Health Sciences Library, UVa

Dr. Dunglison must have been encouraged when Jefferson wrote him, “your arrival gave me better prospects” and by the fact that he never failed to administer Dunglison’s prescriptions and proved to be “one of the most attentive and respectful of patients.” Jefferson’s respect for his physician is exemplified by his gift to Dunglison of the silver-plated goblet shown to the left. In 1987, after Ms. Julie Bosher and former UVa residents purchased the cup for the University, it was formally presented to the Vice President for Health Affairs, Dr. William H. Muller Jr., and University President Robert M. O’Neil at Pavilion X, Dunglison’s former residence.

Dunglison was at Jefferson’s side during his final illness in July of 1826 and wrote:

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).

Following Jefferson’s death, the family showed their appreciation of Dunglison as his recollection of the actions of Jefferson’s daughter, Martha Randolph, and grandson-in-law, Nicholas Trist, indicate.

As a relic of Mr. Jefferson, I possess … the clock, which stood in his bedroom. By this he rose whenever he was able to see the hands.… I prize it greatly from its associations rather than from its extrinsic excellence. Its rate of going is marked on the inside of the case in the handwriting of Mr. Jefferson: and the days of the week, as reached by the weight of the clock, day after day, are indicated, the clock going eight days, and being wound up on the Sundays.
I had no knowledge of the intention of Mrs. Randolph to bestow this clock on me; but had determined to possess it, if it went at a reasonable rate, at the sale. When put up, it soon reached one hundred dollars. General Cocke, of Fluvanna, bade, I think, 145 dollars. I bade 150: and it was knocked down to Mr. Trist for one hundred and fifty-five dollars. I immediately went up to Mr. Trist, apologizing for having opposed unwittingly the desire of the family to possess the clock, when he told me I might make my mind easy, as he had been commissioned by them to buy it, in order that they might present it to me (Radbill, 34-5).

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).