ENTRY

Cabell, J. L. (1813–1889)

SUMMARY

J. L. Cabell was a medical educator and public health advocate. Likely born in Nelson County, he attended the University of Virginia and received his medical degree from the University of Maryland in Baltimore. In 1837, he became a professor of anatomy and surgery at the University of Virginia, teaching for more than fifty years, until 1889. In 1859, Cabell published a treatise arguing that all people, even those of supposedly inferior races, descended from a single creation. During the American Civil War (1861–1865), Cabell served as the surgeon in charge of the Confederate military hospitals in Charlottesville and Danville. After the war, he helped to found the Medical Society of Virginia and served as its president from 1876 to 1877. He was the first president of the Virginia State Board of Health, and in 1879 became president of the new National Board of Health. Cabell died in 1889.

James Lawrence Cabell was born on August 26, 1813, probably on the Nelson County farm of his parents, George Cabell and Susanna Wyatt Cabell. Shortly after his mother’s death in 1817, the family moved to Richmond, where his father practiced medicine without relinquishing his land and slaves in Nelson County. Following his father’s death in 1827, Cabell became the ward of his uncle William H. Cabell, then a judge of the Virginia Court of Appeals. Two years later another uncle, Joseph C. Cabell, of Warminster in Nelson County, became his guardian. The change in Cabell’s guardianship coincided with his matriculation at the University of Virginia in September 1829.

J. L. Cabell’s Academic and Medical Certificates

  • Medical Certificate from the Baltimore Alms House
    Medical Certificate from the Baltimore Alms House

    A certificate signed on April 27, 1836, by the trustees of the Baltimore Alms House attests that James L. Cabell, M.D., had served in that institution for sixteen months as a medical resident. An engraved image on the certificate depicts a simply dressed man and woman—presumably two inmates in the institution—as they walk in front of the poorhouse.

    Citation: James Cabell Diplomas, 1831–1882. Accession #7128. Special Collections, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va.

  • Diploma from the University of Virginia's School of Chemistry
    Diploma from the University of Virginia's School of Chemistry

    This diploma issued on July 18, 1833, from the University of Virginia indicates that James L. Cabell has successfully graduated from the university's school of chemistry. The diploma is signed by George Tucker, the chairman of the faculty; John P. Emmet, a professor of chemistry; and Thomas Johnson, the secretary of the faculty. Cabell went on to earn a medical degree at the University of Maryland in Baltimore, and subsequently served as a professor of anatomy and surgery at the University of Virginia from 1837 until 1889. The engraving of the university, at top, depicts the Lawn, the grassy expanse at the center of the Academical Village designed by Thomas Jefferson. Engraved by C. G. Childs of Philadelphia, the image is based on an earlier engraving by B. Tanner published in 1827. Childs's engraving, however, omits a number of figures depicted in the original image—among them, figures atop the balconies of the pavilions, including a black woman, presumably a slave, holding an infant

    Citation: James Cabell Diplomas, 1831–1882. Accession #7128. Special Collections, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va.

After receiving an MA on July 18, 1833, Cabell entered the medical school of the University of Maryland in Baltimore. He earned his medical degree on September 10, 1834, and completed his formal education with service as a medical resident for a year and a half at the Baltimore Alms House. In December 1836 Cabell traveled to France in hopes of continuing his medical education in Paris. Although satisfied with his life and work there, he did not stay long in Europe. On May 14, 1837, Cabell applied for the vacant position of professor of medicine at the University of Virginia. He was appointed professor of anatomy and surgery and in December 1837 began more than half a century on the faculty. On February 5, 1839, Cabell married Margaret Nicholson Gibbons in Charlottesville. They had no children but raised the orphaned daughter of one of his brothers.

Cabell rapidly overcame any concerns members of the university community may have entertained about his youth. He demonstrated a facile knowledge and skill in medicine. Shouldering his share of responsibility, he served as chairman of the faculty in 1846 and 1847. At that time the university had no president, and the chairman of the faculty was the university’s chief administrative official. A decade later Cabell wrote and published a substantial book entitled The Testimony of Modern Science to the Unity of Mankind: Being a Summary of the Conclusions Announced by the Highest Authorities in the Several Departments of Physiology, Zoology, and Comparative Philology in Favor of the Specific Unity and Common Origin of All the Varieties of Man (1859). At a time when some southern writers supported the view that human races they regarded as inferior to northern Europeans may have had a separate creation, Cabell argued that the best evidence from a variety of scientific studies supported the biblical teaching that all people descended from one creation.

Petition Concerning Confederate Medical Care

Cabell continued to teach at the University of Virginia during the Civil War, but he also served as the surgeon in charge of Confederate military hospitals in Charlottesville and Danville. In 1867 he spearheaded a campaign against a proposed merger of the University of Virginia’s medical school with the Medical College of Virginia, in Richmond. Cabell attended the November 1870 founding session of the Medical Society of Virginia. He served on its Committee of Publications, chaired its Committee on Hygiene and Public Health, and was president of the society for the 1876–1877 term. Cabell’s 1877 presidential address called for state legislation to improve public health, regulate the practice of medicine, and bar unqualified practitioners. By 1870 he had become resident physician at the Hot Springs in Bath County, and in 1872 the medicinal springs’ expanded promotional pamphlet was issued as An Account of the Hot Springs, Bath County, Va., and an Analysis of the Waters, with a Treatise by Prof. J. L. Cabell, M.D., of the University of Virginia, Resident Physician, on the Value of the Thermal Baths. In 1873 Cabell received an honorary doctorate of law from Hampden-Sydney College.

Société Royale de Médecine Publique de Belgique. Diplome

Cabell was the first president of the Virginia State Board of Health after its creation in 1872, but in his presidential address to the Medical Society of Virginia in 1877 he sharply criticized the General Assembly for inadequately funding the board. In 1879 he became president of the American Public Health Association. That same year the president of the United States appointed Cabell to the new National Board of Health, and its members elected him president. His tenure was troubled. Uncertainties about the board’s authority and disagreements among board members made organizing and directing its activities difficult. Cabell wanted to participate fully in the board’s work, but personal financial problems, exacerbated by the failure in 1875 of a bank in which he was a major stockholder, required him to continue teaching and prevented him from moving to Washington, D.C., to devote full time to the board. Despite these difficulties Cabell served as president of the short-lived board until 1884, when he retired from public medical service. Three years earlier his groundbreaking work in public health was recognized internationally by the Société Royale de Médecine Publique in Brussels, Belgium.

By late in the 1880s Cabell’s health was deteriorating. In July 1889 he stepped down as professor of anatomy and gave up teaching, although he nominally retained his chairs of physiology and surgery. Cabell died at his adopted daughter’s summer residence in Albemarle County on August 13, 1889, and was buried in the University of Virginia Cemetery in Charlottesville.

Major Works

  • The Testimony of Modern Science to the Unity of Mankind: Being a Summary of the Conclusions Announced by the Highest Authorities in the Several Departments of Physiology, Zoology, and Comparative Philology in Favor of the Specific Unity and Common Origin of All the Varieties of Man (1859)
  • An Account of the Hot Springs, Bath County, Va., and an Analysis of the Waters, with a Treatise by Prof. J. L. Cabell, M.D., of the University of Virginia, Resident Physician, on the Value of the Thermal Baths (1872)

MAP
TIMELINE
August 26, 1813
J. L. Cabell is born, probably on the Nelson County farm of his parents.
1817
Susanna Wyatt Cabell, the mother of J. L. Cabell, dies in Nelson County. Shortly thereafter her family moves to Richmond.
1827
George Cabell dies and his son, J. L. Cabell, becomes the ward of his uncle William H. Cabell.
1829
Joseph C. Cabell becomes the guardian of his nephew J. L. Cabell, who begins his studies at the University of Virginia.
July 18, 1833
J. L. Cabell earns an MA from the University of Virginia.
September 10, 1834
J. L. Cabell earns a medical degree from the University of Maryland in Baltimore.
December 1836
J. L. Cabell travels to France in hopes of continuing his medical education in Paris.
May 14, 1837
J. L. Cabell applies for the vacant position of professor of medicine at the University of Virginia.
December 1837
J. L. Cabell is appointed professor of anatomy and surgery at the University of Virginia.
February 5, 1839
J. L. Cabell and Margaret Nicholson Gibbons marry in Charlottesville. They will have no children but will raise the orphaned daughter of one of his brothers.
1846—1847
J. L. Cabell serves as chairman of the faculty at the University of Virginia, making him the school's chief administrative official.
1861—1865
J. L. Cabell serves as superintendent of the Charlottesville General Hospital, a makeshift military medical center.
1867
J. L. Cabell leads a campaign against a proposed merger of the University of Virginia's medical school with the Medical College of Virginia, in Richmond.
1870
By this year J. L. Cabell has become resident physician at the Hot Springs in Bath County.
November 1870
J. L. Cabell attends the founding session of the Medical Society of Virginia.
1872
The Virginia State Board of Health is created with J. L. Cabell as its first president.
1873
J. L. Cabell receives an honorary doctorate from Hampden-Sydney College.
1876—1877
J. L. Cabell serves as president of the Medical Society of Virginia.
1877
J. L. Cabell sharply criticizes the General Assembly for inadequately funding the Virginia State Board of Health.
1879
J. L. Cabell is appointed by the U.S. president to the new National Board of Health and is elected its president.
1884
J. L. Cabell retires as president of the National Board of Health and from public medical service.
1887
The work of J. L. Cabell in public health is recognized internationally by the Société Royale de Médecine Publique in Brussels, Belgium.
July 1889
J. L. Cabell gives up teaching at the University of Virginia.
August 13, 1889
J. L. Cabell dies in Albemarle County and is buried in the University of Virginia Cemetery, in Charlottesville.
FURTHER READING
  • Jacobs, James A. “Cabell, James Lawrence.” In the Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Vol. 2, edited by Sara B. Bearss et al., 484–486. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 2001.
CITE THIS ENTRY
APA Citation:
Jacobs, James. Cabell, J. L. (1813–1889). (2021, February 12). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/cabell-j-l-1813-1889.
MLA Citation:
Jacobs, James. "Cabell, J. L. (1813–1889)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (12 Feb. 2021). Web. 05 Aug. 2021
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