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, then a judge of the Virginia Court of Appeals. Two years later another uncle, , 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
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.
Cabell continued to teach at the, 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.
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 theappointed 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.
- 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)