ENTRY

Davis, John Staige (1824–1885)

SUMMARY

John Staige Davis was a professor of medicine at the University of Virginia from 1847 until 1885. Born in Albemarle County, he was the son of John A. G. Davis, a law professor at the university who was shot and killed by a student there in 1840. The younger Davis practiced medicine in western Virginia before joining the faculty himself in 1847. Preferring a practical approach to anatomy instruction, and thwarted by a Virginia law that prohibited the disinterment of dead bodies, he resorted to grave robbing. Most of the bodies came from African American and pauper cemeteries, others from executed convicts. In 1859, Davis requested the bodies of men sentenced to be hanged after John Brown‘s raid on Harpers Ferry but received none. During the American Civil War (1861–1865), Davis served as a Confederate surgeon in Charlottesville. He died in 1885.

Early Years

The Farm

John Staige Davis was born in Albemarle County on October 1, 1824, to John A. G. Davis and Mary Jane Terrell Davis. His mother was a grandniece of Thomas Jefferson, his father a publisher and lawyer. Davis was the second of seven children and likely spent his early years on the Farm, a 68.75-acre estate that his father purchased on December 31, 1825. John A. G. Davis commissioned William B. Phillips and Malcolm F. Crawford to build a house for his family on the land. Phillips had worked as a mason during construction of the Academical Village at the University of Virginia, helping to build four of the ten pavilions and the Rotunda.

John A. G. Davis began teaching at the university in 1830, and all four of his sons attended the school, with John Staige Davis matriculating in the autumn of 1837. On November 12, 1840, on the anniversary of an 1836 student riot and during the younger Davis’s fourth year of study, a student shot Professor Davis in front of his residence at Pavilion X; he died of his wounds two days later. John Staige Davis received an MA, and then, on July 4, 1841, an MD degree. He was sixteen years old.

After studying practical medicine in Philadelphia for eighteen months, Davis practiced in Jefferson County (in what later became West Virginia). In January 1847, he was named the demonstrator of anatomy at the University of Virginia. Later that same year, on June 10, 1847, he married Lucy Landon Blackford, with whom he had a son and two daughters, one of whom did not survive to adulthood. The 1850 federal census indicates that that his household included a twenty-year-old mixed-race woman named Ann Tyree, and two enslaved people. Davis was elected to the vestry of Christ Episcopal Church in 1852.

Teaching Career

Agreed Rate of Medical Charges.

On June 9, 1848, Davis became the youngest of twelve signers of the “Agreed Rate of Medical Charges” fee bill, which specified the minimum fees required for a vast array of medical services. As most medical practitioners practiced solo at the time, such fee bills were an important way for physicians to combat both “irregular practitioners,” who had not undergone standard medical training, and regularly trained physicians who charged low fees.

Davis’s titles and responsibilities at the University of Virginia shifted over the years. By 1850, he had become the university’s anatomy lecturer. In 1853, he became the lecturer on anatomy and materia medica, and in 1856 the professor of anatomy, materia medica, and botany, retaining the first two titles until his death in 1885. He was regarded highly by both colleagues and students, one of whom noted in 1849 that he was an “affable, familiar, and at the same time, dignified character.”

Anatomical Laboratory

Davis favored a practical approach to teaching. This was looked upon favorably by many colleagues, one of whom noted that “he was not only fully abreast of the latest advances in medical science, but was also skillful and judicious in their practical application.” There were obstacles to this approach, however. Davis wanted his students to learn anatomy through hands-on dissection, but by the late 1840s the General Assembly had made the disinterment of a dead body a felony. Like many other medical professors of the day, Davis turned to grave robbing to meet the needs of his students, who numbered more than twenty-five per year by 1860.

Most of what is known today about grave robbing at the University of Virginia comes from the records that Davis left behind. Most of the cadavers stolen by university personnel came from African American and pauper cemeteries, which enjoyed fewer legal protections for their dead. Local slaveholders also on occasion provided the cadavers of enslaved people, especially if the slaveholders or slaves had been connected to the university. Cadavers were easily obtained from densely populated urban areas, and Davis developed supply chains from Alexandria, Norfolk, and, particularly, Richmond and Petersburg, both of which had large black populations.

The Execution of John Brown

Davis also sought out the bodies of convicts for dissection. On December 8, 1859, he wrote a letter to authorities in Charles Town requesting the bodies of men to be hanged after John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry. His request apparently was denied, although a number of bodies were given to Winchester Medical College, in Winchester. Although the Civil War disrupted medical education at the University of Virginia, there is sufficient evidence to presume that Davis resumed grave robbing in the postwar years. The main source of cadavers continued to be pauper cemeteries, but the use of executed criminals—in the years after the abolition of slavery, these were increasingly African American men—also was popular. On January 9, 1883, Davis wrote to Dr. S. G. Pedigo, of Martinsville, that “we were never so much in need of subjects as now. Is any body to be hung in Henry [County], whose corpse I might procure?” In 1884, the General Assembly passed the Virginia Anatomical Act, which legalized the use of cadavers for medical study.

Later Years

Medical School Class at Anatomical Theatre

Davis was commissioned as a surgeon in the Confederate army’s medical corps on July 3, 1861, serving at the Charlottesville General Hospital and housing wounded soldiers in his residence in Pavilion X. After the war, Davis resumed teaching but was forced to borrow supplies from a local druggist for his materia medica class. He also requested repairs to the Anatomical Theatre, for both the anatomical room skylight and roof, which had developed a leak.

Lucy Blackford Davis, died on February 1, 1859. On September 2, 1865, Davis married Caroline Keane Hill. They two sons and one daughter together. Their eldest, John Staige Davis, also taught medicine at the University of Virginia. Davis continued teaching until he fell ill of pneumonia. He died at his home on July 17, 1885, and was buried in the University of Virginia Cemetery.

MAP
TIMELINE
October 1, 1824
John Staige Davis is born in Albemarle County.
December 31, 1825
John A. G. Davis purchases the Farm, a tract of 68.75 acres of land in Albemarle County.
Autumn 1837
John Staige Davis matriculates at the University of Virginia.
November 14, 1840
John A. G. Davis, a law professor at the University of Virginia, dies from a gunshot wound. He is buried in the University of Virginia Cemetery.
July 4, 1841
John Staige Davis receives a medical degree from the University of Virginia.
January 1847
John Staige Davis is hired as a demonstrator of anatomy at the University of Virginia.
June 10, 1847
John Staige Davis and Lucy Landon Blackford marry. They will have a son and two daughters.
June 9, 1848
John Staige Davis is one of twelve doctors to sign the "Agreed Rate of Medical Charge" fee bill, which specifies the minimum fees required for a vast array of medical services.
1850
By this year, John Staige Davis has become a lecturer of anatomy at the University of Virginia.
1852
John Staige Davis is elected to the vestry of Christ Episcopal Church, in Charlottesville.
1853
John Staige Davis becomes a lecturer on anatomy and materia medica at the University of Virginia.
1856
John Staige Davis becomes a professor of anatomy, materia medica, and botany at the University of Virginia.
February 1, 1859
Lucy Blackford Davis, the wife of John Staige Davis, dies.
December 8, 1859
John Staige Davis, a medical professor at the University of Virginia, writes a letter requesting the cadavers of men to be hanged after John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry.
July 3, 1861
Davis is commissioned as a surgeon in the Confederate army medical corps and serves at the Charlottesville General Hospital until the end of the war.
September 2, 1865
John Staige Davis and Caroline Keane Hill marry. They will have two sons and a daughter.
1884
The General Assembly passes the Virginia Anatomical Act, legalizing the use of cadavers for medical study.
July 17, 1885
John Staige Davis dies at his home in Pavilion X at the University of Virginia. He is buried in the University of Virginia Cemetery.
FURTHER READING
  • “Anatomical Theatre at the University.” Claude Moore Health Sciences Library. University of Virginia Health System. http://exhibits.hsl.virginia.edu/anatomical-theatre.
  • “Physician Price Fixing in 19th Century Virginia.” Claude Moore Health Sciences Library. University of Virginia Health System. http://blog.hsl.virginia.edu/feebill/historical-persons/john-s-davis.
CITE THIS ENTRY
APA Citation:
Matson, Emily. Davis, John Staige (1824–1885). (2021, February 12). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/davis-john-staige-1824-1885.
MLA Citation:
Matson, Emily. "Davis, John Staige (1824–1885)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (12 Feb. 2021). Web. 04 Aug. 2021
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