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Still, James (1812-1882)

Image Ownership:  Public Domain

James Still, medical doctor and herbalist, was born on April 9, 1812 in Burlington County, New Jersey.  Still was born to Levin and Charity Still, two former slaves living in the Pine Barrens to avoid being captured and sold back into slavery. Although the Still family was poor, the children attended school periodically and had some of their own textbooks, such as the New Testament and a spelling book.  When Still was three years old, a Dr. Fort, a Philadelphia physician, came to the Pines to vaccinate the children. His visit was the spark of inspiration that led to Still’s desire to be a doctor.

Just before Still turned 18 he was voluntarily hired out as an indentured servant by his father. During the three years of his servitude, Still read everything available about medicine and botany, and learned all he could from the Native Americans of the area. On his twenty-first birthday, he was released from his service, given $10.00 and a new suit. He left immediately for Philadelphia. Still’s racial and financial status prevented him from attending medical school. Nonetheless, he continued to gain medical knowledge, reading everything he could find while working menial jobs to support himself.  

In the spring of 1835, Still met Angelina Willow. The two were married on July 25 of that year and had a girl, Beulah. Angelina died from tuberculosis in August of 1838 and Beulah died in August of the following year. Still quickly remarried Henrietta Thomas and the two of them had two sons, James and Joseph.

Still’s medical career began soon after his second marriage.  He created a “cough balm” from plants and herbs grown on his farm and soon after his first patient used it successfully Still became famous.  Two Philadelphia pharmacists heard of his product and began buying all of the cough balm he could supply. With that money he was able to buy a small house and begin making house-calls to patients.

In response to his success, local doctors challenged his medical credentials. Still consulted a local attorney and learned that he was safe from legal action as long as he continued to never claim to be an MD, nor ask for a fee for his services.

James Still eventually suffered a stroke, limiting his practice to patients who came to his home. In 1877, he published his autobiography, Early Recollections and Life of Dr. James Still in which he detailed the memories of his life. Five years later, in 1882 James Still died of a second stroke at his New Jersey home. 

Sources:
James Still, Early Recollections and Life of Dr. James Still (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott and Company, 1877); Carole Ann Lang, “James Still: New Jersey’s Black Physician of the Pines,” Negro History Bulletin 43:1 (March 1980).

Contributor:

University of Washington, Seattle

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