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Biography

Prior to the breaking out of the Civil War the office of Surgeon-General had never existed in Vermont. In the absence of any law providing for such an officer, a State Board of Medical Examiners was established in 1861 by Governor Fairbanks, of which Dr. Samuel W. Thayer, of Burlington, was appointed chairman. One of the principal duties of the Board was the securing of competent medical officers for the Vermont regiments. To this was soon added that of properly caring for the hundreds of sick and wounded men who were sent home rom the front for treatment. The execution of this most important work largely devolved upon Dr. Thayer, and brought into requisition his superior skill as an organizer, and exemplified his customary energy and industry. He established and brought into working order the military hospitals at Burlington, Brattleboro and Montpelier, and was for a considerable time in charge of the one at Burlington. In addition to the exacting and arduous duties performed by him within the State, he organized a corps of volunteer or emergency surgeons, with whom he went to the front on several occasions, after great battles had been fought, and the regular medial staff was inadequate to the prompt and proper care of the vast numbers of wounded. His efficient service in the field hospitals, where his skill as a surgeon was of great assistance, was highly appreciated. His was appointed as Assistant Surgeon in the United States Army by President Lincoln, and was brevetted Captain U. S. Vols. The State Legislature having created the office of Surgeon-General, with the rank of Brigadier-General., Governor Smith at once appointed Dr. Thayer to the position as a partial recognition of his valuable services to the State. He was commissioned November 22, 1864, and again October 24, 1866.

Source: Revised Roster, p. 746.

See also, an additional biography

Obituary

DEATH OF DR. S. W. THAYER
Some Memorial of a Long and Useful Life.

The long agony of Dr. Thayer's illness, and the long suspense of the community in regard to his case was ended yesterday morning by the kind hand of death. Though his departure from life was a grateful release from prolonged suffering, it is also an occasion for wide and deep mourning. No man in this community had so many personal friends, who were warmly attached to him by ties of especial strength, and who will feel his decease as a keen personal loss. No man shared more fully the pubic esteem and regard. The removal from among us of such eminent professional skill and of such unselfish goodness as were embodied in him is a great public affliction.

Samuel White Thayer was born in Braintree, this State, May 21, 1817and was the oldest son of Dr.

Samuel White Thayer and Ruth Packard Thayer, formerly of Thetford. His early life was passed in his native town, until the year 1832, when his father moved his family to Thetford to secure for it the advantages of the celebrated academy there, Young Thayer fitted for college at that place, and at Hanover, N. H., with the intention of going through Dartmouth; but circumstances prevented, and in 1835 he entered his father's office as a student of medicine. He attended a course of lectures in Dartmouth Medical College, and in 1837 went to Woodstock and was elected demonstrator of anatomy in the Medical College there, which position he retained until 1841. In 1838 he took his degree of M. D., and two years later, at the earnest solicitation of his friend, Governor Charles Paine, who was then engaged in building the Vermont Central railroad, he removed to Northfield, which was at that time, and for quite a number of years after, the headquarters of that railroad. He soon acquired an enviable reputation for medical and surgical skill, and established an extensive practice. He pursued also his studies in Natural History, and made a large and valuable collection of the minerals and shells of Vermont, which he gave to the academy at Northfield. In the Spring of 1854, Dr. Thayer removed to this city, and at once entered upon a large and successful practice here and throughout the neighboring region.

Upon the breaking out of the rebellion in 1861, Governor Erastus Fairbanks, recognizing the importance of securing for the Vermont troops competent medical officers, appointed Dr. Thayer chairman of the State Board of Medical Examiners, his associates being Dr. E. E. Phelps of Windsor, and Dr. S. Newell of St. Johnsbury. In this capacity he personally examined every medical officer appointed y the Governor to positions in the Vermont regiments, besides making many of the physical examinations required by law for the enlisted men.

In 1864 the State Legislature created the office of Surgeon-General and Dr. Thayer was appointed to the position by Governor Smith. The office was a new one, with neither precedent or organization; but the Doctor brought to his office the same energy and comprehension of what was required that characterized all his doings, and the department was soon in a sound condition, ready at a moment's notice to send new medical officers to the field, promote those already there, furnish information to the friends of sick and wounded soldiers, received and forward delicacies and comforts, and n any other way to contribute to the health and happiness of the State troops. He established and organized the three military hospitals, located at Burlington, Montpelier and Brattleboro, with capable and efficient medical staffs, and so beneficial were these institutions, that soldiers from other States inflicted with that scourge of army life, chronic diarrhea, were sent to them for treatment. While holding his position upon Gov. Smith's staff, he was sent by him to consult with the authorities at Washington concerning an intended raid upon Burlington. The Doctor had a personal interview with President Lincoln, and received from him autograph instructions to General Dix, then commander of the Department of the East. Dr. Thayer also held a commission as assistant army surgeon U. S. A., from the General Government, and was breveted as medical director at the close of the war.

In May, 1870, at the request of Governor Smith, who was then president of the Northern Pacific railroad, Dr. Thayer went to Minnesota and organized a system of medical service for the employees of that road, who were scattered through the State from Lake Superior to the Red River of the North. The service proved to be so beneficial and successful that it was soon adopted for other prominent railroads in that State. During this part of his career he was invited by many prominent citizens of Dakota to take up his residence in that Territory and be rewarded by an election as a delegate to Congress but the invitation was declined. In1872, in company with the officials of the Northern Pacific, he visited the northern terminus in Oregon, and while upon this trip, and during his previous connection the Northern Pacific, he made a complete collection of the woods and grains grown along the road, which was exhibited at the Vienna exposition, and proved so attractive that, at the request of the exhibition commissioners, he allowed them to remain there. In the Winter of 1873, he returned to this city and resumed his practice.

Previous to this Dr. Thayer had performed an important public service in reorganizing and developing the Medical Department of the University of Vermont. A medical college existed here from 1823 to 1836, which had graduated during that time 114 students. Many distinguished physicians were interested in its management, but owing to competition with another well established school in the State, they found themselves obliged to close their doors for "want of students." In1850, Dr. Thayer, then a resident of Northfield, visited Burlington and endeavored without success to enlist the president of the University, and others, in re-establishing the college. Again in the Spring of 1852, Dr. Thayer appeared before the president and members of the corporation of the University, and presented a formal petition for aid on their part to re-organize the medical school, signed by Governor Paine, Professors Valentine Mott, Martin, Paine, Granville, Patterson and several other gentlemen. This, like the former attempt, proved of no avail whatever. In1852, President Smith, ex-Pres. John Wheeler and Professor Benedict sent a communication to Dr. Thayer, offering their services in reorganizing the medical department. They extended to him the privilege of engaging lecturers in the several departments, which he immediately set about to do. After several months had been consumed in securing suitable persons to occupy the respective chairs in the college, with trifling hopes of success, as most of the physicians who had been invited discouraged the project and refused to allow their names to be used in connection with an adventure which promised nothing but failure, Dr. Thayer, still persistent, finally succeeded in securing a few gentlemen who concluded to venture their reputation in the establishment of the college. In March, 1853, the corporation elected the following: S. W. Thayer, professor of surgery; Orrin Smith, professor of theory and practice; Levi Bliss, professor of anatomy, and Ezra S. Car, professor of chemistry. But one after another, with one accord, the elected professors began to make excuse and retire, leaving Dr. Thayer almost alone to form a faculty. His determination, however, did not desert him, and after renewed efforts he succeeded in forming a faculty. He gave the first course of lectures in the college, on the "theory and practice of medicine," giving up the chair of his choice - surgery - to Dr. Nelson. During the second course, Dr. Nelson failed to appear, and by request of the class, Dr. Thayer added to his lectures on anatomy and physiology, those of surgery, giving two lectures every day during the whole four months. Thus he continued to work during the early struggles of the college, giving lectures upon nearly all the branches of medicine, dissecting nights by candle light, and attending to his professional business besides. A room in the University building was engaged, in which the first course of lectures was delivered, after which steps were taken to raise money by subscription, holding bazaars, and the like, to enlarge and improve the edifice now occupied as the medical college. As the college increased in popularity it became evident that a museum was required to meet the wants of a growing institution; plated, charts and apparatus were needed to illustrate the lectures. No funds having been provided for the purchase of these requisites, Dr. Thayer came to the rescue and gratuitously bestowed upon the college his entire collection of specimens, which had required many years in preparation, as a nucleus of a museum. In addition to this, he purchased the anatomical and pathological specimens belonging to Professor Perkins - who for many years lectured upon obstetrics in the college - and these, together with his own, comprise nearly the whole of the present museum. He served the college in a most acceptable manner as Dean, Secretary and Professor, until 1872, when he was made Emeritus Professor of Anatomy. Although Dr. Thayer's connection with the faculty, as an active member, was severed from this date until 1880, still his fidelity to its interests, and his efforts at home and abroad to further and promote its welfare, never abated. Upon his return from the West in 1879, at the earnest solicitation of the faculty, he accepted the position of Dean, and again entered into active service as lecturer on anatomy and hygiene.

Much of Dr. Thayer's life was spent in traveling. In 1855 he visited Nova Scotia and the British Provinces. In May, 1867, he made his first visit to Europe, spending several months in Great Britain, France, Austria and Italy. In 1869, in company with ex-Governor J. Gregory Smith, Rev. Dr. Lord of Montpelier, C. C. Coffin, the well-known "Carleton," and others, he made a journey through the then unbroken forests and prairies of Northern Minnesota and Dakota, along the proposed route of the Northern Pacific railroad, a full account of which appeared in "Carleton's" book "The Source of Empire." In 1874 he again went to Europe, visiting many places not included in his previous trip. In1876 he spent four months on the Island of Bermuda, returning by way of Cuba. In 1878 in company with his friend, Col. John L. Merriam, of St. Paul, Minnesota, he made the trip around the world, going by way of San Francisco, Yokohama, and India, returning through Europe. During this trip the Doctor wrote a great number of interesting letters, many of which were published in the FREE PRESS. He also made several journeys of less importance. In all these travels he has made many warm personal friends, and has been the recipient of many presents, souvenirs, etc. He collected many photographs, both of scenery and people, of the different localities he has visited, and his office is overflowing with magnificent specimens and curiosities of all kinds he accumulated in his travels.

Such is the outline record of Dr. Thayer's long. Active and useful life. In only remains to add that in 1866 Dartmouth College conferred upon him the degree of A. M., and in 1877 the University of Vermont that of L. L. D.

Some fifteen years ago, while performing an amputation on one of the victims of the Harlow Bridge catastrophe on the Central railroad, Dr. Thayer imbibed poison into his system through small scratch or pimple one of his hands. He was very ill at times, from the consequences of this poisoning, which showed itself in malignant carbuncles and in other ways, and under the long contest his strength became at last fatally impaired. Last spring his health became so impaired that he took a long Western trip, being absent two or three months. From this he returned in measurably good health, and resumed the practice of his profession. The action of the heart, however, had become so enfeebled that it could not force the blood to the extremities; and dry gangrene set in, in one foot. This was some time in August. In the last week of September, Dr. Thayer was taken to New York, but a council of eminent physicians decided that amputation of the foot was not feasible and that the patient had not over forty-eight hours to live. His wonderful physical vitality, however, falsified the physicians diagnosis. The day of his death was the eighty-fourth since medical assistance had been summoned; and in this respect the case is almost or quite without a precedent. Through all these days there was a gradual and steady decay of the vital powers; and at the last moment Death came very gently to a completely worn out sufferer. Dr. Thayer was unconscious, as he had been for some time previously, and the end was one of perfect peace.

Through all these long days the public had watched the bulletins from the sick bed with eager inquiries; numberless were the offers of such assistance as was hoped might be available and the gifts of such delicacies as was thought might tempt the patient's palate. In every possible way was sown the profound interest felt by hosts of friends. And none but friends does Dr. Thayer leave behind him. He as the most unselfish and generous of mankind. He was at the command of every one, rich or poor, who needed his services; and the amount of professional work which he performed gratuitously was immense. In him the poor lose a sincere and faithful friend, and they will bitterly mourn him. But not to them only, but to all sorts and conditions of men will his death come as a personal loss, for to all had he endeared himself. It is sad indeed that one who had done so much for the relief of pain in others should suffer such tortures himself; but it was a dispensation of Providence of which we should not murmur, but rather take courage from the fortitude which he displayed and thank God for the example of such a noble, unselfish life.

Dr. Thayer was married, January 6, 1841 to Sarah Louise, daughter of the late John A. Pratt, Esq., of Windsor, Vt., and she with one son, Dr. Charles P. Thayer, survives him.

Source: Burlington Free Press, November 15, 1882.
Courtesy of Tom Boudreau.