Doctor James Carmichael
Doctor James Carmichael

In 1998 the University of Virginia Libraries purchased a 700-piece collection of the correspondence and daybook of Dr. James Carmichael and his son, Dr. Edward Carmichael, of Fredericksburg, Virginia. The daybook, a record of credits and debits to their medical practice between 1816 and 1817, is the only document composed by the Carmichaels. The unique feature of the collection is that the letters, dated 1819 through 1830, are written primarily by patients or their family members. Typically, an ill individual, or someone writing on his or her behalf, scrawled a note describing a complaint, requesting medicine, or appealing for a visit from the doctor.

The voices of patients and their family members, so often lost in history, are preserved in the Carmichaels’ correspondence. Disease, affliction, pain, and suffering are described from a layperson’s perspective. The worry and concern about an ill loved one expressed by these authors transcend time. A modern parent can easily identify with A. F. Rose’s anguish when he writes about his violently ill daughter. He urgently requests, “pray send out Dr. Carmichael to me immediately—as I consider her to be in great danger. Delay not a moment for her life and my happiness depend on it.” (A.F. Rose, May 29, 1820)

  • Story—Find out who Doctors James Carmichael & Son were.
  • Collection—Delve deep into the collection via various pathways.
  • About—Learn more about how the site is organized and the team behind it.
Doct. Carmichael’s daybook
This daybook, kept by the medical practice of Doct. Carmichael & Son, detailed patient visits and medicine prescribed.

Because the authors wrote so candidly, the letters provide interesting details describing nineteenth-century medical treatments and drugs and patients’ reactions to them. The Carmichaels’ patients discussed bloodletting, cathartics, and purgatives—all popular methods employed to cure affliction. As the Carmichaels also acted as their own pharmacists, patients and their families did not hesitate to request that certain pills, teas, powders, and tinctures be delivered to them. The correspondence also explores the health and medical care of slaves. Over 100 families in the rural antebellum community in and around Fredericksburg, Virginia penned letters to the Carmichaels. Many of these families owned slaves and they, concerned about their workforce, employed the Carmichaels to tend to their ill or injured slaves.

The Papers of James Carmichael and Son provide a captivating look into the lives of the early nineteenth-century inhabitants of Fredericksburg, Virginia, and its surrounding rural areas. To find out more about James Carmichael and nineteenth-century medicine, read the Story section of this online exhibit. The Collection component includes direct access to the correspondence that has been faithfully transcribed. Additionally within the Collection page are avenues to search the Collection as well as related documents to enhance our understanding of the individuals introduced in the letters. Finally the About section provides aids to assist in using and understanding this collection.

The original Carmichael letters are physically maintained in the Albert & Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia (citation information).

Next: The Story