Dr. John H. Steel .


"Sincerity is to speak as we think, to do as we pretend and profess, to perform and make good what we promise, and really to be what we would seem and appear to be. Hypocrisy is the reverse of all this. A sincere man ought to be respected – a hypocrite despised." – Phillips’ Aphorisms , 1790.


JOHN HONEYWOOD STEEL was born at Leicester, Mass., in 1780. He was the son of Samuel Steel and Anne Garfield. His grandfather, Samuel Steel, of the same place, married a daughter of Rev. Ebenezer Pembleton and was Judge of the County Court. His great-grandfather, Thomas Steel, of that town, married Mary Cushing; was there taxed, in 1757, for 337 acres of land; died July 18, 1776; and concerning whom mention is thus made in Washburn’s Judicial History of Massachusetts : "Thomas Steel, a Judge of the Court of Common Pleas, from 1756 to 1776, in Worcester County, Mass., was a native of Boston, from which place he removed to Leicester, where he spent the remainder of his days. He was graduated at Cambridge in 1730. He was bred a merchant and pursued that business before and after leaving Boston. He was a Loyalist in his politics, and a man of influence, until the period of the Revolution. He frequently represented the town of Leicester in General Court, and was much respected by his fellow-citizens as a man of integrity." The father of the latter was also named Thomas; came from England to reside in Boston, and was a descendant of the family of William and John Steel, Esquires. William Steel, Esq., was magistrate, counsellor, and, not long after, Recorder of London; and then was created Baron, and Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland. John Steel, Esq., was purchaser of the Leicestershire estates, and married the daughter of Edward Nicol, Esq., of Henderson, County of Middlesex, whose daughter married Sir Charles Bromfield, Bart., of Barton-under-Needwood, County of Stafford.

The subject of the present chapter, whose career began with such an illustrious lineage, exemplified in his own life the virtues of his ancestry.

Dr. Steel was named for his great-uncle by marriage, Dr. John Honeywood, of England, who removed to Leicester, Mass. He left home when he was quite young; and, as his father and mother died soon after, he never returned. The neighborhood of the home of his boyhood was disturbed by Indians, who still remained in considerable numbers, and were not yet brought into subjection. His parents lived at quite a distance from neighbors, in the traditional temporary log-cabin of the early settler, the only openings to which were a door and a single window near the latter. He would sometimes refer with pleasure to that humble dwelling, and speak of the perils of those days. Once, when his mother was alone with her children, boiling soap, a distant whoop in the forest announced a visitation, and not a friendly one. Immediately, drawing some article of furniture against the door, undaunted, she stood ready, dipper in hand. Trying the door without success, the Indians attempted to enter by the small window. But each, in turn, being vigorously met by a dipperful of the scalding compound, the enemy was fain to beat a retreat, utterly discomfited. These early scenes and trials gave him nerve and enterprise, and started him on his career with an indomitable spirit.

He read medicine with Dr. Daniel Bull of Saratoga, who lived east of the Lake, at "Dean’s Corners."

In March, 1829, the Regents of the University of the State of New York conferred upon him the honorary degree of Doctor of Medicine. He received his diploma to practise physic and surgery in the State of New York, on January 19, 1800; was made a member of the County Medical Society on June 10, 1808; was chosen Censor of it in 1808, 1809, 1810, 1820, 1827, 1828, 1831, and 1832; Secretary in 1811, 1812, 1813, and 1814; Vice-President in 1816, 1817; President in 1818 and 1819; was almost a constant attendant at its meetings, and took an active and prominent part during all the thirty years that he was a member; was President of the State Medical Society in 1820, 1824; was appointed by Governor Tompkins Surgeon of the Fourth Regiment of Cavalry of the State of New York, on May 6, 1811, which was mustered into service for the "War of 1812"; was Assistant Surgeon on board a man-of-war – The President – and was at the bombardment of Algiers by the United States Navy. On August 29 th , 1814, he was commissioned as Surgeon in a detachment of Militia of the State of New York. He was a prominent Freemason. He was elected Corresponding Member of the Albany Lyceum of Natural History, on March 19, 1823; and Honorary Member of the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec, Canada, on February 28, 1828; and Corresponding Member of the Society of Natural History of Montreal, Canada, on October 27, 1828; and was either an honorary or corresponding member of nearly every historical or scientific society of any note in the United States, Canada, and of many throughout Europe. Among the papers he left are a large number of diplomas conferring honorary degrees by institutions of learning at home and abroad. Besides autograph letters from several crowned heads and distinguished savants who have left undying names in the annals of scientific literature. To enlarge upon these, which were more dearly earned, and much more highly estimated then than now, would extend this sketch beyond the limits assigned, and crowd out matter more immediately interesting to the general reader.

Dr. Steel married Mary Taylor, daughter of Ziba Taylor, and sister of Hon. Miles Taylor, December 23, 1817, at Saratoga Springs, where he died in 1838, after a long and successful practice of medicine and surgery. He left a widow, who died June 27, 1872, and six children (three sons and three daughters), four of whom are still living. Here he was respected and beloved by the entire community, nearly all the members of which considered themselves his patients. Summer visitants also consulted him in large numbers, many of them continuing to consult him after returning to their homes. He endeared himself to all classes by his suavity of manner, genial ways, goodness of heart, and intelligent painstaking in the treatment of their real sicknesses as well as their imaginary ailings; the latter requiring that tact and good sense which, more than mere skill in the art, render the physician great. With these traits, he combined those other essentials of learning, erudition, and sagacity which inspired confidence and gave him the influence of a wise and good man. He was devoted to his profession, from pure love of the work; treated his patients as neighbors; never prospered at the expense of the poor, nor levied heavy tribute upon the rich. He spurned deceptions and shams in every form, carrying, indeed, this aversion so far as to be decidedly impatient of disguises in any person. This gave him, at times, a seeming roughness of manner which did not belong to his character. He was just and discriminating in all his dealings; encouraged local enterprises for advancing the prosperity of the town; was public-spirited, and fulfilled his duty as a citizen by giving proper attention to politics, although he never held any political office except as Judge of the Court of Common Pleas in Saratoga County and as Postmaster of the Village of Saratoga Springs. He accepted these offices more as an accommodation to the community than for honor or profit to himself. After discharging the duties of judge very acceptably for several years, he resigned in favor of Hon. Thomas J. Marvin, who succeeded him in that office.

In person, he was of large proportions, heavy frame, united with a cheery, bright manner. He was quick and apt of speech, with a droll humor which would make the patient forget himself when the doctor came into his presence; and he possessed the tenderest of natures. He found nothing too much to do to relieve real suffering, and was so observant of the little ways of doing kindness, that the author believes that there was never a man more thoroughly loved or trusted by his patients. During his last illness, which he knew must be fatal, he had his account-books brought to his bedside, and, looking over his accounts, threw bills for hundreds of dollars into the fire, saying to his wife: "These are poor people, Mary; it is best not to trouble them." There was, moreover, a keen observation, a straightforward look into the causes of things – a comprehensive view, and a steady, fearless search for truth running through his whole character.

He was not only noted as a distinguished physician and surgeon, but was widely known as a chemist, geologist, and scientist. His correspondence with learned men was extensive, and his letters displayed a culture in general literature seldom attained by one so pressed with engagements in an exacting profession.

His treatise upon the mineral waters of Saratoga – Steel’s Analysis – was the first thorough work of the kind, and has formed the basis of all that has since been published on the subject. His work, also, on the Geology of the County is clear, comprehensive, and fully abreast of the period in which he wrote. Many of his views, though then new, have, in the advance of science, fully proved his sagacity. He had a very extensive and valuable cabinet of minerals, among which was a fine collection he received in exchange from the King of Denmark. These, together with a writing-desk given to him by Commodore Decatur, and other interesting relics and mementos were surreptitiously carried off by some evil-disposed person shortly after his death.

Dr. Steel built, and live, and died in the house which, until recent years, stood on the west side of Broadway opposite Caroline Street, a few doors south of the late Judge Warren’s residence. He was the "consulting physician" of this and the adjoining counties as long as he lived. Having come here at so early a period, he was, so to speak, mosaiced into the community. Sorrowful, indeed, it was to many hearts to watch his gradual decline – taking shorter and shorter drives behind that noble white horse of his, leaning more heavily day by day on his cane, and ascending the stairs from house to house with more and more difficulty – while now and then sinking into a chair, he would say, "Well, well; I am going." And at last, confined to his sick-room, he waited and watched his symptoms, and told of himself as he, in turn, had told of so many others, "The end is near."

His death fell like a pall on the village. Every one, rich and poor, felt that they had lost a friend , whose like they did not expect to find again. Medical and other societies passed resolutions of regret and esteem, and the citizens erected a stone to his memory which bears this inscription: "Erected by the Inhabitants of Saratoga Springs to the Memory of John H. Steel, M.D., who died April 23, 1838, aged 57 years." But these public honors were cold and formal compared with the deeper sorrow experienced and expressed by private individuals, in every station, throughout the community at large.

His surviving contemporaries – of whom there are but few left – retain the liveliest recollections of this "Model Doctor," and relate many amusing anecdotes and instructive incidents in his life; some of which, for pith and sententiousness, rival the best of those related of Dr. Abernethy. He had some eccentricities, which may be said to have been "peculiar to genius," rather that attributable to acerbity. He was reticent concerning himself and he shrank from publicity; and, judging from the disinclination of his children to furnish the requisite materials for such a sketch, there is little doubt that they have inherited his modesty, which was doubtless his chief eccentricity. They possess a trunk of papers, stored away, to which they deny access; but this book would have been incomplete if so distinguished a character had been left out of it; and the author would have been derelict if he had not availed himself of such meagre sources of information as were open to him, to preserve the memory, although imperfectly, of this honored citizen of Saratoga.



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