Francis Peyre Porcher (1824-1895) was born on his grandfather’s plantation in St. John’s Berkeley outside of Charleston in 1824. His great-grandfather was Thomas Walter, a Charleston businessman, plantation owner, and botanist who wrote Flora Caroliniana (1788), the first flora of a North American region using Linnaean classification (see earlier post). Porcher’s parents were also interested in botany. His father, a Charleston physician, died when he was eight years old. This left his wife to manage their plantation and raise six children, yet she still found time to satisfy her interest in plants. Porcher often went botanizing with his mother and uncle. They were sometimes accompanied by Henry Ravenel, a young man from a neighboring plantation who also had an interest in botany (see last post). He was ten years older than Porcher, and they remained lifelong friends even after Ravenel moved to Aiken in western South Carolina (Haygood, 1987).
Porcher went to South Carolina College and then to South Carolina Medical College, graduating in 1847. His thesis, “A Medico Botanical Catalogue of the Plants and Ferns of St. John’s Berkeley, S.C.,” was considered so valuable it was published by the College. Two years later, this became the basis for his Sketch of the Medical Botany of South Carolina (1849); Henry Ravenel had assisted him on this project. After graduation, Porcher studied in Europe for over two years at leading medical institutions in France and Italy. Then he returned to Charleston, where he partnered with Dr. Julian John Chisholm in a practice that included treating the slaves of wealthy plantation owners, many of whom Porcher knew through his family’s plantation (Townsend, 1939).
Since slaves were property, owners wanted to keep them in good health, so it paid them to seek expert care when needed. In 1855, Porcher and Chisholm founded a hospital for treating enslaved people, since there had never been such a facility in Charleston. Porcher and Chisholm were being less humanitarians than smart businessmen in establishing a separate medical facility, one that could provide services for difficult cases. Porcher also visited plantation infirmaries, which were effective for many of the health needs of the enslaved and were usually staffed by enslaved women with expertise in herbal medicine.
When the Civil War began Porcher joined the Confederate medical corps serving first in South Carolina and then at Fort Nelson in Portsmouth, VA where he was stationed until the area was taken by Union troops. Then the Confederate Surgeon-General, Samuel P. Moore, granted Porcher leave to complete what became Resources of the Southern Fields and Forests in support of the war effort. Moore had originally asked Porcher to write the book at the beginning of the war, but as the Confederacy’s situation deteriorated, the book was more urgently needed. Because of his previous publications on South Carolina plants and his medical experience before and during the war, Porcher had already laid the foundations for this text. Besides his own botanico-medical expertise, Porcher had another key advantage in preparing his manuscript: his life on plantations and his treatment of slaves gave him access to the knowledge of enslaved healers.
Martia Graham Goodson (1987) begins her article on the medical-botanical contributions of African enslaved women to American medicine: “That the daughters of Africa were a rich source of medical knowledge was not lost on the professional doctors of the Slave South, whose livelihood came from tending sick slaves” (p. 198). She uses Francis Porcher as an example, noting his sophisticated medical background, including his European studies. She argues that his education in materia medica began on the plantation where he grew up and depended on his contact with enslaved women working in plantation infirmaries. For many entries in Resources Porcher mentions how particular species were used by enslaved healers, though no one is referred to by name. As Goodson notes: “’Used extensively’ by ‘the negroes’ is a phrase that permeates Porcher’s descriptions of the medical wealth of the plants of his native state. In fact, nearly one-third of the plants are described as being ‘used extensively on the plantations’ or ‘used by the negroes’ or ‘used in domestic practice’” (p. 200).
Porcher’s 600-page text was published in 1863. He often went into great detail describing where and when a particular plant was likely to be found, how it should be harvested, and not only what it could be used for, but how it should be prepared for use. From the number of plants mentioned as valuable in producing soap, curing diarrhea, and treating fever these were obviously critical needs—and very basic ones. This book was not just for the military, though it was distributed to all Confederate physicians. Since the South could no longer rely on the Northern states or foreign trade for the medicines and other goods they needed, everyone had to become self-sufficient and utilize local resources as much as possible.
In a sense, Porcher was attempting to make all Southerners practical botanists who could maximize their use of what was available to them, even if they hadn’t hitherto paid much attention to plants in the past. The book remained popular and was reprinted after the war, when Porcher returned to his medical practice. Though life in Charleston was difficult as it was throughout the South, he had a needed expertise, a good reputation in his practice, and social connections that still counted for something, with many of these extending well beyond the South because of his service in the American Medical Association. He resumed teaching at the Medical College, did research on yellow fever, and died in Charleston in 1895.
Goodson, M. G. (1980). African Slave Contributions to Medicine. The Western Journal of Black Studies, 11(4), 198–203.
Townsend, J. F. (1939). Francis Peyre Porcher, M.D. (1824-1895). Annals of Medical History, 1, 177–188.
Note: I want to thank Herrick Brown and Lauren LaFauci for discussions on Francis Porcher that were very helpful to me. Also, I am grateful for the assistance I received in assessing the Porcher papers at the South Caroliniana Libary at the University of South Carolina, Columbia.