The colonies’ first medical degree
A London surgeon and physician sought a Yale degree as part of his quest for upward mobility.
In 1723 Yale granted the first medical degree issued in the American colonies to Daniel Turner (1667–1741), a London surgeon-turned-physician who had neither attended Yale College nor even set foot in North America. Moreover, Yale would not have a medical school for nearly another century.
The story has been extensively documented by Philip K. Wilson, Ph.D., of the Penn State University College of Medicine, and much of this account is based on his work. It begins with a parcel of 25 books that Turner shipped across the Atlantic in September 1722 as a gift to Yale. He was not the typical gentleman benefactor. In truth, Turner was not even a gentleman by the standards of 18th-century Britain. Born a tradesman’s son, Turner was a surgeon—an occupation then considered akin to manual labor. Medicine, known as “physic,” was the domain of university-educated gentlemen.
Turner had been admitted into the Barber-Surgeons Company in 1700 after a seven-year apprenticeship. Seeking upward mobility, he expressed his ambition by becoming an author. Four of his case histories were published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London—an unusual feat for a surgeon. He produced other works, including Apologia Chyrurgica: A Vindication of the Noble Art of Surgery.
In 1711, Turner paid a fine of £50 to be released from the Barber–Surgeons’ Company and was licensed to practice physic by the Royal College of Physicians. Although he hoped to become a fellow of the Royal Society, Britain’s elite club of natural philosophers, scientists, and physicians, Turner lacked the personal connections, social status, university education, or recognition as a scholar that might have gained him entry. Instead of buying a medical degree from a Scottish university—a common practice at the time—he politely asked Yale to send him one.
In a letter written in Latin and addressed to the “Most Erudite Lords” of “Yale Academy,” Turner conveyed his desire to supplement the “infantile state” of Yale’s library by donating 25 books from his personal collection. He saved his request for a postscript: “If Your Lordships judge me worthy of the Degree of Doctor of the Yale Academy, and care to transmit to me a Diploma, I shall accept it not only as a token of Your Gratitude, but shall consider it an honor as great as if it had been conferred by another, even more renowned University.”
Despite the backhanded compliment, Yale awarded the honorary M.D. in absentia in 1723. It remains unclear why the august members of the Yale Corporation bestowed the degree on Turner, although he had been recommended to them by Jeremiah Dummer, the Connecticut Colony’s agent in London.
Yale had been seeking donations of books for its nascent library since its early years, and most of those donations came through Dummer. By 1718 Yale’s library consisted of more than 1,300 volumes, many donated by such leading intellects as Sir Isaac Newton.
Turner’s efforts to have his honorary degree recognized by the Royal College of Physicians were in vain. But he accepted the doctorate as a symbol of his erudition and medical knowledge, his recognition as an accomplished author, and his ability to contribute to an institution of learning. Thereafter, according to Wilson, he signed himself “Daniel Turner, M.D., of the College of Physicians in London.”
Yale was no diploma mill and Turner was no quack, yet the incident underscores how far medicine—especially medicine at Yale—has come in nearly 300 years. What in the 18th century was a largely unscientific occupation has become a profession requiring rigorous training and exacting standards for licensure. What was once the “Collegiate School” in Connecticut has become one of the world’s leaders in medical education, patient care, and research.
This article has been excerpted and adapted from a forthcoming book by Kerry Falvey celebrating the bicentennial of the Yale School of Medicine (yalebooks.com/ysm200).