Doctor Brought Progressive View To Medicine And Social Issues He Challenged Conventional Wisdom On Both Fronts.

Posted: December 10, 1995

PLYMOUTH MEETING — From 1828 to 1888, Hiram Corson practiced medicine from an office in rural Montgomery County, making house calls as a matter of routine and delivering about 3,000 babies.

But his impact was also felt nationally in the medical community. And along with his work as a doctor, he was a leading liberal advocate on the pressing social issues of his day.

"Dr. Corson was a progressive in both medicine and on controversial social issues," said Louis A. Meier, a Norristown surgeon and student of local medical history. "And if he felt he was right, he was not timid about expressing himself on these issues. He was always clear about where he stood."

Corson's parents were Quakers of Huguenot and English heritage who were able to provide their son a privileged life. He attended Friends Select School in Philadelphia and graduated from the Medical Department of the University of Pennsylvania in 1828.

Corson began what was to become a prosperous medical career the same year. At age 29, in 1833, the young doctor married Anne Jones Foulke.

He built a new home for his bride called Maple Hill, where they resided for the rest of their lives. The couple had nine children.

But as one of his friends put it: "He never forgot who he was and always tried to apply his religious beliefs to his daily life."

His reputation as a medical practitioner was established during a cholera outbreak in the Philadelphia area in 1832. According to files of the Historical Society of Montgomery County, Corson successfully treated a large number of people in the eastern part of the county who had contracted the deadly disease. Accounts of the time describe him as a man of medium height, slight but compact build, and quick, active movement.

During much of the 19th century, the conventional wisdom in the treatment of high fevers was to refrain from using cold fluids - which, it was believed, could prove fatal - and only to use hot fluids.

Corson rejected that approach and used cold water effectively to break high fevers.

He wrote more than 50 medical papers on the subject and became a nationally acknowledged authority on the treatment of fevers and infections. Most of his ideas were incorporated into medical reference books.

"Certainly, Corson was among the first in the country to use cold instead of hot fluids in treating high fevers," Meier said. "He certainly was the first in the area and was called into consultation by other doctors in difficult cases involving fevers."

Corson also is credited with reforming the treatment of measles and other eruptive diseases by adopting a more conservative approach.

On social issues, Corson was an early local advocate of abolition, according to the historical society's reports.

Not all Quakers shared his enthusiasm for the movement, and Corson was criticized for his beliefs. But he refused to compromise, rejecting the colonization project that would ship freed black slaves back to Africa.

"Slaves should be freed and free to live in America," Corson maintained.

He also was a lifelong advocate of temperance and spoke out against alcohol for both social and medical uses.

Throughout his career, Corson argued in favor of admitting more women into medical school - an unpopular point of view within the male-dominated profession.

But as his reputation grew, he was able to gain a platform, and his fellow physicians were willing to listen. As a result, women began to break into the profession.

Historical society records also indicate Corson campaigned to change the way mental patients were treated.

At Norristown State Hospital, he was able to place women physicians in charge of female patients, introducing a cottage system of buildings in which patients could be supervised medically.

He also developed a work program for the patients on hospital farms, as opposed to the old system of restraints and patient warehousing.

Corson retired from the active practice of medicine in 1888.

He died in 1896 at age 92.