Catholics in U.S. history: Example of priests, nuns during 1832 epidemic led Phila. doctor to Catholicism


Catholic News Service

William Edmonds Horner, who as a medical student and doctor treated soldiers wounded in the War of 1812, was so impressed with the work of Catholic priests and nuns during the cholera epidemic that he became a Catholic himself.

This year’s bicentennial of the War of 1812 provides a time to remember Horner, who served as dean of the Medical School of Pennsylvania for 30 years, wrote the first pathology textbook printed in America and discovered a muscle in the eye that is named for him.

When the United States declared war on the British Empire in June 1812, “young Horner at once applied for a commission as surgeon’s mate in the hospital department of the army. This he received July 13, 1813, and in the following September he was ordered to the scene of active operations on the Canadian frontier,” according to an article that appeared in a 1903 issue of The Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia.

The 20-year-old medical student, a Virginian, was put in charge of a hospital that treated servicemen wounded during nearby battles in York and Fort George.

William Edmonds Horner, who as a medical student treated soldiers wounded in the War of 1812, was so impressed with the work of Catholic priests and nuns during the cholera epidemic that he became a Catholic himself. Horner is shown in an 1814 portrait p rint. (CNS photo/courtesy of University of Pennsylvania)

“Frail of body, of gentle and sensitive disposition,” Horner “seemed ill-fitted for the privations and hardships of a military career, especially under the circumstances in which war was waged on the frontier at that time,” the article said. “Of all this, however, he was utterly oblivious in his patriotic idea of duty, and he assumed the responsibilities of his position with a quiet perseverance and enduring patience which soon won for him the confidence of all around him.”

Horner returned to his studies in Philadelphia and earned his medical degree in 1814. Then it was back to his military assignment, this time in the area of what is now Buffalo. There, he was put in charge of hospital, a task he continued until the end of the conflict in 1815.

His civilian life resumed for good in 1816, when he secured a position as dissector at the University of Pennsylvania. In1822, when he was 29, Horner became dean of the Medical School of Pennsylvania, a position he would hold for 30 years. He was also a professor of anatomy, discovered a muscle in the eye that is named for him and penned the first pathology textbook printed in America.

Horner’s interest in pathology had been piqued during 1821 travels in Europe, where he celebrated the Fourth of July with Lafayette, the French general who fought in the American Revolutionary War and in the French Revolution. Another interest was stirred by an 1832 cholera epidemic in Philadelphia. This time, the interest wasn’t the human body; it was the human soul.

In his autobiography, Dr. Samuel D. Gross, another Philadelphia doctor, told how Horner was impressed by the extraordinary efforts of Catholic clergy and nuns to serve the victims.

“When other ministers fled in dismay from the dread pestilence,” Gross wrote, “there was the Catholic (priest) bending down to catch the last whispered word of penitence from the dying, and when nurses were not to be procured these noble women (the nuns) stepped forward to offer their services without fee or reward; they tended the sick and soothed the dying agony; they looked to heaven for their reward. Here then were people really practicing what they preached, really willing, nay anxious, to brave death in doing duty.”

According to Gross, Horner’s natural curiosity “was excited to know more of the faith which produced such works. He studied their tenets. His inquiries were not those of the excited enthusiast, ready to believe all things, but the calm investigations of the wise and learned man, who sought for a rock on which to plant himself to withstand the storms of life and to rest his hopes of salvation in the world to come. The record of his private thoughts shows how earnestly prolonged were his researches and how abiding the convictions which were the results.”

Horner himself recorded the slow, evolving process of his conversion: “I have risen early in the morning, … and in undisturbed solitude, giving my whole heart and understanding to my Maker, prayed fervently that I might be enlightened on this momentous subject, that I might be freed from the errors of an excited imagination, from the allurements of personal friendship, from the prejudices of education, and that I might, under the influences of divine grace, be permitted to settle this question upon its true merits. It has been the last subject of reflection before falling to sleep and the object of my thoughts in the interruption to my natural repose.”

After years of prayer and investigation, the Episcopalian doctor finally joined the Catholic Church in 1839, 14 years before his death. His papers, held in the archives of the University of Pennsylvania, include two letters to him from Pope Gregory XVI.