The Surgeon and Brigham Young

The westbound stagecoach upset near Gold, Colorado, in October 1866, tossing its passengers violently to the ground. With no opportunity for rest or medical treatment, the travelers reboarded the righted stage to continue their journey toward San Francisco.

The stage reached Salt Lake City without further trouble. Although in great pain from a badly bruised side and torn ligaments in his leg, one visitor could not resist the chance to call on Brigham Young. Ben Holladay of the Overland Mail Company introduced his battered guest to the Mormon leader: Dr. Louis Albert Sayre of Bellevue Hospital, New York City, charter member of the American Medical Association, pioneer in treatment of spine and hip injuries, and the nation’s (perhaps the world’s) foremost orthopaedic surgeon.

The men chatted amiably. Dr. Sayre questioned ex-Gov. Young about “the habits, manners, and customs of your people,” while Young queried Sayre about his innovative surgical practice. Despite his present-day reputation as antagonistic to medicine, Young was impressed by Sayre’s achievements – and with good reason.

Sayre had served as a doctor during the Civil War. In a setting where battle-injured limbs were routinely amputated, Sayre had insisted on treating and saving many arms and legs. He had performed the world’s second successful removal of a diseased hip joint, saving the life of his patient. He held the first chair of orthopaedic surgery in the United States, and in later years would go on to combat cholera in crowded eastern cities, and pioneer the use of plaster of paris to cast broken limbs and treat deformities of the spine. (See here for another enduring Sayre legacy, the one which prompted this post.)

Noting that a child calling at the office was cross-eyed, Dr. Sayre offered to treat her; a successful operation was immediately performed. The little girl “bore it bravely,” noted a reporter who witnessed the operation, so bravely that the reporter himself submitted to minor throat surgery and was astonished at the “ease, neatness and quickness” of the doctor’s movements.

Young asked Sayre if he would examine others. Sayre agreed to prolong his stay, and Young immediately sent for a family whose daughter had been born with two club feet. Sayre performed two surgeries, and “restored the feet to their natural position. The babe is doing well and the joy of the parents knows no bounds.”

An unknown number of others with deformed limbs, severe squints, and other problems were treated with equal success during Sayre’s five days in Salt Lake City. All services were given by Dr. Sayre without charge, “with no other reward than the consciousness of having done a deed worthy of his name.”

Ever the gentleman, Dr. Sayre’s farewell note to Brigham Young reads as though the doctor himself were the real beneficiary of his stay among the Mormons: he thanked Young for his kindness and the hospitality shown to him, and asked that Young share Sayre’s thanks with others who had shown courtesies. He was, he wrote, “extremely delighted” by all he had seen and learned.

Further, Sayre invited the Mormon leader to send a medical student to train in New York City. So impressed had he been by the practical evidence of Sayre’s surgical skills, Brigham Young sent Heber John Richards to New York the following year. Young paid Richards’ tuition and living expenses during his years of medical school. In memory of his visit to Salt Lake City, Sayre offered the young doctor priceless tutelage in his own practice, free of charge.

Whether it be the charitable services of the Primary Children’s hospital, the educational and charitable efforts of our health services missionaries and Relief Society, or the annual pilgrimages of LDS doctors and dentists to needy former mission areas, Mormons have a quiet record of contributions to human health and happiness. That charitable tradition is a long one – but in 1866, we were on the receiving end of unselfish medical service.

10 comments for “The Surgeon and Brigham Young

  1. December 17, 2006 at 6:44 pm

    That is really cool. Thanks for writing of it so well, and bringing it to my attention!

  2. manaen
    December 17, 2006 at 7:29 pm

    Wow! Thanks for this.

  3. December 17, 2006 at 10:10 pm

    That is a neat story. Thanks.

  4. Adam Greenwood
    December 19, 2006 at 9:22 am

    Wonderful. A great story to hear at Christmas.

    So if we have Dr. Sayre to credit for all the Mormon doctors, who is to blame for all the Mormon lawyers?

  5. Aeneas
    December 27, 2006 at 10:03 pm

    A very interesting account, but. . . am I the only one who wonders in reading this why Brigham Young (or some other worthy priesthood bearer) didn\’t heal these children of their affirmities using priesthood blessings? We talk a lot in the Church about gifts of the spirit following them that believe, but in actuality we see very few cases indeed of such gifts in action. We excuse this dearth of miraculous intervention with treadworn excuses about suffering refining the soul or needing to be endured in accordance with God\’s will. But in neither the NT nor the BOM do we find a single solitary case of Christ failing to heal the sick or of Christ singing the praises of the deformities he corrected or the suffering he remedied. I am often inclined to think that the only real explanation for our over-reliance on science today and our dismal resignation in the face of disease, injury or death is either a pathetic lack of faith or a lack of true compassion for those who suffer–that, or a lack of the gifts or power we lay claim to.

  6. December 27, 2006 at 11:30 pm

    Discussions elsewhere on T&S this week explore “gentile” perceptions of Mormonism and their possible effect on Mitt Romney’s political aspirations. None of the odd perceptions mentioned there bother me much – we are who we are, and others’ fascination with our underwear and their fixation on esoteric bits of our doctrine show them for who they are.

    What scares me, though, is that some shaper of public opinion will stumble on an innocent T&S post like this one, and read comments like #5, and decide that Mormons are backward fanatics who reject legitimate advances in human knowledge – not only refuse to benefit from such advances, but actively preach that availing ourselves of such benefits is evidence of the failure of our faith!

    The Savior did heal the sick anciently, and in past as well as present times tells us to call on the elders for a blessing in faith. We do, every day of the world, and those of us who have been party to blessings when the power of the priesthood was unmistakable will not forget and generally do not fail to testify of those blessings in suitable surroundings. We also take seriously the divine injunction to be instructed in “things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth,” and to use “with prudence and thanksgiving” the herbs and grain and flesh and everything else that the Lord has given us with the promise that it would result in “health in their navel and marrow to their bones” – all of which speaks directly to the medical arts.

    The fanaticism that claims we are hypocrites or failures for using the medical knowledge God has revealed to man is the same fanaticism that, in consistency, ought to insist that we all walk on water rather than use boats, or that we should raise the dead rather than dedicate graves, or move mountains with faith instead of heavy equipment. Rejecting medicine is no more a part of the gospel than any of these other silly lessons that could be drawn from incomplete New Testament evidence.

    Aeneas, some religious leaders of Brigham Young’s generation did turn their backs on medicine in favor of prayer, and their traditions (and prayers) are dead or dying now. Brigham Young’s genius and inspiration led him to recognize the skills of a surgeon who had learned true principles about God’s creations (as opposed to the witch doctors who made up much of America’s medical practice at the time), and he took immediate steps to make those skills available in the kingdom of God on earth.

    That’s what non-Mormon visitors to this page ought to carry away with them, and not the odd and un-Mormon musings of comment #5.

  7. Jeffery Taylor
    January 24, 2007 at 10:39 am


    Your historical note here is both timely and refreshing. Keep up the most extraodinary work (a completely unbiased appraisal, I assure you…).

    Perhaps you could help me tracking down another quote I have heard attributed to BY – something to the effect that he (BY) \”… had not need of physicians… but could use a good surgeon, especially for setting bones.\” You will know why I have a particular personal interest in tracking down this reference and exact quotation.

    [address edited]

  8. January 24, 2007 at 11:07 am

    a completely unbiased appraisal, I assure you

    sez my cousin, a cool dude and more … no bias there, no! I don’t recognize the quotation, Jeff, but I’ll keep an eye peeled /ouch/ for it.

  9. January 24, 2007 at 12:37 pm

    Here you go (note, however, that Brigham’s view on Doctors changed after this):

    Would you want doctors? Yes, to set bones. We should want a good surgeon for that, or to cut off a limb. But do you want doctors? For not much of anything else, let me tell you, only the traditions of the people lead them to think so; and here is a growing evil in our midst. It will be so in a little time that not a woman in all Israel will dare to have a baby unless she can have a doctor by her. I will tell you what to do, you ladies, when you find you are going to have an increase, go off into some country where you cannot call for a doctor, and see if you can keep it. I guess you will have it, and I guess it will be all right, too. Now the cry is, “Send for a doctor.” If you have a pain in the head, “Send for a doctor;” if your heel aches, “I want a doctor;” “my back aches, and I want a doctor.” The study and practice of anatomy and surgery are very good; they are mechanical, and are frequently needed. Do you not think it is necessary to give medicine sometimes? Yes, but I would rather have a wife of mine that knows what medicine to give me when I am sick, than all the professional doctors in the world. Now let me tell you about doctoring, because I am acquainted with it, and know just exactly what constitutes a good doctor in physic. It is that man or woman who, by revelation, or we may call it intuitive inspiration, is capable of administering medicine to assist the human system when it is besieged by the enemy called Disease; but if they have not that manifestation, they had better let the sick person alone. I will tell you why: I can see the faces of this congregation, but I do not see two alike; and if I could look into your nervous systems and behold the operations of disease, from the crowns of your heads to the soles of your feet, I should behold the same difference that I see in your physiognomy—there would be no two precisely alike. Doctors make experiments, and if they find a medicine that will have the desired effect on one person, they set it down that it is good for everybody, but it is not so, for upon the second person that medicine is administered to, seemingly with the same disease, it might produce death. If you do not know this, you have not had the experience that I have. I say that unless a man or woman who administers medicine to assist the human system to overcome disease, understands, and has that intuitive knowledge, by the Spirit, that such an article is good for that individual at that very time, they had better let him alone. Let the sick do without eating, take a little of something to cleanse the stomach, bowels and blood, and wait patiently, and let Nature have time to gain the advantage over the disease.JD 15:226)

  10. January 24, 2007 at 5:28 pm

    J. my hero! Thank you.

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