In the years before the Civil War, Mobile physician Josiah C. Nott (1804-1873) wrote extensively on medical matters, became renowned as a medical practitioner, and took a major role in the shaping of the medical profession in Mobile and Alabama. He also achieved an international reputation as the author of books and articles on biological concepts of racial difference. He argued that there had been separate creations for different races, and his views were used to promote the idea that African Americans were inherently inferior to whites and that slavery was justified.
Josiah Clark Nott was born March 31, 1804, in Columbia, South Carolina. His father, Abraham Nott, was the president of the South Carolina Court of Appeals and had come to the South from Connecticut. His mother, Angelica Mitchell, was born in the up-country of South Carolina. Nott was educated at South Carolina College (now the University of South Carolina), the New York College of Physicians and Surgeons, and the Medical School of the University of Pennsylvania. After practicing medicine in Columbia, he studied for a year in Paris and in 1832 married Sarah Cantey Deas. The couple would have seven children, but only Josiah Jr. outlived his parents.
In 1836, Nott and his family moved to Mobile, where he quickly earned a reputation as an accomplished general physician and surgeon. He had begun to write on medical matters while still in Columbia and continued to do so in Mobile, addressing a wide range of topics in U.S. medical journals. During this period, physicians throughout the nation were working to professionalize and to exclude unqualified doctors from the practice of medicine. Nott very much wanted to raise professional medical standards in Mobile and the rest of the state, and in 1841 he took the lead, along with physicians Henry S. Levert and William B. Crawford, in organizing the Mobile Medical Society.
From 1843 until the outbreak of the Civil War, while continuing to pursue his medical career and writings, Nott also wrote extensively on race. His main contention was that there had been multiple creations (a theory known as polygenesis) that had produced superior and inferior races. African Americans, he argued, were destined to permanent inferiority, and some races, such as the American Indians, were doomed to extinction. Although Nott's writings on race were often irrational in content, extreme in language, and lacked a scientific grounding, they were generally accepted by most of the leading racial theorists of the day in the United States and Europe.
In Alabama and the South in general, Nott's views on African American inferiority and the necessity of slavery were accepted with enthusiasm, but he caused bitter controversy by attacking the scientific validity of the Bible. He argued that the Bible did not provide a complete and accurate account of human creation, and that Adam and Eve were the ancestors of only one of various human races. Nott's ideas on race, and on the limitations of the Bible as a scientific document, were expressed most fully in Types of Mankind, which he published jointly with George R. Gliddon in 1854.
In the 1850s, Nott continued to pursue his interest in improving the practice of medicine in Mobile and the state of Alabama. For a brief time, in 1857 and 1858, he served as professor of anatomy in the medical school of the University of Louisiana in New Orleans but resigned when he found that he preferred to live in Mobile. In 1859, the Medical College of Alabama opened in Mobile, largely as a result of his efforts. Nott also took a leading role in the Medical Association of the State of Alabama, serving as president in 1857 and 1859. He continued to write on medicine, becoming particularly well known for his writings on yellow fever, a disease from which four of his children died in one week in the disastrous epidemic of 1853.
Nott ardently supported secession, and from the fall of 1861 until early 1863, he served in the medical department of the Confederate Army, as medical director of the Confederate General Army Hospital in Mobile, and as medical inspector in the Department of the Gulf. He also served on the staff of General Braxton Bragg and operated on the wounded in Confederate hospitals. Two of his three surviving sons served in the Twenty-Second Alabama Infantry: Henry died of typhoid after the battle of Shiloh, and James was killed in action at the battle of Chickamauga.
In the spring of 1863, Nott returned to Mobile and his private practice and also provided surgical skills in the Confederacy's military hospitals. As Mobile prepared for the Union attack, Nott also served on the local committee of safety that was responsible for public order and morale. The Union takeover of Mobile and the subsequent Confederate defeat appalled Nott, particularly as the occupying forces included two regiments of African American troops and the Mobile Medical College was commandeered by the Freedmen's Bureau as a school for freed slaves.
In early 1867, Nott moved to Baltimore, and the following year to New York. He continued to practice medicine and followed the new specialty of gynecology so successfully that he became president of the New York Obstetrical Society. He became mortally ill with tuberculosis and in 1873 returned to Mobile, where he died on March 31. His funeral was a great Mobile occasion. The procession through the streets was led by the fire department brass band and included the mayor, the aldermen, the common council, and the physicians of Mobile. Many businesses closed, and large crowds lined the streets. He was buried in Magnolia Cemetery.
Although Nott's writings on race drew international attention to Mobile, his most positive contribution to the city and his
adopted state was an enthusiastic pursuit of medical excellence. Through his efforts to promote a professional approach to
medicine and medical education, he tried to ensure that the people of Alabama and Mobile had access to trained physicians
and the best medical care. He firmly believed in a scientific approach to medicine. Only in his writings on race did Nott
substitute emotion and prejudice for rationality.
Haller, John S. Outcasts from Evolution: Scientific Attitudes of Racial Inferiority, 1859–1900. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1971.
Horsman, Reginald. Josiah Nott of Mobile: Southerner, Physician, and Racial Theorist. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987.
University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee
Published March 5, 2008
Last updated October 3, 2011