The Commander in Chief of U.S. (Union) Forces was assassinated on 12 April 1865, just days after the surrender of the Confederacy by General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Courthouse — before any official celebration of Union victory. President Abraham Lincoln was to be buried in Springfield Illinois after a slow train ride with stops to allow citizens to honor his memory. The experience of public display for an extended period until burial was much improved thanks to the process of embalming, a procedure not at all common in the mid-nineteenth century. The process had become popular with American doctors who began embalming casualties on Civil War battlefields for shipment to distant family burial grounds. The Lincoln family was comforted three years before the President’s murder when their beloved son William died and his body was preserved with the embalming by Dr. Charles DeCosta Brown (1817-1896). Mrs. Lincoln requested Dr. Brown’s services now for her slain husband.
Only photo of deceased President Lincoln
Dr. Charles DeCosta Brown was a practicing New York dentist before the war and he returned to a successful dental practice after. What were the circumstances of this odd piece of history? In the years before dentistry organized itself into a separate profession, Dr. Brown was among some physicians who limited their practice to dental care. Upon graduating from the University of Pennsylvania Medical School Dr. Brown practiced medicine in Philadelphia until 1850 when he moved to New York to study dentistry. No mention was made of graduating from a dental school and there was no college of dentistry in New York State until 1865, so it is assumed that he studied dentistry in preceptor training. He was successfully practicing dentistry when the Civil War broke out in 1861. A former patient, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, appointed the multi-skilled Dr. Brown to the post of official Embalmer of the United States government. Embalmer- Surgeons were in great demand, considering over 618,000 soldiers died in that war. Mr. Lincoln was the first President of the United States to be embalmed. Accounts of the time state that President Lincoln’s body remained in good shape on that trip. It is said that embalming became more common partly because of the public success of the Lincoln funeral.
Discussion. History supports the premise that although it is a very negative set of events, war advances some positive technical and social practices. It is easy to see that over 600,000 dead produced a need for improved mortuary science. Dr. Brown apparently contributed technologically as evidenced by his holding a patent on an embalming technique. The U.S. Army adopted embalming in a time when it was looked upon as an ancient ritual of Egyptians. This advance in practice certainly benefited the nation as a whole. Dr. Brown performed many of these military embalming but the very public attention produced by preparing the great leader of our nation for his final journey changed practices of civilian and military alike.
Attribution. Two different historians brought to my attention this anecdote about Dr. Brown’s role in Lincoln’s funeral. They were Dr. John Hyson and Dr. Wayne Austerman. The facts in my article were from: Hyson JM, Did you know–a dentist embalmed President Lincoln? Bull Hist Dent. 1994 Nov;42(3):116.; Obituary for Dr. Charles D. Brown, Dental Cosmos,1869 Sep;38(9):789; and Website Return to the Scene of the Crime, http://www.chicagohistory.org/wetwithblood/return/remains5.htm [accessed 18Apr2011 by jek]
Thanks to Major Robert Selders for his assistance in writing. This article is not published elsewhere. Author John E. King, DDS, MPH, firstname.lastname@example.org