Alexander Anderson, VP&S 1796: Medical Hero and Pioneer American Illustrator

Anderson at age 81.

One of the early graduates of the Columbia College Faculty of Medicine (now the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons), Alexander Anderson (MD, 1796), is renowned for being both a genuine medical hero and a significant American illustrator.  Born in New York City in 1775 to Scottish immigrant parents, Anderson showed artistic ability at an early age but with opportunities for artists in the late 18th century United States being rather limited his parents urged him to study medicine instead.

As was typical of the time, Anderson was first apprenticed at age 14 with a local physician, Dr. Joseph Young, to learn the craft of medicine. It wasn’t until 1793 that he entered Columbia’s medical school studying with such distinguished physicians as Samuel Bard, David Hosack, and Samuel Latham Mitchell.  He received the MD in 1796 after completing an inaugural dissertation on “Chronic Mania.”

In 1795, even before he received his degree, however, Anderson was a proficient enough physician for the City of New York to hire him as the resident doctor at its new yellow fever hospital located at an estate on the East River called “Belle Vue.”  During that summer’s epidemic, Anderson was often the only physician present and would commonly have 30-40 patients in his care.  Though the hospital would see about a hundred fatalities, Anderson’s efforts were publicly praised and he was urged to apply for the position of physician to the New York Dispensary, a charitable out-patient clinic.

He declined and though continuing to practice medicine, he also pursued his artistic work, focusing on wood engraving for book illustration. In addition, he opened what is believed to be the first bookstore in the United States devoted solely to children’s books – many of which were illustrated with his engravings.  Unfortunately, this venture soon proved a failure.

Yellow fever returned to New York in 1798 in an epidemic that was one of the worst in the city’s history: over 800 died that summer and fall.  Anderson returned to Belle Vue to treat the victims of the disease but while serving there he suffered an almost unimaginable tragedy: his son, wife, parents, and brother all died of yellow fever.  When the epidemic was over, Anderson left the practice of medicine forever.  He turned to engraving full-time and became a renowned and prolific illustrator of books.  He is known as the “father of American wood engraving.” Anderson remarried in 1800, had several children, and died in 1870, a few months before his 95th birthday.

This biographical sketch is based on Benson Lossing’s “A Memorial of Alexander Anderson, M.D., the First Engraver on Wood in America: Read before the New York Historical Society, Oct. 5, 1870” (New York: Printed for the subscribers, 1872) and the entry for Anderson in American National Biography Online, accessed April 9, 2020.

Anderson’s diaries for 1793-1799 are held by Columbia’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

Image: Anderson at age 81.