FORT DRUM, N.Y. (Dec. 14, 2021) -- The name Guthrie is synonymous with health care at Fort Drum. But long before the Guthrie Ambulatory Health Care Clinic first opened in 1991, the physician it honors distinguished himself in the U.S. Army, the profession of medicine and in the local community.
Dr. Samuel Guthrie served as an Army surgeon during the War of 1812, treating injured service members as American forces clashed with Great Britain over violations of maritime rights.
He moved to Sackets Harbor (then known as Sacket’s Harbor) after the war with his family in 1817, practicing medicine while establishing himself as a manufacturer and inventor. He is recognized as being the first to discover chloroform – a sweet-smelling, colorless, non-flammable anesthetic. He made this by distilling chloride of lime with alcohol in a copper still.
The same chemical compound, anaesthetic trichloromethane, was found independently by a French scientist and German chemist the same year, but Guthrie published his findings first.
Before his discovery of chloroform in 1831, the anesthetics used by surgeons were not standardized – being either too weak to effectively sedate a patient or strong enough to kill some patients.
With Madison Barracks a short distance from his home, it is assumed Guthrie’s experiments were known by Army doctors stationed there, and his new anesthetic would have improved the treatment for Soldiers under their care. By the 1840s, chloroform was used to numb the pain of childbirth, and it was widely distributed to military doctors during the Civil War to reduce the trauma of procedures such as amputations.
In “Memoirs of Dr. Samuel Guthrie and the History of the Discovery of Chloroform,” written by his grandson, Ossian Guthrie, the effectiveness of this anesthetic is described as such:
“Many a shattered hulk of humanity which would have expired under the withering and consuming pain of an operation where susceptibility was exalted and sensibility intensified, have, with the aid of this sustaining staff, come back from the very verge of the death-shadowed valley.”
Ironically, the man who discovered something to help heal people also invented a product to kill. Guthrie created a form of percussion powder (percussion pill) for firearms and the punch lock to ignite it, which would make the flintlock musket obsolete. He sold it in one-ounce tin cans labelled “Water Proof, Percussion Priming. S. Guthrie, Sackets Harbor.”
His discoveries did not arise without personal risk. Guthrie’s grandson wrote:
“Dr. Guthrie’s experiments with explosives, especially fulminating preparations, were, perhaps more extensive than those of any other man of his day, extending over a period of nearly 40 years, during which time he experienced many serious explosions.”
During one trial, 25 pounds of half-dried powder ignited with such force as to “lift the roof.”
“In some of these explosions, Dr. Guthrie sustained lasting and almost fatal injuries,” his grandson wrote.
His home was situated near Mill Creek, about a mile from Sackets Harbor, which provided a reliable source of water for his vinegar house, alcohol distillery and laboratory.
In his book, “Dr. Samuel Guthrie: Discoverer of Chloroform,” J.R. Pawling described how Guthrie made alcohol by fermenting potato skins, molasses and yeast into a concoction he called “potato molasses.”
Biographer Victor Robinson wrote how farmers’ wives from miles away would patronize his vinegar house, and that the brand of alcohol Guthrie distilled was unrivaled in Jefferson County. Vinegar had many uses – for cooking, as a cleaning agent or a disinfectant – and Guthrie was the main supplier for Madison Barracks.
As industrious as Guthrie was, he also enjoyed playing violin, hunting and fishing. He was known to engage socially in games of whist – a card game that was the direct forerunner of bridge – but did not care for gossip or aimless conversation.
In 1827, Guthrie helped establish the Hounsfield Library, which contained roughly 500 volumes, and he served as one of its trustees. He also was a stockholder in one of the first woolen mills established in Watertown, according to his memoirs.
Guthrie eschewed extravagance – he was a plain dresser and wore nothing to attract attention. He took pride in his library of medical and scientific journals, the Edinburgh Encyclopedia and a collection of Shakespeare’s work. He rode daily on his faithful bay mare to the post office at the harbor.
His grandson believed him to have suffered greatly in his waning years – from a chronic nerve condition in his face, and as a result of injuries sustained from his experiments. Guthrie died Oct. 19, 1848, in Sackets Harbor at age 66.
A quote from the Sackets Harbor Observer is included in his memoirs. It reads: “Many who knew him, can bear testimony to the kindness of his disposition, and the generosity of his nature.”
(Editor’s Note: This is the fourth article in the Around and About Fort Drum series. The article was sourced primarily from “Memoirs of Dr. Samuel Guthrie and the History of the Discovery of Chloroform” by O. Guthrie, and resources provided by Constance Barone, Sackets Harbor Battlefield State Historic Site manager.)