Although largely unknown today Dr. John Dix Fisher (1797-1850) was one of the more influential reformers of 19th-century Boston. He was a physician whose many contributions to medicine include his additions to the understanding of smallpox and other contagious diseases, introducing the stethoscope to the United States, pioneering childbirth anesthesia, and being an early proponent of evidence-based medicine. Fisher also led the initiative, around 1827, to create what would become the Perkins School for the Blind.
Born in Needham Massachusetts in 1797, Fisher was the youngest of 6 children. His brother, Alvin Fisher (1792-1863) is considered a pioneer of American landscape painting. After graduating from Brown University in 1820, Fisher attended the Massachusetts Medical College of Harvard University, where he received his medical degree in 1825. For the next two years, Fisher continued his medical studies in Europe. One of several renowned physicians that Fisher studied with in Paris was René Laennec, inventor of the stethoscope. Fisher introduced the stethoscope and the process of using it for diagnosis (auscultation) to the medical community in Massachusetts upon his return. While in Paris Fisher also visited L’Institution Nationale des Jeunes Aveugles, the first school dedicated to students with blindness, founded by Valentin Haüy in 1784.
Fisher visited the school at a time when Louis Braille would have been a teacher or a student-teacher at the school. Fisher was very moved by what he saw at the school and determined that his own city of Boston would also house such a school. Upon his return to the United States, he gathered the support of many of the most prominent figures of early nineteenth-century Boston Society. These figures include William Prescott, a historian who was blind; Colonel Thomas H. Perkins, a well-known and wealthy merchant; educator and author, Edward Brooks; educational reformer, Horace Mann, and members of the Thorndike and Lowell families. This group persuaded the Massachusetts legislature to sign an act incorporating the New England Asylum for the Blind on March 2, 1829.
For more than two years the trustees searched for someone to direct the new school. Thomas Gallaudet was one notable candidate but was unable to take the position because of ill health. It was while riding horses with his old college friend Samuel Gridley Howe, that Fisher spoke of his troubles finding a director for the school. By the end of the ride, Howe’s interest in the position ended up getting him the job.
Fisher served as a Trustee from the school’s founding until his death in 1850. He also served as the physician for the school. When Howe was on his year-long honeymoon in Europe, Fisher is credited with overseeing the school and writing the 1843 Annual Report. He served the school while being a primary care physician. Later in life, he also served as an acting physician at Mass General Hospital and participated actively as a member of the Boston Society for Medical Improvement. He was active in the medical community and always interested in new techniques and innovations, including being in attendance at the Ether Dome demonstration in 1846.
Fisher died on March 2, 1850, of a respiratory infection when he was just 53 years old. His funeral was well attended. The pupils from the school he started provided the music. A “Meeting of the Friends of Dr. Fisher” was held shortly after. Tributes were paid and resolutions were made in his honor. One outcome of this meeting led to a marble monument being erected in his honor at the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Inscriptions on its sides read, “The Early and Efficient Advocate for the Education of the Blind,” “The Physician and Friend to the Poor,” and “Erected to the Memory of J.D. Fisher MD by Those who Loved him for his Virtues. He died in Boston on March 3, 1850, Aged 53 years.”
Hale, Jen. “Dr. John Dix Fisher.” Perkins Archives Blog. Perkins School for the Blind, Watertown, MA. 2022.