Dr. Richard Banks vaccinated his Cherokee neighbors against smallpox

Posted by | September 26, 2013

Dr. Richard Banks, one of the most shining ornaments of the medical profession in this State since its organization, was a native Georgian, born in Elbert County in 1784. After obtaining the rudiments of education, he entered the State University, taking a classical course, graduating in the same class with the famous Chief Justice Joseph Henry Lumpkin.

Dr. Richard Banks. Courtesy Digital Library of Georgia.

Dr. Richard Banks. Courtesy Digital Library of Georgia.

Later he decided to study medicine and entered the University of Pennsylvania, where, after a two years’ course he was graduated with the degree of M.D., in 1820. He then spent one year in the hospital work, and returning to Georgia established himself in practice in the village of Ruckersville in his native county. It would be considered remarkable in the present time that a man of Dr. Banks’s abilities should have chosen such a location, but in those days when railroads were not, it was not so material a matter.

A man of profound modesty, detesting notoriety, and a hater of the methods of the charlatan, he would not even allow his friends to make publication of his wonderful cures. In spite of this, his fame spread rapidly and widely, and people within one hundred miles would have no other doctor if they could get Dr. Banks. All over upper Georgia and South Carolina his reputation extended.

Considering the time in which he lived, his skill as a surgeon was remarkable, and some of the cures which he effected and operations which he performed with the limited facilities then at hand, the use of anesthetics being then unknown, would do credit to the best practitioners of the present time.

On one occasion when he had performed a very remarkable operation and his friend, Dr. Spalding, wrote a report of the case for a medical journal and submitted it to Dr. Banks, he refused to consent to its publication. In cases brought to him, where the implements then in use or accessible were not adequate to the emergency, such was his skill that he devised and had made others that suited the case.

One of his earlier triumphs was the successful removal of the carotid gland at a time when the best anatomists and surgeons were hotly discussing the question of its possibility. He performed an enormous number of operations for cataract and for stone in the bladder, for many years being the only surgeon in a vast expanse of country who would attempt these, and his percentage of recoveries was very great. Some years before his death he stated to a friend that in sixty-four trichotomy operations there had been but two unsuccessful cases, and there were probably other operations after the statement was made.

Space does not permit explanation of his methods, but they were very original and very successful. He did not seem to attach any great importance to his methods or even to comprehend the importance of what he was doing. It was all in the day’s work of the faithful physician.

In 1832 he moved to Gainesville, in Hall County, where he resided until his death in 1850. This town was within a few miles of the Cherokee Indians at the time of his removal there, and the Federal government employed Dr. Banks to visit the Indians and see if he could alleviate the ravages of smallpox. He performed this duty, vaccinated many of them, and treated many, and greatly amazed the Indians by restoring to sight a number of them who had been blind for years. It is pleasant to know that his practice brought him in such an income that he acquired a competency and was enabled to rear his family in easy circumstances.

In honor of his memory, the General Assembly of Georgia in 1858 organized the county of Banks.


source: “Men of Mark in Georgia: a complete and elaborate history…”, Volume 2 By William J. Northen, Atlanta : A. B. Caldwell, 1910, pp. 81-2

My thanks to Andrew Ayers Martin, Lake Village, AR, for his research assistance on this post.

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