Jacob Mendez Da Costa
Biography of Jacob Mendez Da Costa
Jacob Mendez Da Costa, of Spanish and Portuguese extraction, was born to a wealthy family on St. Thomas, then still a Danish Colony,. The branch of the family to which he belonged had emigrated to England in the sixteenth century and subsequently became bankers and planters in the West Indies.
When four years old he left with his parents for Europe, where he received an excellent private education. From the age of thirteen he attended a gymnasium in Dresden together with his brother Charles. Here he studied classics and modern languages and became fluent in German and French, and could also read Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and Dutch.
In 1845, at the age of sixteen, he decided for a medical career and went to Philadelphia, where his mother was then living, to study at Jefferson Medical College. Following graduation in 1852 he spent one and a half year in Paris where he was a favourite pupil of Armand Trousseau (1801-1867).
From Paris, where he also became well acquainted with the bookshops and restaurants in the Quartier Latin, he moved on to Prague and Vienna, working with the anatomist Joseph Hyrtl (1810-1894) in Vienna.
Da Costa returned to Philadelphia in 1853, aged 23. He opened office and became a physician to the dispensary attached to the Moyamensing House of Industry (1853-1861). While struggling to establish himself in practice, he began teaching students and postgraduates. His classes in physical diagnosis were particularly popular and resulted in his 690 pages work Medical Diagnosis (1864). The book established his fame in the United States and abroad and went through nine editions in the United States.
During the Civil War he served at the Military Hospital in Philadelphia and gathered much of the evidence for "his" syndrome. From 1861 to 1865 he was Acting Assistant Surgeon, U.S. Army and physician at Turner's Lane Hospital, Philadelphia.
In 1865 Da Costa became Visiting Physician to the Pennsylvania Hospital, a position he retained for 35 years. Besides this he was a very successful and popular physician. he began his tenure at Jefferson as Lecturer on Clinical Medicine in 1866 and became Professor of the Theory and Practice of Medicine in 1872. He resigned in 1891, becoming Professor Emeritus. He achieved international reputation as a teacher, attracting pupils from far and wide.
A man of wide interests, both in the medical profession and elsewhere, Da Costa was a member of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences of Boston, the American Philosophical Society, the New England Historical and Genealogical Society, the Contemporary Club, the Mahogany Tree Club, the Wistar Association, and the Shakespeare Society. He had a passion for books and possessed a large library.
In 1860 Da Costa married Sarah, the sister of his friend and distinguished colleague, Professor John Hill Brinton (1832-1907). They had one son, Charles Frederick, who became a lawyer.
- «All that goes on in medicine is to be the chief matter of interest to you. Hence you must be busy readers; and, as habits form, you will learn to look to medical journals with avidity, and new publications will be examined with keen relish. But to become distinguished, nay, to become even respectable in your profession, you must be something more than readers, you must become active thinkers and sifter of knowledge, learn, as Bacon counsels, to weigh and consider books.»
Valedictory address, Jefferson Medical College, 1874.
«We are, I think, in this busy age of ours, in great danger of over-estimating the value of more reading. It is often a lazy mode of half-culture, a kind of mental dissipation, relished the more because it is mingled with a feeling of self-satisfaction at following what seem an intellectual pursuit; a trouble-saving invention, indulged in fitfully, and without regard to its true purpose. That purpose is to make the knowledge sought completely our own, to examine it critically, and if fully satisfied with it, to adapt it so thoroughly as part of our mental organization, that we are not conscious of how it came there.»
Valedictory address, Jefferson Medical College, 1874