Zabdiel Boylston Adams, Surgeon
If you are from Boston or have even visited the beautiful city, you might recognize the names Boylston and Adams. Whether it be Boylston Street where the Boston Marathon finish line is located or the iconic Samuel Adams lager, those two names are synonymous with Boston’s history and culture. But when they are combined and a first name is added on, you get a man by the name of Zabdiel Boylston Adams. Zabdiel was the product of a union between two of the most prominent families in the early history of Boston, the Adams and the Boylstons. His namesake, Zabdiel Boylston, along with Cotton Mather, another famous Boston physician, worked to inoculate over three hundred Bostonians during the smallpox outbreak of 1721. Zabdiel Boylston Adams, his father, and his son (all share the same name) became physicians in the Boston area. In total, five members of the Adams family shared the name Zabdiel and three became physicians. Some of Zabdiel’s distant relatives include President John Adams, as well as the famed revolutionary Samuel Adams.
Before the outbreak of war, Adams began his medical career by graduating from Harvard Medical College in 1853 and spent the next year studying medicine in Paris. This was fairly common for aspiring doctors at the time as Paris, Berlin, and London were some of the top places to study medicine in the 19th century. Adams was in Paris during a particularly nasty outbreak of cholera and was able to observe treatments, symptoms, and autopsies of the disease, asking some of the same questions that would lead Dr. John Snow to his conclusions on the epidemiological origins of cholera two years later. He began his medical career as the resident physician for the Taunton Insane Hospital in Massachusetts in 1855 before moving his practice to the city of Boston a year later.
Adams joined the Union army after the attack on Fort Sumter and became the Assistant Surgeon for the 7th Massachusetts Infantry mustered out of Taunton, Massachusetts. While serving with the 7th MA from 1861 to 1862, Adams oversaw the vaccination of the regiment against smallpox. He recorded the process of administering the vaccination while also commenting on its efficacy in the regiment, “in one day the whole regiment of many hundred men were vaccinated with two small scabs sent to me by Surgeon General Dale… About 75% of the vaccinations succeeded, and we had very few bad arms.” Early in the war, vaccinations against smallpox became a requirement for service as the disease could easily spread in the close quarters of camp life. Adams, much like his ancestor Zabdiel Boylston, became an advocate for the vaccination of populations against smallpox.
After the vaccination of the regiment, the 7th MA, part of the VI Corps of the Army of the Potomac, took part in many of the major early engagements of the Civil War. The 7th MA did not take part in the Battle of 1st Bull Run; however, Adams took an ambulance wagon to the battle as he reported he could hear the fighting from the camp in Washington. He would record, “in our camp at Kalerama we were able to hear the distant sound of battle at Bull Run, and that I went out with ambulances under orders on the day after the battle.” Adams himself was with the regiment during the Siege of Yorktown, Williamsburg, and Fair Oaks. By the end of 1862, Adams would be promoted to the regimental surgeon of the 32nd Massachusetts Infantry.
During the Battle of Gettysburg, Zabdiel Boylston Adams would become well known for his actions on July 2. His regiment took part in the fighting surrounding the Wheatfield. Adams set up his field dressing station about fifty yards behind the front line, administering critical first aid to the wounded. It was common practice for regimental aid stations to be near the front lines, however, Adams boldly set up his station in the line of fire of Confederate rounds. During his involvement at Gettysburg, it was reported that Adams worked on wounded men from both sides for two days and three nights straight, only stopping after losing his sight from exhaustion. Because of his actions during the battle, he is the only surgeon with a monument on the Gettysburg battlefield. His actions in going beyond his duties in caring for wounded soldiers and the dedication he showed got him mustered out of the army as his eyesight had not recovered enough to continue his service as a surgeon.
This setback did not stop Adams from serving his country. When he recovered, Adams enlisted into the infantry as an officer to continue his service. Adams was an infantry officer in the Battle of the Wilderness during the Overland campaign towards the end of the war. During the battle, he was wounded in the leg and captured by Confederate forces who then refused to give him treatment or neglected the level of care needed to treat an infected and gangrenous wound. According to reports, “his left leg shattered, he lingered untreated for weeks. Gangrene set in, but Adams treated himself by pouring pure nitric acid into the wound, ‘although the pain,’ he wrote later, ‘was almost unendurable.’” His self-treatment of the wound he received in battle was effective and Adams was able to save his leg from amputation. In general, Adams was apprehensive to perform amputations due to the potential considerable risk of infection.
After being released by his captors and spending a brief period in a hospital, Adams rejoined his infantry regiment and took part in the Siege of Petersburg. Upon the surrender of Robert E. Lee at Appomattox in 1865, Adams’ service concluded, and he began a medical practice in Roxbury, Massachusetts. It was at Roxbury where he and several other doctors and physicians decided to form a medical society “for local doctors to share medical ideas and experiences, and journal articles.” After the Civil War, cities and towns began to start some of their own medical societies as they recognized the importance of communication among the medical field in times of need. A year after the conclusion of the Civil War, one of the worst outbreaks of cholera hit the nation, and it was the formation of these medical societies and the lessons in infection control learned from the Civil War that allowed doctors to get a handle on the outbreaks.
Zabdiel Boylston Adams is one of many doctors who went above and beyond for the care of the men in their regiments. Adams was an ardent supporter of vaccinations against smallpox, he was an abolitionist, and he became a supporter of the sanitation and germ theory movements in the post-war medical field. The Boylston and Adams families have dedicated themselves to the service of their nation and of their city for generations. Streets, buildings, and businesses are all named after those that exemplify service and dedication. As a native of Massachusetts, I am proud to be able to share the story of Zabdiel Boylston Adams and his dedicated service to this nation during one of its darkest moments.
About the Author
Michael Mahr is the Education Specialist at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine. He is a graduate of Gettysburg College Class of 2022 with a degree in History and double minor in Public History and Civil War Era Studies. He was the Brian C. Pohanka intern as part of the Gettysburg College Civil War Institute for the museum in the summer of 2021
 “Mitchell Adams ‘Dr. Zabdiel Boylston Adams: Surgeon and Soldier for the Union.’” Vimeo, December 20, 2021. https://vimeo.com/showcase/2279318/video/91438409.
 “Harvard Digital Collections.” Papers of Zabdiel Boylston Adams, 1861-1981 (inclusive), 1861-1894 (bulk), Interesting Reminiscences of a Long Professional Life, Mar. 6, 1894. H MS c49.4 – Harvard Digital Collections, n.d. https://digitalcollections.library.harvard.edu/catalog/990006035500203941_HMS.COUNT:1192989. Pg. 4.
 “Zabdiel Boylston Adams.” Framingham Biographies. https://biographies.framinghamhistory.org/zabdiel-boylston-adams/.
 “Harvard Digital Collections.” Papers of Zabdiel Boylston Adams, 1861-1981 (inclusive), 1861-1894 (bulk), Interesting Reminiscences of a Long Professional Life, Mar. 6, 1894. H MS c49.4 – Harvard Digital Collections, n.d. https://digitalcollections.library.harvard.edu/catalog/990006035500203941_HMS.COUNT:1192989. Pg. 14.
 “Harvard Digital Collections.” Papers of Zabdiel Boylston Adams, 1861-1981 (inclusive), 1861-1894 (bulk), Interesting Reminiscences of a Long Professional Life, Mar. 6, 1894. H MS c49.4 – Harvard Digital Collections, n.d. https://digitalcollections.library.harvard.edu/catalog/990006035500203941_HMS.COUNT:1192989. Pg. 11.
 Gindlesperger, James. Bullets and Bandages: The Aid Stations and Field Hospitals at Gettysburg. Durham, NC: Blair, 2020. Pg. 162
 Ireland, Corydon. “Saga of a Civil War Surgeon.” Harvard Gazette. Harvard Gazette, May 2, 2019. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2013/02/saga-of-a-civil-war-surgeon/.
 “Zabdiel Boylston Adams.” Framingham Biographies. https://biographies.framinghamhistory.org/zabdiel-boylston-adams/.Tags: Civil War Medicine, Civil War surgeons, Zabdiel Boylston Adams Posted in: Civil War Medical Personnel