David Lewis Phares was a prominent physician, educator, scientist, minister, and writer. The son of William Phares and Elizabeth Starnes Phares, he was born on 14 January 1817 in West Feliciana Parish, Louisiana, near the Mississippi state line, and was the youngest child in a large family.
Early on, Phares displayed a passion for intellectual pursuits. By age thirteen he had mastered surveying skills, even inventing a sextant with which accurate angles and measurements could be made. In his teens he began an intense study of solar phenomena, investigating solar spots and eclipses, a pursuit that left him temporarily blind. In 1832 he entered the preparatory department of Louisiana College (later Centenary College) in Jackson, Louisiana, and graduated in 1837 with what was said to be the first bachelor of arts degree ever conferred in the state. In 1836 he married Mary Armstrong Nesmith of Amite County, and the couple went on to rear eight children. Phares also befriended Louisiana College’s president, James Shannon, who became Phares’s mentor. Both Phares and his mentor, Louisiana College president James Shannon, became followers of the evangelist Alexander Campbell, a founder of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and a leader of the restoration movement. Phares became an influential “Campbellite” minister, organizing churches near his home in Wilkinson County.
Phares declined a faculty position at Louisiana College and other offers to teach and instead pursued a career as a physician, enrolling at the Medical College of Louisiana in New Orleans (now Tulane University). He graduated in 1839 and began practicing medicine in Whitestown (also Whitesville), later known as Newtonia, nine miles southeast of Woodville in Wilkinson County. He practiced there for more than four decades. He also purchased and managed a twelve-hundred-acre plantation.
Despite the burdens of his medical practice, his passion for education was undiminished. In the 1840s Phares became an outspoken proponent of a common school system for Mississippi. During the administration of Gov. A. G. Brown, his proposals influenced the legislature to create a common school system in 1846. Near his home in southern Wilkinson County, he established at his own expense the Newton Female Institute in 1842 and its male counterpart, Newton College, ten years later, serving as its president until 1859. The institutions prospered until the outbreak of the Civil War but closed permanently by 1865.
Although he did not serve in the Confederate Army, Phares cared for many injured and ill soldiers, and his house served as a home for soldiers during their treatment and recovery. During the war, when he could not obtain medications, Phares explored the medicinal properties of local plants and used them in place of traditional drugs. After the war, he published articles detailing new therapeutic indications for native plants such as viburnum prunifolium, gelsemium, and ceanthus. Phares’s health had been delicate since his teens, and in 1863 he was thrown from a buggy and sustained painful injuries from which he never fully recovered. In September 1868 he suffered a serious illness, and in 1872–73 his vision again became impaired, leaving him temporarily unable to read or write. By 1875 much of his active medical practice had diminished.
Despite his feeble health and his wife’s death on 13 December 1876, Phares continued to address medical, political, and educational issues he considered critical for the welfare of the state. In 1877 Gov. John M. Stone appointed him to serve on the first Mississippi State Board of Health. For that body’s first annual report, he prepared at the board’s request a “Synopsis of Medical Flora in Mississippi,” which detailed more than seven hundred medicinal plants and their therapeutic uses. He also helped the board formulate the state’s response to epidemics of yellow fever and smallpox. He served as the Mississippi State Medical Association’s vice president in 1880–81 and as its president in 1884–85.
As a leader of the Grange, a prominent farm organization, Phares advocated the establishment of an agricultural and mechanical college. After the legislature approved the creation of the college in 1878, Gov. Stone appointed Phares to the institution’s original board of trustees. When the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Mississippi opened in Starkville in 1880, he was appointed to the faculty as chair of horticulture, botany, and animal and vegetable physiology and served as college physician. During the first year of his professorship, he completed a book on one of his favorite subjects, The Farmer’s Book of Grasses and Other Forage Plants, for the Southern United States (1881), which is considered the first publication by a member of the A&M faculty. In 1887 he published Japan Clover, Lespedeza Striata, the Best of all Pasturage and Hay Grasses. Engaging in voluminous correspondence with farmers, he became widely known, writing columns and articles in various medical, agricultural, and veterinary publications.
In 1881 Phares married Laura Blanche Duquercron of Starkville. He retired in 1889 and moved to Madison Station, north of Jackson. He died on 19 September 1892 after suffering a series of strokes.
- John K. Bettersworth, People’s University: The Centennial History of Mississippi State (1980)
- M. F. Harmon, History of the Christian Churches (Disciples of Christ) in Mississippi (1929)
- E. F. Howard, History of the Mississippi State Medical Association (1910)
- John A. Milne, Journal of Mississippi History (July 1956)
- David Lewis Phares Collection, Special Collections, Mitchell Memorial Library, Mississippi State University
- Beulah M. Price, Journal of the Mississippi State Medical Association (December 1973)