John Wesley Monette, MD, of Washington, Mississippi, was the state’s most prolific antebellum writer on historical, scientific, and medical topics. Born near Staunton, Virginia, on 5 April 1803, he was the son of ordained Methodist minister and physician Dr. Samuel Monett and his wife, Mary Wayland Monett. (John added the e to Monett as an adult.) In 1809 the Monetts settled in Chillicothe, Ohio, where John was reared and received his early education. In 1821 Samuel moved his family to Washington, the former Mississippi territorial and state capital six miles northeast of Natchez. There, Samuel established his medical practice, with John beginning medical training under his father. John soon left Washington to attend medical school at Transylvania University in Kentucky, from which he graduated in 1825. His inaugural thesis, submitted in January of that year, was “The Endemial Bilious Fever as It Generally Occurs in the Vicinity of Natchez.”
Monette returned to Washington to practice medicine and on 10 December 1828 married Cornelia Jane Newman. Of the couple’s ten children, only four survived to adulthood. He purchased a house, Propinquity, and lived there while building the three-story Sweet Auburn at Washington, where he lived for the rest of his life. Adjacent to and in front of the main house at Sweet Auburn, Monette constructed two one-story brick buildings: one served as his office, while the other served as a general library, where he wrote many of his lengthy histories, medical treatises, magazine and journal articles, and occasional poetry. He was a prominent civic leader, serving as Washington’s mayor and as a councilman and as a trustee at Jefferson College for more than two decades.
The emergence of yellow fever in an epidemic form was a major concern to the antebellum medical community of the Old Southwest, especially Natchez and Washington. A viral disease transmitted to humans by various mosquitoes, yellow fever presents with such symptoms as fever, jaundice, headache, and gastrointestinal hemorrhage; its malignant form usually results in death. The disease was common in American ports such as New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston in the colonial period, but by the turn of the nineteenth century, ports in the southern United States, such as New Orleans, Mobile, Savannah, and Charleston, bore the brunt of the American attacks. In the late summer of 1817, soon after the introduction of steamboats on the Mississippi River, Natchez suffered its first epidemic, with more than one hundred lives lost. This feared disease became a regular visitor, with epidemics sweeping through Natchez in 1819, 1823, and 1825 and causing many deaths. The yellow fever epidemics that plagued the Old Southwest usually began in the Caribbean, then struck New Orleans in the mid- to late summer before slowly ascending the Mississippi River to ports in the Lower Mississippi Valley such as Natchez and spreading inland. The epidemics usually ended after the fall’s first frost.
In the 1825 epidemic, yellow fever had for the first time extended into Washington, which had previously been considered safe from the disease. Witnessed by Monette in his first year of medical practice, the epidemic took the lives of more than 150 Natchez residents as well as 60 Washingtonians. These horrific local outbreaks in the 1820s birthed in Monette a lifelong interest in the disease, and he devoted significant effort and research to improving ways to prevent and treat the dreaded illness. In 1827 he published “An Account of the Epidemic of Yellow Fever That Occurred in Washington, Mississippi in the Autumn of 1825” in the first volume of the Western Medical and Physical Journal, edited by his highly regarded former medical professor, Dr. Daniel Drake.
In the late summer of 1837 Natchez suffered its first major yellow fever epidemic since 1825. Monette presented a paper, “The Epidemic Yellow Fevers of Natchez,” later published in the South-Western Journal, in which he was among the first to suggest quarantine to prevent yellow fever’s spread. In the summer of 1841, at his suggestion, Natchez for the first time instituted a strict prohibition on steamboat intercourse with New Orleans. When the fever erupted in New Orleans and spread up the river, it decimated river ports south and north of Natchez but left Natchez untouched.
Monette’s yellow fever work culminated in a significant 1842 treatise, Observations on the Epidemic Yellow Fever of Natchez and of the South-West. In this ambitious book, Monette, “a man of science and deep medical learning,” questioned the prevailing medical doctrine that yellow fever was “produced locally by local causes” from “certain putrescent matters” that could be found in ordinary city filth. Refuting long-held medical teachings by such influential physicians as Benjamin Rush, Monette argued that yellow fever was an imported epidemic disease of tropical origin rather than an endemic but malignant form of an indigenous fever. He concluded that the disease reached Natchez via trade with New Orleans and came to New Orleans from Cuba and the West Indies and argued that strict quarantine in southern commercial cities, towns, and ports would prevent the disease from taking hold there. Although his research was hampered by antebellum medicine’s dearth of scientific knowledge (the mosquito as vector was not proven for another half century), his brilliant epidemiological work constituted a major step forward in public health and in understanding the terrible disease. His central argument, which encouraged strict quarantine during July, August, and September, was and remained for sixty years the best way to prevent yellow fever epidemics.
His financial success as a practicing physician, a cotton planter with two Louisiana plantations, and a land speculator provided him the leisure necessary to pursue more aggressively his scholarly research and writing. As early as 1833 Monette initiated work on his greatest literary achievement, History of the Discovery and Settlement of the Valley of the Mississippi, which was published to much acclaim in two volumes by Harper and Brothers in 1846 and reprinted two years later. The book was an expansive history of the discovery and settlement of the Mississippi Valley by Spain, France, and England as well as of the region’s subsequent occupation, settlement, and establishment of civil government. This monumental work was among the first to emphasize the Mississippi Valley’s importance in American history, and it remains one of the most important American histories written in the antebellum period. By 1850 he had largely completed a second edition, but he did not submit it to a publisher before his death. Much of it survives in manuscript, however, and one chapter, “The Progress of Navigation and Commerce on the Waters of the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes, AD 1700 to 1846,” appeared in the Publications of the Mississippi Historical Society in 1903.
Beginning in the early 1830s, Monette also worked on another elaborate scholarly book, “Physical Geography of the Mississippi Valley,” that also remained unpublished at the time of his death. This work included four books: “Mississippi River,” “Regions of the Upper Valley,” “Antiquities and Aboriginal Inhabitants,” and “Zoology.” Chapter 3 of the first book, “The Mississippi Floods,” later appeared in the Publications of the Mississippi Historical Society (1903). Much of this manuscript, as well as portions of the manuscript of his History of the Discovery and Settlement of the Valley of the Mississippi, were acquired in 1935 by the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan.
Despite his early economic success, Monette experienced financial reverses toward the end of his life and was forced to spend long periods away from his home, managing his Islington Plantation in Madison Parish, Louisiana. He struggled financially and lacked time for his literary work. Leaving a mass of manuscripts unpublished, Monette died suddenly from “erysipelas of the brain” at Islington on 1 March 1851. Historian Franklin L. Riley described Monette as “the pioneer historian of the Mississippi Valley.” His medical contributions, which challenged long-held shibboleths of his profession, reveal him to be a scientific pioneer as well.
- Lucie Robertson Bridgforth, Journal of Mississippi History 46 (May 1984)
- John L. Cotter, Journal of Mississippi History 13 (January 1951)
- Kim Monette Garrett, “John Wesley Monette,” speech given to William Dunbar Chapter, Daughters of the American Revolution (13 October 2003)
- Lucius Lampton, Journal of the Mississippi State Medical Association (January 2006, December 2007, January 2008)
- John W. Monette, History of the Discovery and Settlement of the Valley of the Mississippi (1846)
- John W. Monette, Observations on the Epidemic Yellow Fever of Natchez and of the South-West (1842)
- John W. Monette, South-Western Journal (15, 28 February 1838, 15 March 1838, 30 April 1838)
- John W. Monette Papers, Mississippi Department of Archives and History
- John W. Monette Papers, William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan