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Serving a President: John C. Da Costa, Napoleon, and Woodrow Wilson

Wine bottle (minus the wine) and glass with the mark of Napoleon; From the John C. Da Costa collection, MS 16

After his graduation from Jefferson Medical College in 1885, John Chalmers Da Costa (1863-1933) began his medical career as resident physician for the Philadelphia Hospital (Blockley). After serving a term as resident, he was elected the first assistant physician in the Insane Department of the hospital. Upon leaving Blockley, Da Costa took the position of assistant physician in the Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane (Kirkbride).

Da Costa’s Jefferson career began with his appointment as Assistant Demonstrator of Anatomy in 1887. He eventually rose to become Professor of Surgery, a position he held from 1900 until 1931. In 1910 he became Jefferson’s first Samuel D. Gross Professor. While at Jefferson, Da Costa wrote Modern Surgery, General and Operative (1894) a work that rapidly became a classic going through ten editions; the last in 1931. In addition, Da Costa served as editor of the 1905 U.S. version of Gray’s Anatomy and edited the English edition of Zuckerman’s Operative Surgery.

During World War I, Da Costa served as surgical consultant in the U.S. Navy Medical Corps beginning as a junior lieutenant and ultimately rising to the rank of commander. In 1919, he sailed on the George Washington to tend to U.S. President Wilson during negotiations for the World War I peace treaty and the League of Nations.

Over the course of his life, Woodrow Wilson rarely enjoyed good health. But six years after he became President, Wilson became violently ill while in Paris in April of 1919. The President’s personal physician, Dr. Grayson, after initially suspecting that Wilson had been poisoned, cited influenza as the diagnosis. Even today, the exact nature of Wilson’s illness continues to be open to question. Most historians now attribute his illness to a stroke, and some have even suggested encephalitis. Later in the year on October 2, Wilson, now in Washington, suffered a massive stroke that left his right side paralyzed. Rather than have Vice President Marshall assume office, Mrs. Wilson assumed the responsibilities of monitoring state affairs and screening visitors. While many rumors circulated about the health of the President, efforts to keep Wilson in seclusion and to downplay the gravity of his condition kept him in office for the rest of his term.

Da Costa received the bottle pictured above as a gift while in France and intended to give the wine to his wife, May Brick Da Costa. However, the story goes that after much coaxing from friends during his return voyage on the George Washington, he was persuaded to open the bottle and consume the contents. The empty bottle and glass, therefore, is all that Mrs. Da Costa received.

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