top of page

Ferdinand Phinizy Calhoun, Jr.

An Unusual Medical Heritage and its Role in Ophthalmological Practice and Education


by F. Phinizy Calhoun, Jr., M.D.


In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, the area called the Calhoun Settlement in the Abbeville District of South Carolina was recognized as the spawning ground of men who entered the legal and medical professions. In the families of physicians with several male children it was common in successive generations for a son to follow his father's calling. In some families there appeared to be a continuing ability and sense of purpose from generation to generation to engage in the practice of medicine, and in those early days it was always associated with the business of farming as a side line.

Among the several Calhoun families of physicians the one of Andrew B. Calhoun established a medical legacy extending for four generations over a period of more than one hundred fifty years and producing notable clinicians and teachers. The latter three physicians of this group have been ophthalmologists and all four have used the same set of anatomical dissecting instruments in their respective medical school classes (if only for a short time). [Fig.1.]

On March 17, 1809, Ezekiel Calhoun, a farmer in the Calhoun Settlement, recorded in his family bible the birth of his seventh child, Andrew Milligan Calhoun. Shortly thereafter, Ezekiel had a falling out with Dr. Milligan for whom his son was named, and substituted the single euphonious letter B as his son's middle name. Thereafter he would always be known as Andrew B., or as A. B. His father dying when A. B. was only eight years of age, he was sent to the nearby spartan log cabin boarding school of the famous educator Moses Waddel in Willington, S.C. Learning after a few weeks that A. B. was not applying himself well at the school, his mother rode over on horseback and took her son home to renew his daily plowing. In the course of this work she would rouse him every morning and from his noon-day nap with this admonition: "There's no rest for the wicked." Soon A.B. was returned to the school and did well. Later he was sent to clerk in a pharmacy in Charleston and then sent to read medicine with his older brother, Dr. Ephrain Ramsey Calhoun1 who was practicing in nearby Cambridge, S.C. At the age of twenty he entered the classes of the Medical College of South Carolina in Charleston, graduating in the class of 1831 after two years of study. His dissertation was entitled "Arthrosia Hydarthrus," and was an attempt to classify the different and puzzling types of knee joint disease, which so often required leg amputation.

Following graduation, he migrated westward to Decatur, Ga., to enter into a frontier general medical practice with a cousin, Dr. Ezekiel Noble Calhoun. His ministrations took him on horseback miles into the wilderness in which the future town of Atlanta would appear. He left this arduous rural practice after ten months to settle in Newnan, Ga., a location southwest of Decatur. He yearned to be involved in farming again, and stated that the ground in Newnan, Ga. was more suited for this purpose than Decatur. Secretly, however, it was known that he disapproved of his cousin's unconventional practice methods, especially his heroic pharmacopeic concoctions one of which was the dreaded "Black Dose" consisting of a combination of calomel, quinine, capsicum, camphor and opium, given four nights in a row. 2

In Newnan, Andrew B. leased four thousand acres of farmland, and built a home and small office in town. Both structures were still standing but not in use almost one hundred years later. [Fig. 2 and 3] At this juncture he decided to go abroad and get more training. He obtained an inexpensive sailing passage to LeHavre, France in November 1837, paying partly with farm produce. Arriving in Paris, he took a course in operative surgery at the Facilité de Mèdicin, Université de France, and received a certificate dated May 15, 1839. He remained abroad about ten months having also visited clinics in London and Edinburgh.3 Upon returning home he quickly developed a busy practice and in 1840 became married to Susan Starnes Wellborn. By this union he had six children, but his wife died in 1857. [Fig.4]

Dr. Calhoun was a typical very successful and respected small town practitioner and gentleman farmer of the day. In 1854, as an influential physician interested in medical education, he was co-founder of the Atlanta Medical College but decided to serve on the faculty because he chose not to move from Newnan to Atlanta. 4 After the death of his wife he discontinued the practice of medicine and in 1861 was elected to the State Legislature representing Coweta County at the Secession Convention where, on January 19, 1861, he voted "yea" to dissolve the union between the State of Georgia and the United States.5 In the early phase of the war he served on the surgeons conscription board but then retired to the lower part of the state. Because of the destitution present after the war he was forced to return to medical practice until a few years before his death.

Dr. Andrew B. Calhoun was known as an honest, stern, and disciplined physician. He was a creature of habit and a meticulous book keeper. His large leather-bound patient and farm books survive and reveal minute details in clear penmanship. When he retired at night in the stately columned mansion built shortly before the war, he required that every window and door in his house had to be locked and its key reposited in its proper place on the master key board in his room. [Fig. 5] He always paid his bills exactly on the first day of the month and in expectation of death which occurred on August 1, 1897, he paid all his debts two days early. There exist no known medical writings or publications attributed to Dr. A. B. Calhoun.



1. Ephrain Ramsey Calhoun, nine years older than his brother Andrew B., practiced first in Cambridge, then Greenwood, S.C., and later moved to Cartersville, Ga., where a son and grandson also became physicians.

2. Weaver, J. Calvin, M.D.: One Hundred Years of Medicine in Dekalb County 1822-1922. Where published______________: BY______________,1952: 13.

3. A full articulated skeleton and brass microscope which he brought home from Europe are on display in the Calhoun Memorial Room in the Health Sciences Library at Emory University.

4. Calhoun, F. Phinizy, M.D.: "The Founding of the Atlanta Medical College 1854-1875." Atlanta: Georgia Historical Quarterly, 1925, Vol. IX, No. 1: 1.

5. His signature pen used at this momentous legislative session is on display in the Calhoun Memorial Room at Emory University.






Fig.1 - Set of Dissecting Instruments

Fig. 2 - Old Office

Fig. 3 - Old House

Fig. 4 - A.B. Calhoun Portrait ( between 1840-1857)

Fig. 5 - A.B.'s columned home

Fig. 6 - A.B. Calhoun cabinet card (in approx. 1886)

bottom of page