A North Carolinian by birth, the physician and medical educator Charles Caldwell paired extraordinary talent with an equally extraordinary capacity for alienating his colleagues. As a medical student at the University of Pennsylvania in 1793, Caldwell volunteered at the emergency hospital at Bush Hill during the yellow fever epidemic, and sided with the controversial heroic therapeutic of his teacher, Benjamin Rush. But it was not long before Caldwell began to cut his own path, theoretically and stylistically. In his dissertation in 1796, he attacked Rush directly in attempting to demonstrate that the three phenomena of fever were all the same, and although the strain placed on their relationship was only temporary, it provided a taste of a pugnacious style and propensity for bitter attack that became the hallmarks of Caldwell's career.
Frozen out of a position at the University of Pennsylvania due to his clash with Rush, Caldwell began piecing together a distinguished career in medicine and natural history in Philadelphia, and although he made few friends in the profession, he was accepted as a major figure in the city's medical establishment. Elected to the American Philosophical Society in 1796, he joined the Academy of Medicine (the organization formed in opposition to the College of Physicians and to Rush) and the Philadelphia Medical Society, among other organizations, and was selected to deliver clinical lectures at the Almshouse between 1805 and 1811.
In Caldwell's eyes, the formation of a new Faculty of Natural Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania in 1815 held promise that he might at last earn his coveted appointment to the faculty, yet despite delivering three courses of lectures between 1816 and 1819, he never received his appointment. Indignant, he accepted a chair in medicine at Transylvania University in Kentucky, and rapidly began to transform that school into one of the foremost medical schools in the western states. His best efforts, however, did not preserve him from the consequences of his abrasive personal style. In 1837, he was dismissed from Transylvania after unsuccessfully pushing to move the medical school to Louisville, landing at the Medical Institute of the City of Louisivlle, which he also developed into a first class institution.
Caldwell enjoyed some of his greatest fame for his writings on race and phrenology. After meeting the patriarch of phrenology, Franz Josef Gall, during a visit to Paris in 1821, Caldwell imported the new science into the United States, adapting it to American circumstances. Caldwell's version of phrenology was much closer to the determinist pole of Gall than it was to the environmentalist pole of Spurzheim and Combe, and it fit squarely with the racial determinism that he pioneered at the same time.
From the guide to the Charles Caldwell, M.D.: The Rejection of Chemistry in America, 1959, (American Philosophical Society)