Early Moravian Physicians in Salem
During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, trained doctors were scarce in rural America. The Moravian community that settled in the foothills of North Carolina was very fortunate to have had a physician with them from the very beginning of their enterprise.
When the original Moravian settlement party left Bethlehem, Pennsylvania to come to North Carolina in 1753, they had to bring everything they needed to survive and set up a new community. Each of the fifteen unmarried men chosen as the first settlers had to be not only strong and healthy but versatile as well. Dr. Hans Martin Kalberlahn was a fine candidate for the mission. He was one of the first eleven Moravian men to arrive in Wachovia, the area chosen for the settlement. Having joined the Moravian brotherhood near Frankfurt, Germany, he served the settlers in several ways: as physician, cook, general housekeeper, and bookkeeper. Dr. Kalberlahn returned to Bethlehem in 1758 where he married. When he went back to Bethabara in 1759, he was confronted by an epidemic of typhus. Two months later, he succumbed to the illness and died.
The community’s second frontier doctor, Dr. Jacob Bonn, trained in Bethlehem and came to Bethabara in 1758 to assist Dr. Kalberlahn. Dr. Bonn went back to Pennsylvania for further study, but returned to North Carolina. He became the first physician in the new community of Salem when, in 1772, the Moravian community moved its headquarters there. Dr. Bonn was also one of the early occupants of the first house built in Salem, a half-timbered dwelling called “First House.” In addition to practicing medicine, Brother Bonn served as sheriff and justice of the peace. As part of his effort to promote health among the Moravian people, he organized a nursing service in the Moravian villages, and organized periodic meetings of these caregivers who were both male and female. Mrs. Anna Maria Bonn served the community as a midwife. Jacob Bonn had a stroke and died suddenly in 1781 at the age of 48.
After unsatisfactory experience with a non-Moravian doctor who succeeded Dr. Bonn, and managing without any doctor for two years, Salem leaders sent back to Germany for a physician. Dr. Samuel Benjamin Vierling, who had joined the Moravian Church while studying medicine in Berlin, answered the call and arrived in Salem in 1790. Vierling had remarkably good surgical skills. He quickly gained the confidence of people both in the town and the surrounding areas and became the most renowned of Salem’s early physicians. Like other rural doctors of the period, Samuel Vierling ministered to all the medical needs of his community. He pulled teeth, amputated infected and gangrenous limbs, treated cataracts, performed operations when necessary, and delivered babies. He trained midwives and was an herbalist and gardener who grew and prepared blends of medicinal herbs. According to the standard practice of the time, he practiced bloodletting and provided purgatives to his patients in order to preserve or restore balance within their bodies.
Dr. Vierling kept himself informed about the latest developments in medicine internationally. After Edward Jenner published his findings about vaccination in 1798, Vierling began inoculating Salem residents against smallpox. He was also a pioneer in dietary control of illness. When he suspected a connection between the high instance of stroke in Salem and the consumption of salt pork, he encouraged the town to establish a meat market so that fresh meat would be readily available as an alternative to salt cured meat.
Initially, the Vierling family lived in the First House where previous Salem doctors had lived and practiced. As the family of eventually eight children began to outgrow the First House, Samuel asked master builder Johann Gottlob Krause to build them a large brick house. The house, where the Vierlings lived and where Samuel saw his patients, was completed in 1802. It was one of the finest private dwellings in Salem. In addition to practicing medicine in his house, Dr. Vierling enjoyed playing the violin, sharing in music making with his family and at church. The summer of 1817 brought a particularly virulent epidemic of typhoid fever to Salem. Samuel Vierling fell ill and, to the great sorrow of his family and of the community, died in November of that year.
Dr. Christian D. Kuhln (also spelled “Keehln”) was the last of the German-born physicians of Old Salem. Born a Moravian in Germany, Dr. Kuhln immigrated to Salem in 1818, shortly after Dr. Vierling’s death. In 1831, following the tradition of his predecessors, C. David Kuhln moved into a house he had built that contained both his examining room and an apothecary. Dr. Kuhln was a well-respected citizen of Salem, and was elected to serve in the Congregation Council numerous times. He addressed the medical needs of the Moravian community for twenty-eight years until 1859 when, at age 66, he passed away. Dr. Kuhln’s oldest son, Theodor Felix Kuhln, went to Pennsylvania to study in 1836. He returned to Salem where, like his father, he practiced medicine and served in the Congregation Council. Theodor Felix Kuhln was also a gifted musician, and he taught for a time at the Salem Boys School.
Fries, Adelaide L. and Rights, Douglas L. Eds. Records of the Moravians in North Carolina, State Department of archives and History, 1954. Vols. 7-10, See indexes in each volume.
Niven, Penelope. Old Salem: The Official Guidebook, Winston-Salem: Old Salem, Inc., 2004. Pp. 76-78, 100.
Prichard, Robert W. “A Short Tour of Forsyth’s Medical Past”, 1981 Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center, Dorothy Carpenter Archives.