Winston Churchill collection  1889-1956
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Biography

John Van Vechten Lansing (1824-1880) was the grandson of Abraham Jacob Lansing, who had subdivided his lands in 1771 to establish the town of Lansingburgh, N.Y., where Lansing was born. John was early singled out from among the three boys and two girls of his farming family as the high achiever-- the "Pride and Prop of our House", in his mother's words-- and thus sent to college (Rutgers) and for legal training in Buffalo. His correspondence with brothers and sisters during this era show him to have occupied the role of family advisor and of loving, supportive mother's son. Lansing's relationship with his father is a puzzle, for there is no correspondence between the two during any era of his life, nor do letters to and from other family members very frequently mention the father, although they are filled with the doings and feelings of siblings and mother.

After graduating from Rutgers the young man seems to have had second thoughts about his predestined career, for he corresponded with John James Audubon regarding an expedition to the western states. Audubon turned him down, however, so Lansing dutifully became a lawyer and returned to Lansingburgh to practice. After several years at a profession he evidently disliked, Lansing appears to have finally rebelled against his family's pressures and expectations. In the summer of 1849 he left abruptly for Europe with a friend, Jonathan Douglas, informing his family and law partner only after the fact, by letter. During their several months in Switzerland and France Lansing decided to become a doctor like his friend, and he began medical training in Paris. This education was continued after his return to the United States in 1849 (although a gap in the record between late 1849 and July of 1852 make it unclear exactly when and where his training began). While at Dartmouth Medical School in 1852 Lansing became the teaching assistant of Dr. Edmund Randolph Peaslee (1814-1878). Peaslee, a graduate of Yale Medical School, taught at Dartmouth, at the Medical College of Maine, and at New York Medical College during this period of his life; later he became a well-known gynecological specialist and published a treatise on ovarian tumors. Lansing's medical training, therefore, was closely associated with Peaslee, and was carried out at the three institutions which employed him; his final graduation, in February of 1854, was from New York Medical College.

After finishing medical schooling Lansing's life took another sudden, unexplained turns. Although obituaries note that he became a professor of medicine at New York Medical College at this time, his personal papers indicate otherwise, for in July he was bound for South America as ship's physician on the "Seaman," heading for Montevideo and Buenos Aires in hopes of beginning a medical practice in one of these cities despite a sketchy knowledge of Spanish. He soon found prospects there bleak and returned home, where he won a post as assistant physician of the lunatic asylum on Blackwells Island, New York City. Two years later he advanced to a position of head asylum physician, this time at the Kings County Lunatic Asylum in Flatbush, New York.

Biographical material on Lansing indicates that he wound up in Albany, New York in 1859. There he established a private practice, became a professor at Albany Medical College, and married. Of this seemingly most stable, successful era of Lansing's life almost no details are known, for there is a 21-year gap in the collection between 1857 and 1878. The only information on his life and career in Albany are provided by published proceedings recording his participation in the Albany Institute and the Albany County Medical Society, for which he delivered papers and served in various official capacities. Lansing also published medical papers on the scientific use of frogs and on "therapeutical skepticism" during this period.

This settled existence was relatively short-lived. In 1876 Lansing's wife died, and the following year he accidentally shot to death an attendant at a rifle range -- precipitating another major change in his life, for shortly thereafter he gave up his practice and teaching career to become prison physician at the Clinton County State Prison in Dannemora, New York. Lansing's obituaries attribute this move to the fact that he "never entirely recovered from the shock which the unfortunate accident caused him." He died two years later, in May of 1880, by drowning which was ruled accidental.

Lansing's correspondence, and especially his diaries, reveal him to have been at times a tortured soul, periodically wishing that his life would end when he was in a depressive period, given to sober philosophical musings on his travels and medical training. These states alternated with times of enthusiastic engagement in studies, teaching, medical practice, professional activities, and hobbies such as hunting, fishing, sketching, and writing poetry. At such times he was a frequent and eloquent correspondent with various friends and family members, exhibiting perceptiveness and dry humor in his accounts and observations. Given the gaps in the collection, it is difficult to get a complete sense of the man and his life, but the papers manage to convey enough of him, personally and professionally, to make for an interesting character study.