Our Heritage

by Ed Morris // April - May - June 2021

Recently, I introduced Dr. Calvin Jones, the founder of the place most of us call home – Wake Forest. On April 2, 1775, Calvin Jones was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. As a young physician of just 20 years old, Jones moved to Smithfield, North Carolina in neighboring Johnston County. While residing in Smithfield, he began to develop a reputation as one of the leading medical minds in the southeast. In addition to the field of medicine, Jones made significant contributions in the areas of public health, education for women, public schools, politics, publishing, and military strategy.

By the age of 25, Calvin Jones had made a name for himself in a pioneering series of newspaper editorials on smallpox. Smallpox in the 18th and early 19th centuries was much like the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 and, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic we face today. It was a deadly and devastating disease that often left those who survived disfigured for life. Jones began urging the people of North Carolina to understand the vital importance of the new, yet lifesaving, smallpox vaccine that had just been developed in England. As far as can be determined, Dr. Jones was the first physician in North Carolina – and one of the first in the country – to discard the old and ineffective treatment of smallpox and substitute with the new process of inoculation that we know now as vaccination. Even before the experiments of Dr. Edward Jenner on smallpox vaccines were completed in England, Dr. Jones was commonly utilizing this therapy. In fact, he developed a long-distance relationship with Dr. Jenner and the two corresponded regularly. Jones received the formula for the vaccine from Jenner and began to manufacture the precious cure himself in his home office – right here in our home state. For a time, Dr. Jones had a hard time selling the idea of vaccination to the people of North Carolina; however, over time, his articles and reputation began to make the idea an accepted alternative to smallpox.

In 1803, Calvin Jones moved from Smithfield to Raleigh. That same year, he was invited by the Moravian settlement of Salem (now Winston-Salem) to come and vaccinate the entire village. As a result of his efforts, not one case of smallpox was documented there.

In 1821, after two decades in Raleigh, Dr. Jones moved to northern Wake County to a plantation he named “Wake Forest.” In 1819, he married Temperance Bodie Williams Jones, a wealthy widow of Franklin County physician and planter Thomas Jones (no relation). By this time, Dr. Calvin Jones’s primary interest was the surgical treatment of eye ailments. Also in 1821, he traveled to Paris to study diseases of the eye under French and Italian surgeons. Upon his return home, patients visited with a wide range of disorders, and Jones treated such eye ailments as cancer, blindness, and cataracts. Ophthalmology was a new medical discipline at that time, and he acquired a significant reputation in the area as an eye surgeon whose focus was using surgical procedures to improve vision. His innovative work, described in medical writings of the time, was important in the development of treatments for many conditions of the eye.

Dr. Jones followed each patient and their progress years after their surgeries. In one such case, he wrote to an early cataract patient. Shortly after, he received a reply from a family member. The quote is memorable: “My brother-in-law is now deceased. I have often had regrets having paid for his surgery as his only accomplishment with his restored vision was to visit grog shoppes and cause misery for the family.” In another note on one of his early patients, Jones described the surgery: “I had only finished one eye when the patient said, ‘I see ducks;’ they were actually geese, but he could see them …” Dr. Jones was considered a miracle worker, as most of his patients had been nearly or completely blind prior to his care, and almost immediately had their sight restored.

Dr. Calvin Jones’ fame and wealth grew rapidly. He continued to develop his surgeries while in northern Wake County, and for a time, trained medical students at his Wake Forest home. He was lured by the prospect of plentiful and cheap land in the state of Tennessee and his desire to enhance his status and wealth. In 1832, Jones sold his plantation to the North Carolina Baptist Convention to be used as a college (now Wake Forest University). The family moved to Tennessee where Dr. Jones gave up the practice of medicine to focus on scientific methods of farming. He continued to consult on medical issues and train young physicians in his surgical techniques, furthering the efforts of his groundbreaking work.

Ed Morris

Executive director of the Wake Forest Historical Museum & Wake Forest College Birthplace.