Events of the past continue to shape our lives today, and the prosperous era of the 1850s is a case in point. In 1850 the first locomotive arrived in Nashville, sustaining and enhancing the city as a regional commercial and metropolitan hub, a standing we have never relinquished. Today’s Union Station, built at the turn of the century during the railroad boom, survives as one of our most beloved cultural landmarks.
The Medical School of the University of Nashville opened in 1851, met with immediate success, and quickly established Nashville as a medical center. Following in its wake, Shelby Medical College opened in 1858. The Nashville medical tradition continued with Vanderbilt University, which today provides one of America’s finest medical centers.
In 1854 the publishing arm of the Methodist Episcopal Church South opened on the public square, securing Nashville’s future as a publishing mecca. No doubt the presence here of the Methodist Publishing House played a part in the 1870s formation of Vanderbilt University, which began as a Methodist school. Still in operation today and publishing under several imprints, the publishing house has employed thousands of Nashvillians and pumped millions of dollars into our economy.
Nashville’s first public school was named in honor of educator Alfred Hume, who has been called “the father of Nashville public schools.” Hume School opened in 1855 with 12 teachers. From that modest beginning developed the sprawling Metro Nashville public school system with a total proposed operating budget for the 2021-2022 fiscal year of $1,017,807,500, which provides for 157 schools, 86,000 students, and 11,000 employees.
The Tennessee State Capitol, completed in 1859, is the governmental temple in which our state laws are still sanctified. Other structures built in the 1850s that contribute to Nashville’s present character include Downtown Presbyterian Church (dedicated in 1851), Holy Trinity Episcopal Church (1852), Sunnyside Mansion (ca. 1852), Belmont Mansion (1853), Literary Building of the University of Nashville (1853), Church of the Assumption (completed in 1859), Clover Bottom Mansion (1859), and Two Rivers Mansion (1859).
These and other events from 150 years ago belie any notion that history is irrelevant. The past has not only a chronological relationship with the present but also a causative one. We did not just happen upon the present: the past is the impetus for today.
All postcards and photographs used in this article are part of the NHN collection.
Born October 24, 1822, John Berrien Lindsley came to Nashville in 1824, when his father, Philip, became president of the University of Nashville. Young Lindsley was educated at home by his parents and a neighbor, Septima Sexta Rutledge.1 At 14 he entered the University of Nashville, earning a B.A. at 17 and an M.A. two years later.2 In 1842 he entered the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, receiving his M.D. in March 1843.3 Here Lindsley began a lifelong friendship with adventurer William Walker.4
Lindsley’s next pursuit was theology: in December 1843 the Nashville Presbytery accepted him as a candidate for the ministry.5 He was licensed to preach in April 1845,6 shortly before attending to Andrew Jackson at his deathbed.7 Lindsley ministered to churches at the Hermitage and in Smyrna and, beginning in 1847, preached to slaves and the poor.8 An 1849 cholera epidemic9 kindled his interest in public health.
When Philip Lindsley left the University of Nashville in 1850, his son John Berrien became Chancellor. He proposed to rescue the faltering university by merging with the Western Military Institute of Georgetown, Kentucky,10 and by establishing the long-awaited medical school. Though apprehensive, Board members permitted the merger. Lindsley spearheaded the development of the medical school in 1851, became its first dean, and taught there until 1873.11 [Note: the following year the University of Nashville Medical School was incorporated into Vanderbilt University, which had been founded in 1873 by virtue of a grant from Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt. From that point on, it would be known as the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.]
In 1857 Lindsley married Felix Grundy’s granddaughter Sarah “Sallie” McGavock, with whom he had six children. He served on the Nashville Board of Education and was secretary of the State Board of Education, administering the Peabody Education Fund and overseeing the transition of the University of Nashville into Peabody College.12 Having received a Doctorate of Sacred Theology from Princeton (1858), he lectured in the Cumberland University Theological Department in Lebanon.13
Following the capture of Fort Donelson (February 1862), Lindsley became post surgeon of Nashville hospitals. His valiant efforts to protect university property during federal occupation saved the library, laboratory equipment, and the valuable Troost mineral collection.14
After the war, Lindsley served on the Nashville Board of Education and was superintendent of Nashville public schools. He helped establish Montgomery Bell Academy (1867) and the Tennessee College of Pharmacy (1870),15 and in 1875 presided over the State Teachers Association. Having promoted the passage of an 1877 law establishing the State Board of Health, he served as its first executive secretary.16 As Nashville Public Health Officer from 1876-1880, he supervised all health efforts in Tennessee during the 1878 yellow fever epidemic.17 He taught Sanitary Science and Preventative Medicine at the University of Tennessee from 1880-1897.18
Distressed by wartime divisions within the Presbyterian Church, Lindsley became a minister in the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in 1874.19 He authored History of the Law School of Cumberland University at Lebanon,Confederate Military Annals of Tennessee, and many works on medicine and public health. He was an early member of the Tennessee Historical Society and a fellow of the American Academy of Medicine.20 His many talents led Alfred Leland Crabb to call him the “Benjamin Franklin of Nashville.”21
John Berrien Lindsley died December 7, 1897, in Nashville. He is buried in Mt. Olivet Cemetery. (2014)
1 Windrow, John Edwin. John Berrien Lindsley, Educator, Physician, Social Philosopher. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1938, 8.
2 Lindsley, John Berrien. Diary, Volume 4, 1849-1856. Lindsley Family Papers, ca. 1812 – [1840-1940] – 1953, Box 1, Folder 21. Tennessee State Library and Archives.
3 Windrow, 11.
4 Lindsley, John Berrien. Letter to Adrian Van Sinderen Lindsley, April 8, 1843. Lindsley Family Papers, ca. 1812 – [1840-1940] – 1953. Oversize folder (49). Tennessee State Library and Archives.
5 Lindsley, John Berrien. Diary, Volume 4, 1849-1856.
6 Windrow, 12.
7 Lindsley, Philip. Journal. Lindsley Family Papers, ca. 1812 – [1840-1940] – 1953, Box 2, Folder 33. Tennessee State Library and Archives.
8 Lindsley, John Berrien. Diary, Volume 4, 1849-1856.