Wake Forest Historical Museum

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The 245th Birthday of Calvin Jones!

On April 2, 1775 Calvin Jones was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.  Jones was a leading North Carolina intellectual who made significant contributions to medicine, public health, politics, publishing, military strategy, and public education. Executive Director Ed Morris wrote the following biography to commemorate the day.

Portrait of Calvin Jones
Portrait of Calvin Jones

Jones earned his medical license at age seventeen. By the time he moved to Smithfield, North Carolina in 1795 he was a practicing physician with a published article on scarlet fever. At the age of twenty-five, in a groundbreaking series of newspaper editorials, Jones began urging the people of North Carolina to understand the vital importance of the strange, yet lifesaving, smallpox vaccine that had just been developed in Europe.  

It is believed, Dr. Jones was the first physician in North Carolina and one of the first in the nation to discard the old treatment of smallpox and to substitute the new process of inoculation now known as vaccination. So up-to-date was Dr. Jones that he was extensively practicing this treatment before the experiments of its discoverer (Dr. Edward Jenner) were completed in England. In 1799 Dr. Jones had leveraged his regional fame to establish the North Carolina Medical Society in Raleigh. Like the smallpox vaccine, this effort was also aimed at protecting public health. According to the Raleigh Register, the society would allow the community “to distinguish the true physician from the ignorant pretender” and hopefully prevent “the fatal and criminal practices of quacks.”

After two decades in Raleigh, Dr. Jones moved to northern Wake County in 1821.  During this time, his primary interest was the surgical treatment of eye ailments. Patients visited with a wide range of disorders, and Jones treated everything from cancer to blindness from cataracts. Ophthalmology was a new medical specialty, and he developed a considerable regional reputation as an eye surgeon with a focus on the practical application of surgical techniques to improve vision. His advances (appearing in medical writings of the era) influenced the development of 19th century eye treatments and surgeries. Jones also briefly trained medical students at his Wake Forest plantation.

Soon after moving from Smithfield to Raleigh in 1803, Jones pursued politics. He was elected mayor of the capital city and by 1807 he represented Wake County in the House of Commons. In partnership with Thomas Henderson, Jr. Jones edited and published an early city newspaper, the Raleigh Star. Jones authored a wide array of articles covering topics such as science, art, literature, history, politics, and current events.

In 1808 Jones became concerned with the ongoing conflict with Britain  He achieved the rank of North Carolina’s Adjutant General, serving as the state’s chief military officer. During the War of 1812 he accepted a commission as General to command the Seventh North Carolina Division of Militia, and in 1813 protected the state by preventing a British fleet of approximately 150 warships and vessels from invading the North Carolina coast.  General Jones achieved this victory by moving his troops to Ocracoke and Portsmouth in a show of force formidable enough to dissuade the British from surging inland. It is believed that this strategic decision kept North Carolina from becoming a battleground state in the War of 1812.

Calvin Jones was also an ardent supporter of the principles of Freemasonry, joining Raleigh’s first lodge soon after its establishment in 1800 and holding the successive positions of Worshipful Master, Junior Grand Warden, Senior Grand Warden, and Grand Master of the Lodge of North Carolina. In addition, Jones served thirty years (1802-1832) as a member of the Board of Trustees of the University of North Carolina, to which he donated his collection of material for a botanical garden and museum of natural history.

He was also a trustee of the Raleigh Academy and, upon his move to northern Wake County, became involved in the creation of the Wake Forest Academy (1823), the Wake Forest School (1831), and the Wake Forest Female School (1831).  Jones then sold his property to the North Carolina Baptist Convention (1832), paving the way for the founding of the Wake Forest Manual Labor Institute (1834) later to become Wake Forest College (1838), now Wake Forest University (1967). In fact, Jones is the man who coined the name “Wake Forest” by altering the existing regional term of “the Forest of Wake.”  Calvin Jones’ restored Wake Forest home is now part of the Wake Forest Historical Museum complex.

In 1819, Calvin Jones married Temperance Bodie Williams Jones, widow of Franklin County physician and planter Dr. Thomas C. Jones (no relation). Temperance brought a son, Thomas, to the marriage and Calvin and Temperance had three surviving children, Montezuma, Octavia Rowena and Paul Tudor. By 1832 Jones with his family and enslaved workers moved to his vast land holdings near Bolivar, Tennessee. There he continued to instruct other physicians on his treatment of eye ailments and continued to acquire land becoming one that that state’s largest landowners. Calvin Jones died in 1846 at his Tennessee home, Pontine.  

Learn more:

Calvin Jones Papers, Southern Historical Collection, UNC Chapel Hill.

Calvin Jones: Physician, Soldier and Freemason 1775-1846 by Marshall Delancey Haywood, historian of the Grand Lodge of North Carolina, 1919.

Calvin Jones (1775 – 1846) Some of His Contributions to Medical Practice in New York, North Carolina and Tennessee by S.R. Bruesch from Bulletin of the History of Medicine, Vol XXXI No 3, May-June 1957.

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