After some deliberation, William Alexander Graham chose to pursue a career in medicine. His uncle, Dr. Samuel Legrand Campbell, was a well-respected physician and trustee of Washington College, living nearby in Carr’s Creek. Dr. Campbell’s daughter Sophia had just married Dr. Robert McCluer (spelled McClewer in the manuscript), who settled in Lexington, and it was with him that Graham began an apprenticeship.
Doctor Robert McClewer was then a young physician who had settled in Lexington and was acquiring an extensive and lucrative business. He very generously offered Graham the use of his books, shop etc. without charge, if he would read with him and attend to the Apothecary department during his absence. He closed in with this proposition (p. 12)….
[Dr. McClewer’s] time was occupied in attending to his professional calls and preparing his medicines. In this last Graham was always required to take a part. This employment was dull and irksome to him in the highest degree—making pills—pounding drugs—rubbing together lard and crude mercury, spreading blisters—weighing doses of calomel and jalap—Selling now a dose of salts—Now of Tartar Emetic–pressuring bandages—bleeding negroes—dressing fetid ulcers etc. A hundred times Graham felt the deepest disgust approaching to contempt for the science of Medicine—But he had put his hand to the plough; pride would not permit him to turn back or utter one syllable of dissatisfaction at the choice he had made (p. 13).
Graham was bored and unhappy. He was learning something about compounding medicines and treating patients, but he had hoped to learn more of the underlying medical sciences. To devised a plan to extricate himself from the apprenticeship without insulting Dr. McCluer.
From this unpleasant situation he managed to relieve himself, by urging the necessity of making some exceptions, to acquire the means of defraying the expenses necessary, in attending a course of medical lectures in Philadelphia. For this purpose he proposed teaching a school (p. 14).
Graham was well versed in Latin and the sciences. He planned on opening up a school for one year with the intention of making money for medical school.
With Doktr Johnston, Graham prosecuted his medical studies. 1st Osteology the doctrine of bones, a skeleton was his constant companion kept under his bed which he might consult at anytime…
1817: During this winter his leisure was principally occupied in investigating the structure of bones; learning the nerves of the human bones, their motions etc. Not a very interesting subject (p. 21).
As subjects could not be obtained my preceptor directed my attention to Comparative Anatomy; “the structure and organization of brutes: remarking how they differed from and when they assembled the human Anatomy. In this way he depicted and explained the eye, the heart, and the lungs, of the Ox and sheep—his explanations interspersed with physiological remarks I now began to feel some interest in Medicine as a science (p.23).
While Graham was studying under Dr. Johnston, he also took the opportunity to learn about Botany. He set out to learn the order, genus , species, and possible medicinal properties of every local plant.
My medical preceptor would now call my attention to every remarkable or dangerous case which occurred in his practice; and when leisure would permit I would visit with him his patients particularly in surgical cases. Thus I went on in my ordinary and uninterrupted course of teaching and study until March 1818 (p.23).
What occurred in March 1818 was that a Dr. M. Morgan in Abingdon approached Graham and Johnston with a plan for studying human anatomy through cadaver dissection. The three of them dug up the body of Eliza Chapman, a free black woman who had recently been buried in the nearby Sinking Springs cemetery. The local community caught wind of this and charged them with a misdemeanor. Only Dr. Morgan was found guilty, and he was fined $100.