Photo courtesy of the Library of Virginia
On-the-rise Richmond physician Carter Page Johnson booked passage on the steamship Arctic in September 1854. He was returning from a European sojourn as dean of faculty for the recently organized Medical College of Virginia.
The 18-year-old Johnson earned his master's degree from the University of Virginia and his M.D. at the medical college in Richmond, then a department of Hampden-Sydney College. By 20, he was poised for medical eminence. His 1851 paper, "Tracheotomy In Croup," earned favorable comment. He received credit in 1853 for curing an epileptic through trepanning — cutting a hole in the skull to expose the membranes cushioning the brain.
In 1847, he became the anatomy chair of his alma mater. Johnson earned a sterling reputation as a medical practitioner that exceeded those of more experienced physicians. His large, presumably soulful eyes, must have aided in patients' perception of his bedside manner.
After two years of marriage and two children, on April 25, 1852, Johnson's wife, Anne, died. While overcoming this tragedy, he became a founding vice-president of the Medical Society of Virginia.
Meanwhile, a serious schism occurred at Hampden-Sydney medical school in Richmond. At issue was faculty appointment of professors over the heads of the trustees. Virginia medical historian Wyndham Blanton describes the rift causing "newspaper articles, pamphlet warfare, and a notable fight before the legislature."
Virginia's legislature ultimately granted a charter for a new school, termed the Medical College of Virginia.
In 1854, Johnson received appointment as MCV's dean of faculty. He also became president of the state medical society. That spring, Johnson went to Europe for rest, research and to acquire supplies for the new school.
He took passage on the 4-year-old Arctic, a wood-hulled paddle steamer and the swift-moving pride of the Collins Line. The interior appointments of magnificent mirrors, stained glass, marble tables and luxurious furnishings impressed travelers, even those prone to seasickness. The ship left Liverpool for New York City on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 1854, with a crew of some 140 and more than 250 passengers. The ship was due in New York on Sept. 30.
By Oct. 3, though, worrisome notes began appearing in the Richmond Dispatch:
"NON-ARRIVAL OF THE ARCTIC – New York City, Oct 1, 9 p.m. – There is up to this hour no tidings of the steamer Arctic. She's now in her twelfth day. The weather is thick and steady rain falling."
A little after midday, Sept. 27, the Arctic, steaming through patchy, low-lying fog off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, collided with the French vessel Vesta, carrying fishermen home to Dieppe. The Arctic's passengers barely felt the collision. Capt. James C. Luce figured the other ship a goner. Instead, reports came to him of water pouring into the bow of the Arctic through two jagged incisions. The Vesta, built with watertight compartments, lumbered to St. John's.
The sea came in too fast for the Arctic's pumps and killed the engines. Pandemonium overcame the ship as crew members seized the six lifeboats that in the best case would have carried not quite half of those aboard. Of some 400 aboard, approximately 87 survived — none of them women or children.
On Oct. 18, the Dispatch eulogized Johnson:"The loss of Dr. Johnson will be a heavy one to the community at large, and to his children, now orphans, irreparable. The Medical College of this city, and his profession, have lost in him a pillar of strength."
For transatlantic shipping, the wreck of the Arctic — the largest pre-Titanic disaster of its day — quickly inspired safety reforms. Virginia naval oceanographer Lt. Matthew Fontaine Maury speedily charted separate east- and west- bound transatlantic steamer lines to lessen "liabilities by diminishing the chances of collision." Steam horns replaced tin pipes to warn ships in foul weather, iron proved superior to wood construction, and ships added lifeboats.
The orphaned Johnson children entered the care of the A.F.D. Gifford family, and son Chapman Johnson eventually became a civil engineer. He married and settled in Utica, N.Y.