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Lawson, Thomas

Born: 1789-08-29 Virginia

Died: 1861-05-15 Norfolk, Virginia

Thomas Lawson was surgeon general of the U.S. Army Medical Department. Little is known of his childhood or education; he most likely did not attend college or medical school, receiving his training as a physician as an apprentice with a local doctor. In 1809, he joined the U.S. Navy as a surgeon's mate, but he resigned in 1811, joining the U.S. Army as a garrison surgeon. During the War of 1812, he served as a surgeon for the Sixth Infantry Regiment. In 1815, he transferred to the Seventh Infantry Regiment. By 1818, he was a one of the U.S. Army Medical Department's senior surgeons, and when the War Department reorganized the department in 1821, he became senior surgeon. From 1821 to 1836, Lawson served at various posts in the American West, an unhappy stint broken up by service in the Second Seminole War. Upon the death of Surgeon General Joseph Lovell, Lawson became surgeon general, serving in that post until his death. As surgeon general, Lawson lobbied Congress on behalf of his medical officers, fighting for their privileges and rights. During the Mexican War, he accompanied Winfield Scott in his invasion of Mexico. When Congress granted medical officers military rank in 1847, Lawson became a brigadier general. Lawson continued Lovell's practice of encouraging his medical officers to compile and submit regular reports of the flora and fauna found at their posts, and Lawson used these reports to publish meteorological and statistical data of the frontier. Plagued by health problems in the 1850s, he took few perceptible steps to prepare his department for the sectional conflict that loomed over the nation. He suffered a fatal stroke a few days after the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter.

Mary C. Gillett, "Lawson, Thomas," American National Biography (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 13:300-301.