Portrait of Peter St. Medard
Born in 1755 on the Ile d’Oléron, off the west coast of France, Peter (née Pierre) St. Medard’s childhood was filled with stories of medicine and the sea. The son of a merchant and nephew of naval surgeons, the young Medard naturally followed in his family’s footsteps. At age 18 he sailed on slave trading voyages from La Rochelle to Africa and the West Indies. Captured by the Royal Navy during the American Revolution, he spent time on the infamous British prison ship Jersey at New York. Released from captivity to Boston, he embraced the newly formed United States as his home and joined the Continental Navy as a surgeon.
Following the end of the American Revolution, the veteran doctor entered private practice in Boston. In 1798, as the United States’ Quasi-War with France escalated, Medard once again entered the American service, this time in the new United States Navy and against his own native country. He joined the newly launched frigate Constitution as surgeon under Captain Samuel Nicholson.
Discharged under the Peace Establishment act of 1801, which ended the Quasi-War with France, Medard nevertheless returned to the U.S. Navy in 1802 as surgeon for the frigate New York. It was probably during that ship’s Mediterranean cruise that a European artist painted this oil on canvas portrait. Now 48 years old, Medard wears the gold-embroidered surgeon’s uniform authorized by the Secretary of the Navy in August 1802.