The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

"His intrepidity had well nigh been fatal to him": Dr. John Jeffries

This past Sunday we may have celebrated the day of our national weather-groundhog with Punxsutawney Phil's prediction of another six weeks of winter, but today we celebrate National Weatherperson's Day as recognized by the National Weather Service. This date, 5 February, was chosen for to celebrate the anniversary of the 1745 birth of Dr. John Jeffries, a Bostonian who is credited as one of the nation's first weathermen, flying a hot air balloon above the city of London to take scientific weather measurements.

This fascinating individual has an equally intriguing connection with the Adams family. A Boston physician, Dr. Jeffries first crossed paths with John Adams during the Boston Massacre Trials of 1770 as a witness testifying for the defense. As the surgeon attending to Patrick Carr, one of the townspeople shot by the soldiers, Jeffries had asked Carr questions about what had happened, and Jeffries relayed to the jury what he had learned. Carr, who died of his wounds ten days later, supported the defense account that the mob pelted the soldiers with more than just snowballs and helped instigate the confrontation. Jeffries became a loyalist as the Revolution broke out and eventually left Boston, becoming a doctor in the British Army first in Nova Scotia and later set up his practice in London.

It was in Europe that that Dr. Jeffries and the Adamses crossed paths once again. While dining with Benjamin Franklin in Paris on February 14, 1785, John Quincy Adams met Dr. Jeffries who described to the guests his voyage by balloon from Dover, England, to Calais, France, the first to cross the English Channel by air. John Quincy recorded in his diary, "Dined at Dr. Franklin’s with a great deal of Company, among the rest Dr. Jeffries who lately cross'd with Mr. Blanchard, from Dover to Calais. He is a small man: has not an agreeable address, but seems to be very sensible: he related his voyage: in which his intrepidity had well nigh been fatal to him: the balloon descended he says, 3/4 of a mile in 2. minutes: he and Mr. Blanchard were both of them obliged to throw almost all their cloaths in the water. At one time they were not more than 20 yards above the surface."

Several months later when John Adams became the first American Minister to Great Britain and moved to London, Dr. Jeffries became the family physician. Abigail said of him in a letter to her sister, "Dr Jeffries is our family Physician, and is really an amiable benevolent Man tho formerly he took a different side in politicks." In addition to treating the regular ailments of the family, Dr. Jeffries was present for the birth of John and Abigail's first grandchild when their daughter Nabby gave birth to William Steuben Smith in April 1787.

If you would like to learn more about Dr. John Jeffries, his family papers are available at the MHS.

permalink | Published: Wednesday, 5 February, 2014, 8:00 AM