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John S. Sappington (1776 – 1856)

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Introduction

Dr. John S. Sappington, a physician, farmer, and medical pioneer, developed an anti-malaria
Malaria is a disease caused by a parasite transmitted by mosquito bites. These parasites settle in the liver in human hosts and multiply. They are then released into the bloodstream, where they attack red blood cells, causing severe flu-like symptoms such as extreme weakness, chills, high fever, sweating, headache, intense nausea and diarrhea, muscle and stomach cramps, and sometimes death. Since mosquitos thrive in warm, moist environments, malaria was a common illness in settlements near swamps and rivers in America. In the 1700s and 1800s, malaria was a major problem in Missouri during the summer in cities along the Mississippi River, such as Ste. Genevieve and St. Louis, and along the Missouri River, such as Arrow Rock. Although malaria is now rare in the United States, it is still common in several countries in South America, Africa, and Southeast Asia.
pill that helped save the lives of countless individuals who lived along rivers and in swampy areas. His discovery led one of his friends to declare that Sappington “deserve[d] a statue of gold to be erected by the mothers of Missouri.”
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Early Years and Education

John S. Sappington was born on May 15, 1776, in Havre de Grace, Maryland. He was the third of seven children born to Dr. Mark and Rebecca Boyce Sappington. John’s father studied medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and became a physician.

Jane Breathitt Sappington Jane Breathitt Sappington Jane Breathitt Sappington was painted by George Caleb Bingham in 1834.

[Courtesy of Friends of Arrow Rock]

In 1785, when John was nine, the Sappington family moved to Nashville, Tennessee. He worked on the family farm and attended school. John later studied medicine with his father, who trained John and his brothers to become physicians. Because Tennessee was still part of the American frontier, doctors were in high demand, and John soon found himself busy tending to patients.

U.S. Senator Thomas Hart Benton U.S. Senator Thomas Hart Benton

After completing medical studies with his father, John moved to Franklin, Tennessee, where he practiced medicine. In 1804, he married Jane Breathitt. Together they had nine children: two boys and seven girls. While he lived in Franklin, Sappington met future U.S. Senator Thomas Hart Benton. The two men became close friends. Benton, an influential lawyer and politician, urged Sappington to move to Missouri Territory where large tracts of land could be purchased at affordable prices from the U.S. government. Benton himself moved to Missouri in 1815.


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A New Beginning

Map of Missouri with Arrow Rock and Fayette starred Arrow Rock in the Boonslick Region of Missouri

Intrigued by Benton’s glowing description of the Missouri Territory and the opportunity to make money, Sappington traveled to the Boonslick region of Missouri. In 1804, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark had described the area as being full of salt water springs. Pleased by what he saw, Sappington borrowed $950 from Benton to purchase several thousand acres of land in what is now Saline County, Missouri. In 1819, Sappington and his family The 1850 U.S. Census listing John S. Sappington, his wife Jane and one daughter, Mary. Also listed is Sappington’s son-in-law and former Missouri Governor Meredith Miles Marmaduke, who married Sappington’s daughter Lavinia. Meredith and Lavinia’s 17-year-old and Sappington’s grandson John, who was Missouri's 25th governor (1885-1887), is listed as well.

[1850 U.S. Census, Saline County, Missouri]
settled on a farm outside of Arrow Rock.

Sappington quickly became one of the most influential men in the region by providing medical services, lending money, and importing and exporting goods like cotton and medicine. His fortune also grew due to the hard work of slaves Sappington had 24 slaves in 1850. The average slaveholder in Saline County had 5.4 slaves.

[1850 U.S. Census, Slave Schedule, Saline County, Missouri]
he purchased to work his vast land holdings.

John S. Sappington home John S. Sappington home Despite his great wealth, Dr. Sappington lived in a modest two-story home made of logs outside of Boonville, Missouri. This sketch was drawn long after Sappington’s death.

[Courtesy of Friends of Arrow Rock]
By 1824, Sappington established the Pearson and Sappington store at present day Napton and later opened a second store at Arrow Rock. The stores sold goods to travelers on the Santa Fe Trail
William Becknell established this trade route between Missouri and Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1821. The trail was 800 miles long and took three months to travel. It was replaced by the railroad in 1880.
, loaned money, processed salt, and milled lumber for locals. Dr. Sappington began to rely on relatives to help manage his businesses and land. It was the beginning of a family enterprise that lasted for decades.

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Finding a Cure

Settlement on the Missouri River Settlement on the Missouri River Swampy, poorly drained areas harbored mosquitoes that carried malaria. People who lived in these areas often contracted malaria from an infected mosquito.

[SHS 007928]

Financially successful, Sappington continued to practice medicine. He began to experiment with quinine, a substance derived from the bark of the cinchona tree, a species native to South America. Sappington began importing cinchona bark as early as 1820, but it was only years later that he discovered its most promising medicinal use as a preventative against malarial fever.

Dr. Sappington's Anti-Fever Pills Sappington’s Anti-Fever Pills Dr. Sappington's Anti-Fever Pills

[Courtesy of Friends of Arrow Rock]
Malaria, an infectious disease passed from mosquitoes to humans, ravaged much of early America. People who lived near bodies of water or in areas of swampy, poorly drained land were among those most likely to contract the disease. Once infected, an individual suffered from high fever, chills, vomiting, and joint pain. Missourians who lived along the Missouri
At 2,341 miles in length, the Missouri River is one of the longest rivers in North America and a major waterway in the central United States. The river flows east and south from western Montana, forming Missouri's northwest border and crossing the state before merging with the Mississippi River north of St. Louis. With the invention of the steamboat in the early 1800s, the river became part of the nation's first major transportation system and served as a main route during the nation's westward expansion. The Arabia Steamboat Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, houses the remains of the cargo from a steamboat that sank on the Missouri River in 1856.
and Mississippi
The Mississippi River runs south from northern Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico and is considered the chief river in North America's largest drainage system. Bordering Missouri on the east, the river flows for 2,530 miles. Along with the Missouri River and several other tributaries such as the Ohio River, the Mississippi became part of the nation's first major transportation system in the early 1800s after the invention of the steamboat. Missouri has historically engaged in international trade by shipping and receiving goods along the Mississippi through the port of New Orleans, which lies at the river's mouth.
Rivers were often susceptible to malaria.
Pill Rollers Used By Dr. Sappington to Make His Pills Pill Roller Pill Rollers used by Dr. Sappington to make his pills

[Courtesy of Missouri Department of Natural Resources, SHS000107-2]
In 1832, using quinine taken from cinchona bark, Sappington developed a pill to cure a variety of fevers, such as scarlet fever, yellow fever
Yellow fever is a virus transmitted to humans through the bite of female mosquitoes. While the virus is largely found in tropical parts of Africa and South America, large outbreaks have occurred in the United States, including an epidemic that killed 20,000 people in the Mississippi River valley in 1878. Symptoms of the disease include fever, chills, loss of appetite, muscle pain, vomiting, and headache. Those who survive the disease have lifelong immunity to it.
, and influenza
Commonly referred to as "the flu," influenza is an infectious disease that causes chills, fever, sore throat, runny nose, muscle pains, headache, coughing, and weakness or fatigue. Often it can be confused with other illnesses such as the common cold, but influenza is more severe and is caused by a different type of virus. In 1918 an extremely deadly influenza pandemic occurred. An estimated 50 to 100 million people around the world died from the disease. In the United States, more than one-fourth of the population was affected by the illness that year, leading to around 450,000 deaths.
. He sold “Dr. Sappington's Anti-Fever Pills” across Missouri. Demand became so great that within three years Dr. Sappington founded a new company known as Sappington and Sons to sell his anti-fever pills nationwide. The anti-fever pills were popular in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas.
Box of Sappington’s Medicines Box of Sappington’s Medicines Box of Sappington’s Medicines

[Courtesy of Missouri Department of Natural Resources, SHS000107-1]

Sappington believed in sharing his success with less fortunate relatives and relied upon them to help him manage and sell his products all across the country. It was during this time that Sappington became aware of quinine’s protection against malaria. As his family members and other sales agents travelled through regions prone to sickness, Sappington instructed them to take the pills occasionally to ward off malaria. None of them became ill with the disease.

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Controversy

Advertisement Advertisement Advertisement for Sappington’s Anti-Fever Pills in the Vicksburg (Mississippi) Whig illustrates the use of Sappington’s pills across the country.

[SHS 1995-0109]

His success did not come without controversy. At the time of Sappington’s discovery, many physicians did not believe in using quinine. Instead, the most common medical treatment at this time involved bleeding a patient and administering mercury chloride, also known as calomel. Although Dr. Sappington’s discovery worked, many doctors were still fearful of quinine and urged patients to avoid Sappington’s anti-fever pills because an incorrect dose could cause blindness or even death.

Warning of counterfeit Anti-Fever Pills in the Jefferson City Inquirer, October 15, 1840 p.3 c.5 Warning of counterfeit Anti-Fever Pills Warning of counterfeit Anti-Fever Pills

[SHS Jefferson City Inquirer, October 15, 1840 p.3 c.5]

Despite criticisms of his pills, Dr. Sappington received letters from satisfied customers from all over the country. In one such letter, Rockwell Andrews of Havana, Illinois, wrote, “Your invaluable fever medicine having been tried in this town and vicinity and found to be what it was commended to be, a cure, there is a demand for it unequalled by any other medicine. In fact, no substitute can be found.”

Medical book Medical book Sappington’s Theory and Treatment of Fevers revealed the formula for Sappington’s anti-fever pills.

[SHS F567 Sa69]

In 1844, Dr. Sappington published the first medical book written west of the Mississippi River, Theory and Treatment of Fevers. Much to his family’s dismay, Sappington revealed the formula The formula for Sappington’s Anti-Fever Pills from his book Theory and Treatment of Fevers

[SHS F567 Sa69, p. 79]
of his anti-fever medicine in his book, allowing physicians to manufacture their own anti-fever pills. Following the publication of his book, Sappington decided to divide his assets among his children and focus on agricultural pursuits.

Dr. Sappington’s wealth and influence helped launch the political careers of several family members. Two sons-in-law, Meredith Miles Marmaduke Sappington’s son-in-law and former Missouri Governor Meredith Miles Marmaduke

[SHS 013070]
and Claiborne Fox Jackson, became Governor of Missouri, as did Sappington’s grandson, John Sappington Marmaduke Sappington’s grandson John Sappington Marmaduke was Missouri's 25th governor.

[SHS 013069]
.

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Philanthropy

Missouri Valley College, Marshall, Mo. Missouri Valley College The Sappington School Fund helped attract Missouri Valley College to Marshall because it was thought that students who received financial aid from the fund would attend the college.

[SHS 028717]

Often described as an “avid reader,” Sappington believed in the value of education throughout his life. In 1847, he proposed the creation of a state manual training school to help educate and train Missourians, and even offered to give the state of Missouri land in exchange for its support. The state, however, failed to meet his offer and the school was never built

A few years later in 1853, Sappington established the Sappington School Fund, which he funded through a personal donation of $20,000. Because Missouri was still the western frontier and public schools were nonexistent, the Sappington School Fund helped underprivileged children pay to attend subscription schools. It also helped attract Missouri Valley College to Marshall, Missouri. The Sappington School Fund is still in existence today and is administered by Wood & Huston Bank in Marshall. In recent years, the fund has helped students obtain college educations.

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Sappington's Legacy

Dr. John S. Sappington painted by George Caleb Bingham about 1845. Dr. John S. Sappington Dr. John S. Sappington painted by George Caleb Bingham about 1845.

[Courtesy of Friends of Arrow Rock]

After a long illness, Dr. John Sappington died on September 7, 1856, in Saline County. He is buried in Sappington Cemetery outside of Arrow Rock. The cemetery is a state historic site because his two sons-in-law who served as Governor of Missouri are buried there.

Although Dr. John Sappington’s successful creation of an anti-malaria pill did not eradicate malaria, it did help save thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of lives. Settlers were able to live in areas plagued by malaria in the American South and West. Through his financial generosity, Dr. Sappington helped hundreds of Missourians receive an education and better their lives.



Text and research by Kimberly Harper

Meets Show-Me Standards SS: 2, 6, 7; 4th grade GLE 2a.A.

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References and Resources

For more information about John S. Sappington's life and career, see the following resources:

Society Resources

The following is a selected list of books, articles, and manuscripts about John S. Sappington in the research centers of The State Historical Society of Missouri. The Society’s call numbers follow the citations in brackets. All links will open in a new tab.


  • Articles from the Missouri Historical Review
  • Articles from the Newspaper Collection
    • “Sketch of Dr. John Sappington and his family.” University Missourian. November 1, 1924. p. 1, c. 2.
    • “Sappington proposes founding of a Manual Labor School in Missouri.” Jefferson City Inquirer. December 11, 1847. p. 3, c. 1.
    • “History of the Sappington fund and how it is used by Saline County.” Columbia Missourian. July 19, 1926. p. 4, c. 4.
    • “Historic old home of John W. [sic] Sappington at Arrow Rock.” Columbia Missourian. August 29, 1924. p. 4, c. 3.
  • Books
    • Christensen, Lawrence O., William E. Foley, Gary R. Kremer, and Kenneth H. Winn, eds. Dictionary of Missouri Biography. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1999. pp. 666-667. [REF F508 D561]
    • Hall, Thomas B., Jr. Dr. John Sappington of Saline County, Missouri. Arrow Rock, Mo.: Friends of Arrow Rock, 1975. [F508.1 Sa69h3]
    • Morrow, Lynn. John Sappington: Southern Patriarch in the New West. Columbia, Mo.: Lynn Morrow, 1985. [F508.1 Sa69m]
    • Sappington, John, and Ferdinando Stith. The Theory and Treatment of Fevers. Arrow Rock, [Mo.]: J. Sappington, 1844. [F567 Sa69]
  • Manuscript Collection
    • Sappington Family, Papers, 1819-1895 (C0159)
      Papers of Dr. John Sappington of Arrow Rock, MO, and his family. Business letters about Sappington's pills and book for the treatment of malaria. Letters and papers from family and friends; supplies; notes. Legal case of Coffee & Blacke vs. Sappington & Sons. Miscellaneous personal record and account book.
    • Sappington Family, Papers, 1831-1939 (C2889)
      Copies of miscellaneous papers of Dr. John Sappington of Arrow Rock, MO, and his family. A few personal papers, household accounts, and records of his pill business, but mostly material about the financial provisions Sappington made for the children of his daughter Eliza and Alonzo Pearson.
    • Sappington, John (1776-1856), Papers, 1803-1887 (C1027)
      Correspondence and miscellaneous papers, largely concentrating on Sappington's anti-fever medicine business. Also correspondence and papers of William B. Sappington, Erasmus D. Sappington, and Claiborne Fox Jackson.

Outside Resources

These links, which open in another window, will take you outside the Society's Website. The Society is not responsible for the content of the following Websites:
  • Dr. Sappington Museum
    The Friends of Arrow Rock maintain a museum in honor of Dr. John Sappington at Arrow Rock. The village is a National Historic Landmark.


Historic Missourians: John S. Sappington
Dr. John S. Sappington In 1834 Dr. John Sappington and his wife Jane were painted by a promising local artist, George Caleb Bingham. The two portraits are the earliest known surviving portraits done by Bingham.

[Courtesy of Friends of Arrow Rock]

John S. Sappington

Born: May 15, 1776
Died: September 7, 1856 (age 80)
Category: Doctors
Region of Missouri: Central
Missouri Hometown: Arrow Rock
Related Biography:
Senator Thomas Hart Benton
John S. Sappington's Signature