The Lexington Physicians of General Robert E. Lee

Richard D. Mainwaring, MD; Harris D. Riley, Jr, MD


South Med J. 2005;98(8):800-804. 

In This Article

Robert L. Madison, MD

Robert Lewis Madison (Fig. 2) was a great-nephew of President James Madison; his grandfather was General William Madison, the youngest brother of the president. His father was also named Robert Lewis Madison, and his mother's maiden name was Eliza Strachan, of Petersburg, VA. Robert Lewis Madison the junior was born on February 28, 1828 at Woodberry Forest in Orange County, VA. His parents died when he was a child, and he was then adopted by his uncle, Robert Strachan and raised in Petersburg. When he was 17 years old, he entered William and Mary College. He graduated in 1849. He was a student at the University of Virginia in 1850 prior to enrolling at the Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, where he received his medical degree on March 8, 1851. His thesis topic was Comparative Anatomy and Physiology of the Nervous System. He practiced in Petersburg and in Baltimore, MD. In 1859, he was elected by the Board of VMI as the Mercer Professor of Animal and Vegetable Physiology Applied to Agriculture. Soon after, he was also appointed surgeon of the Institute.[3]

Photograph of Dr. Robert Lewis Madison. Reproduction courtesy of the Virginia Military Institute.

A fellow member of the faculty was Major Thomas J. Jackson, for whom Dr. Madison served as personal physician. At the outbreak of the War between the States in April, 1861, Jackson left VMI and soon became world-renowned as the stonewall of the Army of Northern Virginia. Dr. Madison remained in the service of the Institute.

When the VMI Corps of Cadets went to Richmond in 1861 to help drill new recruits, Dr. Madison went along as Major of Engineers. Following the battle at Manassas, he served as Surgeon-in-Charge of a hospital at Orange Court House. When classes reopened at VMI, Dr. Madison returned to Lexington as professor and surgeon, and he was present with the cadets when they fought at the battles of New Market and McDowell in 1864. The cadets affectionately called him Johnny or Bones. The VMI cadets also participated in the defense of Richmond in 1865, and Dr. Madison, now with the rank of colonel, attended the wounded after the battle, evacuating some to Staunton, VA and others to Lexington.

At the conclusion of the war, Dr. Madison gave up his position at VMI and moved to Staunton apparently due in part to concerns about his wife's health. On July 1, 1866, he wrote the following excerpt to General Francis H. Smith, then superintendant of VMI.

... I would not hesitate a moment in returning but my wife's health is ill suited for so damp a climate and besides I have nearly completed a cottage with the little means left me by the war. I have therefore, after much reflection, decided to make Staunton my permanent home. [4]

Dr. Madison completed what would later become known as the Sears House in 1866 (Fig. 3), but the following year, he decided to return to the faculty at VMI. He sold his house on August 26, 1867 to Barnas Sears, a distinguished educator who had come to Staunton to administer the Peabody Education Fund.

Photograph of the house that Dr. Madison built in 1866 in Staunton, Virginia. He sold the house the following year to Barnas Sears, and it became known over the years as the Sears House.

Dr. Madison was married twice. His first wife was Letitia Lee of Orange County, who was a great-grandchild of President Madison. The couple had two daughters, Mary and Letitia, both of whom died without being married and were buried at Montpellier. Dr. Madison married his second wife, Helen Bannister, on January 25, 1860. This second marriage resulted in three sons, Monroe, Robert Lee, and Edmond Bolling. Dr. Madison and his family lived for a time in part of the president's house at Washington College, he served on the vestry of the Grace Episcopal Church where the Lee's attended, and he was to be one of the Lexington physicians in charge of Lee's medical care from 1869 to 1870.