For nearly a century, the former office of Dr. James Still, sat hidden under the guise of a modest residence on the outskirts of the Pine Barrens in Medford, New Jersey. This building, originally constructed in 1855, once housed the medical practice of Dr. James Still, a prominent African American herbalist and healer, often referred to as the "Black Doctor of the Pines." His life and work were instrumental in bridging the racial and medical divides of his time, making the restoration of his office a significant undertaking in both historical and cultural contexts.
Dr. James Still was born in 1812 in Burlington County, to parents who were formerly enslaved. Through books and experimentation with plants and herbs, he learned the art of herbal medicine and developed a deep knowledge of the medicinal properties of local plants and herbs. As he honed his skills, Dr. Still became a respected and sought-after healer, known for his ability to treat various ailments and injuries.
Despite facing racial discrimination and limited access to formal medical education, Dr. Still's dedication to healing led him to establish his successful medical practice. His office served as a sanctuary for those in need of medical care, regardless of their race or social status. Over time, Dr. Still's reputation grew, drawing patients from far and wide. His practice became a symbol of hope and resilience for African Americans and marginalized communities, who found solace and healing in his care. Dr. Still's contributions to medicine extended beyond his time; his writings on herbal remedies and medical treatments would later influence generations of herbalists and holistic practitioners.
Unfortunately, Dr. Still's office slowly fell into disrepair over the course of the century after his passing in 1882. The building's historical significance was at risk of being lost as the years passed. In 2006, with encouragement from his descendants, the State of New Jersey purchased the property with plans to restore it as an historic site open to the public. In 2021, NJ DEP's Division of Parks and Forestry funded the stabilization of the exterior of the building.
During the stabilization, when they began to uncover the original construction details, Annabelle Radcliffe-Trenner, principal of Historic Building Architects LLC, recalls discovering that “this little office has a distinctive architectural style... I was surprised by the quality of the details and the elegant architectural scale and proportions of the building elements.” Ms. Radcliffe-Trenner says that “one of the most challenging aspects of the stabilization was to recognize and respect the ‘vernacular’ character defining features of Dr. James Still’s office. We so often over-restore these small and important buildings - working to keep as much historic fabric as possible and recognizing it is old and worn, like the acorns along the cornice and the hemlock boards used for the board and batten walls.”
Dr. Still’s office served many more functions than doctors’ offices of today. On the land surrounding the office, Dr. Still would grow and harvest plants which he used in the manufacture of herbal remedies. He would then bring the plant and seed material into the basement where he had stoves and equipment for preparing medicinal syrups. His preparations, after cooling, would be brought up to the front room of the office where they would be sold to patients, similar to a modern pharmacy. His office also had a waiting area for the many patients awaiting his care, and a private office which housed Dr. Still’s library and collections of historical and natural artifacts.
An integral and important part of the restoration is archaeology. According to Michael Gall, Principal Senior Archaeologist with Richard Grubb & Associates, “the most interesting aspect of the archaeological evidence from the Dr. James Still Office and House Site and the Still family is that the artifacts speak to strategic frugality in material possessions of Dr. Still and his family.” That frugality “allowed Dr. James Still and his family to accrue finances that were instead directed toward business ventures and amassing a large estate as a way of combating structural racism in the community.”
In addition to artifacts of material culture, the archaeological study of pollen and seeds at Dr. James Still's office can help us understand the plants he used for medicinal purposes by identifying which plant species were present on the site during his time. By analyzing pollen and seeds, researchers can infer which plants may have been part of his herbal remedies, shedding light on the specific botanical knowledge and medicinal practices of Dr. James Still and the broader context of herbal medicine in the 19th century. The knowledge of the plants that Dr. Still used for his medicines could serve as a basis to create an educational garden that could be essential in ensuring that Dr. Still's legacy continues to inspire future generations.
There are currently plans in the works to complete the restoration of the interior and reconstruct the porches. The ongoing restoration of Dr. James Still's office plays an important role in preserving the legacy of a remarkable historical figure and an integral part of American medical history. Through research, attention to detail, archaeology, and a commitment to education, Dr. Still's contributions to medicine and his message of inclusivity will continue to inspire and educate future generations. Dr. Still's office stands as a symbol of resilience, healing, and the enduring power of history to shape our understanding of the past and the future.