A significant figure in Tennessee’s early medical history, John Shelby submitted a medical dissertation at the University of Pennsylvania “On Gunshot Wounds,” the interest of a true frontiersman. Shelby was the first Caucasian child born in what became Sumner County. When he finished medical school in 1809, he settled in Gallatin, where he began a practice that initially served Gallatin and Nashville. In 1813, he left a wife and daughter to become a military surgeon under Andrew Jackson in the Creek War and at the Battle of New Orleans. He returned home with one eye and a war orphan, an infant Creek Indian boy that he adopted.
Shelby resumed his medical career and became a state senator from Sumner County, serving from 1815 to 1817. In 1817, he bought land in Nashville and then moved with his wife, two daughters, and adopted son. In 1818, Shelby acquired 640 acres in Edgefield, across the Cumberland River from Nashville. He spanned the river with a covered stone bridge, built a sawmill, and developed the area. He later bought land elsewhere, but medicine remained his profession. Through the 1830s, he often practiced in partnership with prominent Nashville doctors, including Boyd McNairy and Robert C. K. Martin.
While Shelby’s ties with medicine continued, he gradually deemphasized patient care. He was treasurer of the Tennessee State Medical Association from 1838 to 1844, and he hosted a statewide medical convention in October 1847. By the 1840s, scientific agriculture took much of his time. A Tennessee Agricultural Society became active in 1840 with John Shelby as president. He held that office until the organization faded in 1846. When a new Tennessee Agricultural Society formed in 1851, Shelby was again the president. From 1840 through 1845, the first Tennessee Agricultural Society published a monthly journal, The Agriculturist. Tolbert Fanning, Gerard Troost, and John Shelby were co-editors. He was also president of the Davidson County Agricultural Society, helped establish Tennessee’s first insane asylum, and served on the board of commissioners for the Tennessee Silk Company and Agricultural School.
John Shelby had other interests. From 1849 to 1852, under U.S. Presidents Taylor and Fillmore, he was Nashville’s postmaster. An Episcopal vestryman, he supported Christ Church in Nashville and gave land for a church in Edgefield. In 1857, when Tennessee physicians began to organize a new medical school in Nashville, Shelby lent his support. It opened in 1858 and was called Shelby Medical College in his honor. When John Shelby died in 1859, he was very wealthy. Records in the Tennessee State Archives show that litigation over his assets continued for years. Fatherland and Boscobel, the names of Shelby’s mansions, are now Nashville street names. Shelby Street and Shelby Park in Nashville also memorialize him.