Richard O. Currey, the first person with an earned doctorate to teach science at what is now the University of Tennessee, was a prolific author, an innovative educator, and a newsworthy minister. A Nashville native, Currey graduated from the University of Nashville in 1836. He taught at Nashville Female Academy and volunteered with the Tennessee Geological Survey.
Currey studied medicine at Transylvania University in 1837-38 before working under Dr. Thomas Reid Jennings in Davidson County. Currey received his M.D. in 1840 from the University of Pennsylvania. He returned to Nashville, resumed his medical career, and rejoined the Geological Survey. In 1842 he married Rachel Jackson Eastin.
Four years later, Currey became Professor of Chemistry, Experimental Philosophy, and Natural History at East Tennessee University in Knoxville. He introduced laboratory instruction in botany and modernized science education. Currey supplemented his salary by practicing medicine and publishing an almanac. He left the university in September 1850 to accept a better-paid professorship at the University of Nashville. He returned to medicine as a livelihood, however, when cholera epidemics and financial problems forced the closing of the school.
In 1851 Currey published two issues of the Southern Agriculturist as well as a second almanac, which advertised his new business, an apothecary shop called Chemical Hall. In 1852 Currey joined the State Medical Association, chairing a committee on the adulteration of drugs and another on medical botany. He also helped plan the Southern Journal of the Medical and Physical Sciences. It began publication in January 1853, with four coeditors, but became Currey's journal. Over five years, Currey offered fifty-seven major articles on regional geology, medical practice, and other topics. He also wrote brief reports, editorials, and book reviews. He authored a laudable book on the geology of Tennessee and one on the geology of western Virginia.
By May 1853 Currey was involved in the construction of a hospital in Knoxville. At the same time he unsuccessfully sought an appointment as state geologist. When the appointment failed to materialize, Currey relocated to Knoxville, taking the Southern Journal with him. He practiced medicine with an emphasis in gynecology and became associated with Dr. B. F. Frazier in the establishment of the School of Medicine and Surgery for Private Instruction. Currey was a leader in medical organizations and, perhaps, part owner of a hospital. Currey continued geological work throughout the Southeast, perhaps occasionally as a paid consultant.
In 1857 Currey's son died, the Southern Journal folded, and his medical school disbanded. When Shelby Medical College opened in Nashville in 1858 and began publishing the Nashville Monthly Record of Medical and Physical Sciences, Currey became a professor at the school and coeditor of the journal. This time, Currey's family remained in Knoxville, and he soon left the college to return home.
In Knoxville again, Currey studied theology, received ordination, and in 1859 became pastor of Lebanon-in-the-Fork Presbyterian Church. He also operated the distinctive Daughter's Collegiate Institute. To help young ladies learn more of human anatomy, Currey decorated the school grounds with nude statues, which were not widely appreciated. In 1861 Currey entered Confederate service as a chaplain-surgeon. By 1865 he was caring for Union prisoners in North Carolina, where he died while working in a disease-infested hospital.