Antebellum medical reformer William A. Cheatham was born in Springfield in 1820, the second son of Robertson County's General Richard Cheatham (1799-1845) and Susan Saunders (1801-1864). He received his medical degree in March 1843 from the University of Pennsylvania Medical School. In 1847 he married Mary Emma Ready of Murfreesboro. They had two children, Martha Strong and Richard B.
Cheatham was practicing medicine in Nashville when the legislature appointed him superintendent and physician of the newly constructed Tennessee Lunatic Asylum on March 1, 1852. The hospital was constructed in response to the reform movement which swept Tennessee in the 1830s, in particular to the crusade of reformer Dorothea A. Dix, who stated in 1858 that few institutions anywhere were superior to it. The program, which incorporated the most advanced theories of moral treatment, was praised not only by Dix on her frequent visits there, but also by Dr. W. K. Bowling, editor of the Nashville Journal of Medicine and Surgery. Sterling Cockrill and other trustees, upon unanimously electing Cheatham to a second eight-year term in 1859, gave him much of the credit for the hospital's reputation as one of the best in the nation.
The Civil War and the Union occupation of Middle Tennessee disrupted the work of the institution and its administrator; on July 25, 1862, Andrew Johnson, military governor of Tennessee, informed Cheatham of his dismissal as superintendent. Subsequently, he and Mrs. Cheatham were arrested and ordered to be confined to federal prison in Alton, Illinois. As they journeyed north, however, the order was rescinded due to Mrs. Cheatham's failing health. She died in Nashville on April 27, 1864.
In 1867 Cheatham remarried, choosing as a wife the wealthy Adelicia Acklen, mistress of Belmont. He also established a private practice in Nashville, which he continued almost up to the time of his death in 1900.