The Revolution’s Doogie Houser


By all accounts, Dr. Robert Johnston, who is related to my daughter-in-law, led an interesting life at an interesting time. At the age of 10, he began attending the College of Philadelphia. Founded by Benjamin Franklin, it focused on preparing students for lives of business and public service. To graduate, students had to face a public examination by members of the board of trustees. Robert was quizzed by Ben Franklin himself.

After graduation, Robert continued his education, focusing on medical training. Following the completion of those studies, he was recommended for service in the Pennsylvania Militia as a surgeon. He served during the failed attempt to take the British-held Quebec City during the Revolutionary War. As the repelled American troops retreated, Johnston was near the front, treating the wounded from his regiment.

He was then chosen to be the Assistant Deputy Director of Hospitals in the Northern Department where he served til nearly the end of the war. Afterwards, he was appointed deputy purveyor for the military hospital of the Southern Department and put in charge of purchasing and acquisition of all goods. He apparently did so using his own funds as there are records of reimbursement requests he filed.

Following the war, he became involved in an unusual venture. Recruited by investors to try an open up China to American trade, he became the investors’ ginseng broker. Ginseng was a plant that was highly desirable to the Chinese and it happened to grow wild and in abundance in the Appalachians. Robert spent three months collecting as much ginseng as possible. In the end, he loaded The Empress of China, the boat to be used for the journey, with 57,687 pounds of it.  He traveled with it to China where he sold the entire lot for $5 a pound which equated to a 500 – 600 percent profit.

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