He was the son of slaves who bought their freedom in Maryland and moved east to New Jersey for some peace of mind. The father was of a strict frame of mind:
“I often thought his whole soul was wrapped in the twenty-fourth verse of the thirteenth chapter of Proverbs, which reads, ‘He that spareth his rod hateth his son; but he that loveth him chastiseth him betimes.’ I had no particular love for that passage of Scripture.”
The turning point in Still’s life came in the course of a routine doctor visit.
“It so happened that Dr. Fort was called to our home to vaccinate the children, my brother John being about six months old at the time. The doctor performed the duty, and I have sometimes thought that the virus being inserted in my arm must have taken better than usual, for the sting of the lancet yet remains. From that moment I was inspired with a desire to be a doctor.”
It was a dream that would have to wait a bit. His father sent him to Philadelphia in indentured servitude for three years, which period also allowed him some schooling. At age 19, he learned how to read. . His service completed, he took up work in a glue factory. He returned to Jersey, married, only to see his wife die a few years later. He learned how to distill essences. He remarried, and decided that it was time to get on with things.
A tall order at the best of times for an honest man. Fortunately, rules for the medical trade at that time were relatively lax. And as there was a great deal that could be learned from books, and now aged thirty one, he returned to Philadelphia in search for the best he could find.
“I asked the man behind the counter if he had a medical botany. He looked at me and answered in the negative. There was an old gentleman in the store, who noticed me, and said, “Has thee a notion of studying medical botany?” I answered, “Yes.” “Then,” said he, “thee must never give it up.” The old gentleman was dressed in Quaker garb, and said to the storekeeper, “Can’t thee tell him where to get one?” The man hesitated a moment, and said, “Perhaps you can get one on the corner of Eighth or Ninth Street, at a book-stand.”
Indeed he could.
“I saw a kind of an herb-store, with a few books in the window, and the sign DOCTOR THOMAS COOK. I went in and asked him if he had a medical botany. He looked at me as though he knew my mind, and handed down the book. I asked him the price; he replied, “One dollar.” I handed him the money, took the book, and was about to leave, when, showing me a volume, he said, “There’s a book you ought to have.” I asked him the price, and he answered, “One dollar and twenty-five cents.” I told him I would call in about two weeks, and perhaps would take it.”
He did and between one thing and another he found he had a knack for the trade. He also experimented with herbals, drawing on that skill in distillation. He concocted a cough balm effective enough that Philadelphia pharmacists were able to sell it in bulk. It was in due course enough to finance a sold three story house and office back in New Jersey.
The clientele grew, both because he was willing to travel the back woods of the Pinelands to see them and because he was able make them well. “I thought it no great thing, for it always seemed to me that all diseases were curable, and I wondered why the doctors did not cure them.”
He served the community well for years, at least until 1876, when a stroke cut back on his practice but presumably allowed him to finish his 1877 autobiography. He lived another twenty years after that, leaving behind his practice to his son. (Another son went on the Harvard Medical School graduating with honors in 1876.)
He was not the only Still of significance. His brother William Still is sometimes called the Father of the Underground Railroad, his other brother Peter Still is the subject of the biography The Kidnapped and the Ransomed