Born in Salem, Massachusetts in 1808, Henry was in England in 1833 and attended the funeral service for William Wilberforce, a member of the British parliament who devoted his life to ending slavery throughout the British Empire.
Against seemingly impossible odds, over the decades Wilberforce succeeded in his quest, as Britain ended its slavery and freed its slaves. To accomplish the same thing that Britain did non- violently, the U.S. would later fight a Civil War.
Henry was deeply moved by the work of Wilberforce, and as a devout Christian, he felt a strong commitment to end U.S. slavery. In 1834 after returning to Boston, Henry began working closely with newspaper publisher and writer William Lloyd Garrison, and like Garrison, declared himself an ardent abolitionist.
But confronting slavery in the U.S. was highly unpopular and in 1835 a mob seized Garrison and was about to hang him when the police intervened. To save Garrison from the mob’s fury, the police held him overnight in a heavily secured jail.
Deeply saddened by what happened to Garrison, Henry responded by becoming a more active abolitionist, but as he did, people ostracized him and his close friends “would even stare and scowl without speaking when we met after I had openly declared myself as one of the hated Abolitionists.”
As an abolitionist, he also lost many of his patients.
Henry closely associated with the leading abolitionists of his day including Frederick Douglass, a runaway slave and a leading abolitionist who eventually bought his freedom. And Henry ended his association with the Warren Street Chapel, a charity for poor children, when he learned they only served white children.
Henry became openly critical of most religious institutions, proclaiming his “soul rose indignant… to the whole race of priestly sycophants” who did nothing to address slavery and racism.
In 1842, in response to the arrest of runaway slave George Latimer in Boston, Henry and two other prominent abolitionists, William F. Channing and Frederick S. Cabot created the Latimer Committee, to publish a triweekly antislavery newspaper, the Latimer Journal.
This Journal led to a massive signature gathering campaign to the Massachusetts legislature, which ended the use of state and local jails in the arrest and deportation of fugitive slaves, a crucial blow to slave hunters.
In the years leading up to the Civil War, which began in 1861, Henry helped numerous fugitive slaves get to safe houses, putting his own life on the line in the process.
When the Civil War began, Henry’s son Nathaniel, to oppose slavery, enlisted and fought for the North. But one day Henry received a letter telling him his son was wounded and he should come immediately. Henry caught the next train and upon arriving at the battlefield, learned he was too late.
Henry was escorted to a tent where his dead son’s body lay. But upon examination he realized that his son’s wounds were readily treatable and he should have survived. As he looked around and talked to the soldiers, Henry saw a stunning lack of medical care and overwhelming human misery.
It turned out neither the North or South had made significant provisions for the wounded soldiers whose numbers were often in the thousands, instead leaving them to die. But in response to the massive death counts a U.S. government doctor, Jonathan Letterman had created the first mobile field hospitals, yet they were only in limited use.
Henry went into action writing and calling on government officials to implement the “Letterman system” and from the enormous pressure he brought to bear, the mobile hospitals came into extensive use to care for the wounded, saving many thousands of lives.
Mobile hospitals eventually came into common usage in wars all over the world, saving millions more lives.
After the Civil War ended in 1865, Henry continued his medical practice in Boston and he taught at Harvard Medical School. In addition in 1869, he founded and chaired the Massachusetts State Board of Health.
And as a writer and speaker, Henry helped to bring the stethoscope into widespread use, and as a researcher, helped medical science address tuberculosis more effectively. Henry also became the president of the American Medical Association.
But in January, 1892 at the age of 83, Henry passed away. Always with him was a photo of his son Nathaniel, who had lived on in Henry’s heart for the rest of his life.