JAMES ALEXANDER SEXTON, M. D. The following is one of those life stories that serve to enrich the pages of North Carolina's history. His was a distinctive personality, a career of wonderful vitality and service, one inspired by high ideals, conscientious devotion to duty, and a faithfulness in all things that leaves a name long to be respected and honored.
James Alexander Sexton was born near Lillington, Harnett County, North Carolina, September 24, 1844, and died in the same county January 7, 1914. He was educated in the common schools then in existence. When a mere youth he volunteered in the Confederate army, and no braver or more faithful boy ever left his home for the army. He could be relied upon in all the duties and dangers of a soldier and soon gained the love and esteem of the officers and men in his command. When the war was over he returned to his home in Harnett County and engaged in the ordinary pursuits of life, holding offices of trust in his county when only a mere boy.
Later he studied medicine and was graduated with high honors from the University of Maryland in 1872. He became a really great physician. What distinguishes the great physician from the mass of practitioners and those who merely administer medicine is the power of insight and judgment which presents an analysis as perfect as human mind can make it of a patient's condition. Such an analysis is of course a prerequisite of every physician's action and advice, but it is when the analysis takes on the character of a broad and comprehensive survey of physical, pathological and psychic conditions that it truly amounts to diagnosis. Doctor Sexton was rated as one of the most noted diagnosticians of his time. He was endowed with clearness of vision, lucidity of thought, and thoroughness of judgment that made his opinions in his chosen profession of the highest value. From his entrance into medical college his gift of diagnosis was a marvel to his confreres and in later life amounted to genius. After graduation he practiced his profession for several years in Harnett County, later moving to Apex, North Carolina, and still later to Raleigh, where he practiced for over thirty years, making a reputation second to none. He was one of the most skilled surgeons of his day, and was also one of the first physicians in the South to use carbolic acid internally.
The result of his intellect and industry fixed his status in the medical body of his city as a man of acknowledged ability, usefulness and uncommon skill. And he was always distinguished by sympathy, exhaustive research, precision, severe analysis and discrimination, unflagging interest toward the suffering. Fortunate indeed were the patients who called him in as their physician. If he had been content with ordinary practice, leaving the care to nurses, and had not labored so consistently and earnestly, going without relaxation from one patient to another, and concentrating his powers intensely upon them, his physical constitution, naturally strong, and with habits of life so simple, would have enabled him to prolong his useful medical career many years. Judged by his robust appearance at the close of the year 1901 he seemed as little likely as anyone to fall a victim to overwork, but in that year failing health brought him the admonition that nature revolted against the constant transgression of her laws.
When nature began to revolt from lack of sleep and constant vigilance over his large circle of patients, he entered the lumber business in the fall of 1901. Moving to Fuquay Springs, he entered that business with Mr. T. B. Renalds, who assumed the active supervision. This partnership was ideal. Each man was a complement of the other. Doctor Sexton supplied initiative, courage to take great risk and a strong will to combat obstacles, while Mr. Renalds possessed executive ability of high order. Together they built up a business in face of odds that meant defeat to many men. They bought Fuquay Springs and 2,000 acres of land from the proceeds of the lumber business, which is still carried on under the name J. A. Sexton Lumber Company at Harnett, to which town Doctor Sexton later removed and lived close to his childhood home at the time of his death. As a lumberman the work in the open, midst the sweet smelling pines, greatly benefited him. The facility with which he could turn from one type of work to another wholly different was one of his most notable gifts.
It is only in rough outline that this sketch can note the original capacities and their development, the strong will power and intense devotion to work, the high moral qualities and principles, early struggles and final successes, the conflicts and triumphs that make up and fill out the well rounded career of Doctor Sexton. Mention might be made of the fact that he was educated in the common schools in the early days. But in the making of his career there were involved many other qualities, including patience and courage, toils and trials in overcoming early disadvantages, and a tremendous amount of physical and mental exertion in acquiring the splendid intellectual equipment which he exhibited. He read books for what he could get out of them that could be turned into practical account, and he studied men and things as well as books. His favorite pastime was literature, in which he showed talents as marked as in his chosen profession. Doctor Sexton contributed to the leading medical journals of his time. These sketches and his short verses are gems. Anything that he cared to remember he wrote in verse. His writings were a spontaneous expression of personal feelings, simple, direct, with always a tracery of correct English. Had his life been less practically busy he would have been one of the sweet singers of the South.
He was a strong man full of resources, conscious of his power, self reliant, and in self-help he put his chief dependence. He knew his own capacity for work, had faith in the strong fibre of his mind and body; and withal was very modest as to personal vainglory and never sought public recognition in any way. He was essentially a practical man and reason in all things was his guide. Doctor Sexton did not practice his profession for financial gains. He had a positive aversion to sending bills to a patient who had suffered the tortures of the flesh. He made it a rule never to charge a widow or an orphan. One special object of his liberality was the Methodist Orphanage at Raleigh. He had his own standard of the proper conduct between man and man. That standard was founded on a sound morality, which he lived up to scrupulously and consistently. He was plain, direct and unostentatious rugged in his honesty as he was blunt in his address. He was often brusque, sometimes to his detriment, and he never affected the accomplishments that did not belong to his nature.
Doctor Sexton loved Fuquay Springs with a love begotten of the sacrifice he had made for it. His dream during his declining years was to make of its healing waters a place where the suffering might be benefited, and that the medicinal qualities of this wonderful water might be free to the needy. His dream was not fulfilled, but there was probably never a time in his later years when the project was altogether out of his mind. He gave very liberally to all improvements at Fuquay Springs. He donated the lots on which the Methodist and Baptist churches were built and contributed largely to their building. He gave a lot for the Presbyterian Church and also presented the town with ground for a cemetery. There were many other worthy objects that owed much to his liberality. In that and other communities, when the hour for his going struck a rude shock was felt, and the memory of his kindness and usefulness is not likely soon to be dissipated. Those whose thoughts and affections still revert to him daily recall his greatness, rejoice for a heart that lavished its benefactions on the poor and suffering, and derive special satisfaction from the fact that he lived fully and then entered into "an inheritance incorruptible, undefiled and that faded not away." If his epitaph were limited to a single sentence in accord with his modest life work it would be, "A friend to the suffering.”
History of North Carolina: North Carolina Biography, vols. 5 & 6, Chicago: Lewis Pub. Co., 1919