19th Century Doctors of the Town of Dekalb
by Bryan Thompson
Interior view of Dr Cole’s Drug Store De Kalb Junction - Dr. Cole on left.
We often think of our modern era as representing the period of greatest advances in medical knowledge. However the nineteenth century may have represented an era of even greater change in the medical profession.
At the opening of the century doctors still subscribed (at least in some form) to the ancient theory of the "four humors" developed by the Roman physician Galen (131-199 AD). Although the human anatomy was well understood, little was known of physiology. Treatments relied heavily on a 'change of air', emetic and laxative purging and bleeding to remove 'impurities' from the body.
Surgeons and Pharmacists (unlike Physicians) were considered skilled tradesmen and were trained through apprenticeships. Physicians often received only rudimentary classroom training of a few months before learning on the job.
It wasn’t until mid century that the controversial idea of germs causing disease was first introduced. It was not widely accepted.
As an example, post partum infection (the leading cause of death among women in the nineteenth century). The St Lawrence County Medical Society debated the published work of Ignaz Semmelweis (1847) who had shown that the incidence of childbed fever could be greatly reduced simply by having the attending physician wash his hands before a delivery. Following the debated the membership overwhelmingly rejected the strange notion of Dr Semmelweis.
The nineteenth century physician had few sophisticated tools that wouldn’t fit in a black bag. Their most important function was being readily available for their patients. Doctors traveled regularly to homes on calls where emergency surgeries, such as appendectomies, would be performed on the kitchen table. Medicines used often-contained harmful compounds of lead, mercury, and opiates. With several competing professional organizations and no one standard for licensing, sometimes the cure was worse than the disease.
The 1860’s were the peak of resident Physicians in the Town of De Kalb, when there were as many a six resident physicians in the town. The following brief biographies of De Kalb Physicians, does not include all the Physicians who served the town, records are often incomplete or non-existent. (As an example: Dr Ooo is listed a physician in De Kalb Village in Beer’s 1865 Atlas of St Lawrence County. No other information could be found.) The following biographies are in chronological order.
Dr. Robert Campbell (1782-1847)
Dr. Campbell accompanied the original Cooper expedition to De Kalb in 1803. It is unclear whether Dr. Campbell actually served as a physician in the town. His stay was brief, leaving in the fall of 1803. He was the lawyer for the Cooper family for many years. He was the second most active attorney in the Cooperstown courts in the early nineteenth century. During the summer of 1803 he supervised the original surveying of the township and the laying out of the first settlers lots.
Mary Stacy Seeley Bockus,
Widow of Dr John Seeley, De Kalb’s first resident physician.
Dr. John Seeley
Dr. Seeley was born in Saratoga, NY in 1782. He arrived in the new settlement of De Kalb in 1804. He immediately established a medical practice and built his office on the hill next door to Benedict’s store and across the street from the Cooper’s hotel in the village. Following his marriage to Mary Stacy he had a house built between the hotel and Isaac Stacy’s house on Canton Street.
He was elected assessor for the town of De Kalb at the first town meeting in 1806. He was also elected Commissioner and Inspector of Common Schools from 1818 to 1821. He was granted a license to sell liquor in medicine in 1809 (essential for formulating medicines). He was a founding member of the Northern Lights Masonic Lodge in De Kalb Village and he was surgeon’s mate for the St Lawrence county militia in 1812 and surgeon in 1818.
Dr. Seeley was one of five founding members of the St Lawrence county Medical Society in 1807. He was elected censor in that year.
Dr. Seymour Thatcher
Dr. Thatcher was born in 1800. He lived near East De Kalb. His closest neighbors in 1830 were James Farr Jr. and Captain James Farr. He was admitted to the St. Lawrence County Medical society in 1826. He was also elected Inspector of Common Schools, Assessor, and Election inspector in the Town of De Kalb in 1826. According to the public record, Dr Thatcher was a jack-of-all-trades. He was very involved in the government during his time in De Kalb. He began surveying new roads for the town in 1828 and continued in this capacity until1836. He was Town Clerk of the Town of De Kalb from 1829 till 1832.
In 1836 Thatcher left the Town of De Kalb for the new village of Hermon where he established a store and carried on his medical practice until his death in 1868. His endorsements of patent medicines often appeared in local newspapers. He is buried in the Old Hermon Cemetery.
Dr. Elijah Morton
Dr. Morton was born in November 9, 1802 in Hatfield, Massachusetts. He set up his practice as a physician and surgeon in Richville in 1830. In 1832 he married the schoolteacher for District 3, Eunice Brown. The following year, 1834, he was elected inspector of common schools. He was reelected to this position for ten years. In 1844 he became superintendant of Common Schools for the Town of De Kalb. He was appointed Election inspector for District 2 in 1846, 1847 and 1851.
Dr. Morton was a member of the Richville Baptist church. His oldest daughter, Helen married a Baptist minister and was a personal friend of Francis Willard. Helen Morton Barker was national treasurer of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union for ten years and an early advocate for women’s suffrage.
Dr. Morton was renown for his skill as a surgeon and had many other doctors’ study under him. He retired from practice in 1880 after 50 years of service to his community. He died in Richville Village March 10, 1888. He and his wife are buried in the Wayside cemetery in Richville.
Dr. Emory Hastings
Dr. Hastings was born in Constable, Franklin County, New York in 1827. He was educated in local common schools and received his medical training at Castleton Medical College in Vermont. Castleton was the first medical school in Vermont and graduated over 1400 physicians during its existence (1818-1862). Dr Hastings was the first Physician in the town with a formal medical school education.
Helen Morton Barker
Dr. Hastings arrived in De Kalb by 1851 as he was elected Overseer of Highways that year. In 1853 he married Fanny Whipple of De Kalb. In 1854 he was a delegate from the town of De Kalb to the St. Lawrence County Whig convention. From 1854 to 1857 he served as Superintendant of Common Schools. Dr Hastings died September 1, 1858 and is buried with his parents in the Constable cemetery.
Dr. Benjamin F. Drury
Dr. Drury was born in Canton, NY in 1837. He attended medical college at Castleton and Burlington, VT graduating from the University of Vermont in June 1859. He studied under Dr Emory Hastings of De Kalb. In 1859 he married Mary Ritchie of De Kalb. He practiced medicine in De Kalb and Edwards until he moved to Gouverneur in 1876. Dr Drury died in 1926 and is buried in the Riverside cemetery in Gouverneur.
Dr. Grosvenor Swan
Dr. Swan was born in Massachusetts in 1819. He probably came to the town of De Kalb with his father Abel Swan sometime before 1842. He married Sally Hall. He first trained to be a Universalist minister. He was the first minister at the Somerville Universalist church in 1846 and the Edwards Universalist church in 1850. At the time of the 1850 US census he was a Universalist Minister living in Gouverneur. He performed a marriage in Richville as a Universalist minister in 1849. In 1854 he graduated from the Eclectrio Medical Institute. He must have moved to Richville soon after as in February 1855 he was elected Election Inspector for De Kalb district 2 (Richville).
He had five children born while he was Physician and Surgeon in Richville. By 1865 he had moved his practice to Gouverneur. He was elected County Coroner for one term that year. He became a rather famous healer using magnetic therapy and traveling as far afield as Malone and Watertown to effect cures.
In 1871 he was visiting Chicago with his daughter at the time of the great Chicago fire. They barely survived by taking refuge on a breakwater in Lake Michigan.
In 1875 he moved his practice to Hartford, Conn. Many local residents continued to visit him there for cures. He died in Hartford, Conn. March 5, 1891 and is buried in Riverside Cemetery, Gouverneur.
Dr. William J. L. Millar (Miller)
Dr. Miller was born in 1840 in South Mountain, Ontario. He was the son of a country doctor and surgeon. His father or father-in-law arranged for him to apprentice with Dr. Sherman. He arrived in De Kalb in 1866, however he did not pursue his apprenticeship with Dr Sherman, instead he set up his own practice in De Kalb.
Soon after Dr. Millar arrived in town he attended to Mary Green and her daughter. Both died. Mary Green’s husband Edward Green, a black man, bore the debt for her care.
In January 1867, Dr. Millar was called upon to care for Enos Potter Rice. Potter Rice died January 14, 1867. Dr Millar conceived the idea of doing an autopsy on Potter Rice to study the congenital bone disease Rice suffered from. Why he did not consult Rice’s family is unclear. Dr. Millar convinced Edward Green to assist him in exhuming the body to pay off Green’s debt for services rendered to Green’s late wife.
The body was removed in the middle of the night. Edward Green began to feel guilty and confessed the deed to the Rice family. Legal authorities approached Dr. Millar’s home where they found him in the process of boiling body parts.
In the end Edward Green was sent to prison for two years for his part in exhuming the body and Dr. Millar paid a $200 fine.
Dr. Millar later graduated from the University of Buffalo. He set up a practice and drugstore on Main St. in Russell where he practiced most of his life. He moved to St Louis, Missouri about 1900 and died there in December 1904. He requested that his ashes be spread in the Blue Church cemetery west of Prescott, Ontario near the grave of Barbara Heck.
Dr. Charles Barzilla Hawley
Dr. Barzilla Hawley was born in Mille Roche, Town of Cornwall, Ontario in 1847. He was educated at St Lawrence University, Michigan State medical department and the Cincinnati College of Medicine and Surgery graduating in June 1869.
Dr. Hawley immediately set up practice in Russell, NY. He married Lucy Chapin that same year. On July 26, 1874 a large fire destroyed three quarters of downtown Russell, including Dr Hawley’s office and library.
Dr. Hawley reestablished his practice, which included a drugstore, later that year (1874) in the village of Richville. He continued in practice in Richville until 1888. During his time in the town he served as the chair of the De Kalb Republican committee and was an election inspector. He was a member of the Richville Congregational Church and the Richville Masonic Lodge. He was elected St Lawrence County Coroner for three terms. Dr Hawley was a great outdoorsman and the local papers often contained reports of his fishing and hunting trips.
He was especially noted for his skill in setting bones. He is often mentioned in the Gouverneur newspapers of the time. Whenever a gruesome accident occurred he was on the scene to set bones or amputate mangled limbs.
In 1885 the local newspapers announced he had sold his practice to Dr J B Garrison and was moving to Bismarck, Dakota Territory. The deal fell through and he remained in Richville until September 1888 when the Masons of Richville gave him a gala going away party. He moved to San Diego, CA for one month.
In November 1888 he returned to Gouverneur, where he set up practice and lived for the rest of his life, dying there in 1910. He and his wife are buried in Maple Grove Cemetery near Richville.
Dr. William E. Whitford
Dr. Whitford was born in Pitcairn Forks, Town of Edwards in 1855. He was practicing in De Kalb Junction by 1880 when he appeared in the US census living in the home of George Babcock in De Kalb Junction.
Dr. Whitford practiced in De Kalb Junction until about 1889. During this time he married his first wife Alice Dwinnel and had a daughter Lillian born on Christmas day 1886. In 1885 he purchased a building on Main Street where he had his office and home. This building was later the George Gibbons residence and store. By early 1889 he moved to Rossie and then to Morristown where he practiced until 1892. In 1893 He moved from Morristown to Oxbow to practice. He stayed in Oxbow until the death of his first wife in 1896. He then moved to Hermon where he married his second wife Anna and practiced medicine until 1905. He finished his medical career as resident physician at De Peyster, NY where he married his third wife Eva. He died in 1926 and is buried in the Union Cemetery on the Risley, Rd.
Dr. John Mason Dow
Dr. Dow was born in Lee, Onieda County, NY in 1817. He came to the practice of medicine at mid life. He studied under several doctors in Turin, Lewis County before enrolling in the New York State College of Homeopathy in New York City. He graduated in 1867.
He returned to Turin in Lewis County and practiced there until 1869 when he setup practice in De Kalb. His father, Asa Dow, died at De Kalb in 1872.
Dr. Dow was one of the charter members of the St. Lawrence County Homeopathic Medical Society. He served as a Censor and later as President of the organization.
Dr. Dow had moved his practice to Potsdam by May 1881 when he backed his son Dr. Duane M. Dow in setting up a new practice in Hermon. This enterprise met with tragedy when in December 1881 the younger Dr. Dow contracted blood poisoning from a patient and died.
The Elder Dr. Dow moved to Hermon and took over his deceased son’s medical practice. By the summer of 1884 he managed to sell the practice and moved to Richville and again set up in practice. Soon after this the elderly Dr and Mrs Dow moved to De Kalb Junction. They were active members of the Presbyterian Church there. Dr Dow died in De Kalb Junction in 1888 and his wife Amy in 1901. They are both buried in the Old Town Cemetery in the Village of Antwerp.
Dr. David M. Foss
Dr. Foss was born in the Town of Lawrence April 9, 1860. He was educated at the Lawrence Academy and received a scholarship to study medicine at the University of Minnesota.
While he was studying in Minnesota a small pox epidemic broke out in the Western Territories. Because he was the only member of his class who had had the small pox previously (and thus was immune), he was drafted into the US Army Hospital Corp for the region. He served at Fort Thompson on the Cow Creek reserve and was present at the surrender of Sitting Bull.
In 1881 he resigned his commission and returned home. He entered the University of Vermont Medical School at Burlington, where he continued his studies in skin diseases graduating in 1883. He setup practice that year in De Kalb Village (Old De Kalb). He was noted in the local newspapers for his broad smile and jovial nature. By 1890 he moved his practice to De Peyster.
In De Peyster he built a grand house with attached carriage barn. On October 3, 1898 Dr. Foss returned from a call about midnight. He climbed to the haymow to get hay for his horse. In the process he dropped his lantern into the hay. The flames quickly consumed his house, barn and the neighbor’s barn.
After this tragedy Dr Foss moved his practice to Gouverneur where he lived for the rest of his life. He died in 1936 and is buried in the Riverside Cemetery.
Dr. Edwin M. Cole
Dr. Cole was born in the town of Louisville June 7, 1860. He attended St. Lawrence University for three years leaving at the end of his junior year, 1883. He entered the Hahneman Homeopathic Medical College in Chicago, from which he graduated in 1885.
On April 7, 1885 the Gouverneur newspaper announced that, “ Dr. E. M. Cole, homeopathist, formerly of Louisville and recently of Fergus Falls, MN has located in Hermon over the White law office. ”
By 1887 Dr. Cole had relocated to De Kalb Junction where he first set up practice in the Cline block. In 1889 he purchased a large white owl and displayed it in his store window.
In 1892 he married Allena Farr. In 1896 he bought the former Miller store, which became his drugstore and his families home.
Dr. Cole was involved in many community activities through out his life in De Kalb Junction. He was a member of the De Kalb Junction baseball team in 1893. In February of 1901 Dr. Cole contracted blood poisoning in his left hand from one of his horses. The subsequent surgery hampered his ability to play ball. He continued his interest in baseball as a coach and umpire for the local youth baseball team.
In 1898 the local paper noted that he was acting as chief critic and producer for a play being presented at Wainwright’s Hall in De Kalb Junction. In 1906 Dr. Cole bought Wainwright’s hall and it became Cole’s Hall, a popular venue for all kinds of local events in De Kalb Junction.
Dr Cole was involved in many community organizations. He served as District School Trustee, Justice of the Peace, delegate to the county Republican convention, Chair of the De Kalb Republican caucus and temporary Town Health Officer.
One of the many ball teams Dr. Cole Coached. Dr. Cole back row on right.
Dr Cole fills a car in front of his drugstore.
He was a member of the De Kalb Junction I.O.O.F. and served as District Deputy Grand Master and Secretary. He was an active Mason holding many upper level degrees in the organization. He was fond of dogs and animals.
Dr Cole’s drugstore on Green St. sold a full line of drugs, confections and at one time had a full soda fountain. By the1920’s it was also an official filling station and his son Ralph ran a battery and garage business behind the store.
Through most of his career Dr. Cole and his family lived in humble quarters above the drugstore. In 1924 Dr Cole purchased the Richardson farm on outer Green St.
He had the Richardson barn moved onto a new site across the field and the old farmhouse moved onto a new foundation for his son Ralph to live in. He commenced the building of his new clay-tile house in 1925.
The house was the first and perhaps the only, fireproof house, built in the town, with full concrete floors between each level including the attic. The family moved into the new house in 1926.
Dr. Cole did not enjoy his new house for long. He died of an apparent heart attack while repairing a duck pen in his back yard on October 21, 1927.
Dr. Frank D. Allen
Dr. Allen was born in Antwerp, NY February 24, 1860. He attended the Gouverneur Academy and in 1882 entered the medical program of the University of New York. He took further training at the University of Vermont. In 1885-86 he practiced medicine in Gouverneur. In 1887 he set up a practice in Spragueville. In August of 1888 he purchased Dr. C.B. Hawley’s house and medical practice in Richville, however he did not buy Dr. Hawley’s drug store.
In 1887 he married Anna Todd. She died of complications of pregnancy in 1892. This tragedy lead to Dr Allen’s lifelong dedication to family planning and his remaining in practice for 64 years. He next married Mary Hurd who died in 1935. His third wife was Mrs. Rowena Hoyt. He often used his own car to transport patients to the Ogdensburg hospital.
Dr. Frank D. Allen
Dr. W. S. Yates
Dr. Yates was the last doctor to come to town in the nineteenth century and probably had the shortest career here. In 1897 he and his wife moved from Buffalo, NY to Star Lake in the town of Fine to set up practice. In August 1899 the Richville Recorder proudly announced that, “Dr. Yates, our new physician, has set up a practice in the Hotel Gibbons (De Kalb Junction).”
In April 1900 the Ogdensburg Journal noted that Dr Yates had purchased the Fleetham house opposite the Congregational Church in De Peyster and was setting up practice there.
Less than two years later in June 1902 he sold his house and goods at public auction and moved west, either to Oklahoma or Denver (newspaper reports are conflicting).
By the close of the nineteenth century, antiseptic practices, the development of evidence based medicine, radiology, modern pharmacology and modern hospital based medicine was quickly replacing the old country doctor. Physicians began to practice near hospitals and using improved means of transportation the patients traveled to the physician. The era of De Kalb’s country doctors was drawing to a close.
Cooper, William (n.d.), Judge William Cooper Papers Hartwick College: Oneonta, NY.
De Kalb Town Clerk (nd.) Meeting Book One De Kalb, NY Town Clerk's Office.
De Kalb Town Clerk (nd.) Meeting Book Two De Kalb, NY Town Clerk's Office.
De Kalb Town Clerk (nd.) Meeting Book Four De Kalb, NY Town Clerk's Office.
De Kalb Town Clerk (nd.) Meeting Five De Kalb, NY Town Clerk's Office.
Durant, S. W. and H. B. Peirce (1878), History of St. Lawrence Co. New York L. H. Everts&Co. Piladelphia, P A.
Hough, Franklin (1853), A History of St. Lawrence and Franklin Counties, New York, from the Earliest Period to the Present Time. Little and Company Albany, NY.
Northern New York Library Network (various) Northern New York Historical Newspapers, Potsdam, NY.
Taylor, Alan (1995), William Cooper’s Town Vintage Books New York.
Turnbull, Lillian (1998) Interview with Lillian Turnbull De Kalb Junction, NY.
Vinicor, Henry (1986) The History of Medicine in St. Lawrence County New York Since 1807. Michael William Printery, Cohoes, NY.