A handwritten letter says: The mosquitos were so troublesome that by the time I commence a sentence one come buzzing by my ear..."

The Henkel Family in the Shenandoah: Medical Practice

By James Labosier ~

Read previous posts in this series: “The Henkel Family in the Shenandoah: Medical Heritage” and “The Henkel Family in the Shenandoah: Military Medicine.”

From a modest beginning early in the 19th century, the Henkel family in Virginia’s Shenandoah valley blossomed into a sort of medical dynasty. For three generations the family spawned physicians, often siblings and cousins practicing simultaneously. Letters in the Henkel collection describe the daily duties and concerns of small town southern medical practices. Far from backwards bumpkins, practically every Henkel attended prestigious medical schools in Philadelphia and New York. While at school, each wrote home about their curriculum, their professors, and current medical theories. When the Civil War came, some Henkels served in the army and some stayed home in New Market. Correspondence highlights the contrast between operating on a constant stream of horrific injuries and struggling to maintain a home practice amidst disease and deprivation. During the remainder of the 1800s, Henkel physicians practiced in New Market and Staunton. Through letters, they kept up to date on their respective practices’ notable cases and concerns.

Modern color photograph of a Metal sign in a wood frame hanging in front of a brick wall reading: Henkel & Co. Printers and Publishers (established 1806).

The seed was planted around 1817, when Ambrose Henkel sold the family printing business to his brother, Solomon (1777–1847), who sustained the Press’s activities in addition to his chosen profession as a physician. The press assured that Solomon and his practice would remain in New Market. In 1800, Solomon married Rebecca Miller, daughter of Winchester physician Gottfried Miller. They had a large family. Three of their sons became physicians. They may have formed a practice together in New Market, which was reduced by Silon Amos Henkel’s (1813–1844) early death. Solon Paul Charles Henkel (1818–1882) and Samuel Godfrey Henkel (1807–1863) remained in partnership. Another son, Solomon D. Henkel (1816–1872), operated a general store.

Family Practice

Formal portrait of a white man in a suit.
Dr. Samuel Godfrey Henkel (1807–1863)

New Market residents respected and admired Samuel G. Henkel’s devotion to the medical profession, his generous support of the local Lutheran congregation, his management of the Henkel Press, and his earnest concern for the welfare of his family and friends. His father sent him to Philadelphia to gain his medical education at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. He began practicing with his father in New Market from the early 1830s continuing until some point in the 1840s, when his two younger brothers, Solon P.C. and Silon Amos, also became physicians.

A handwritten letter says: The mosquitos were so troublesome that by the time I commence a sentence one come buzzing by my ear..."
A letter from A. S. Miller, October 9, 1853, describing mosquitos in Philadelphia.
Henkel Family Papers, National Library of Medicine #2934124R

In the early 1850s Samuel’s nephew, Abram Shultz Miller, attended the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. Shultz wrote regularly to his cousin Caspar Henkel, Samuel’s son, about his professors and what he learned from his coursework, which reflected the state of medical knowledge, or ignorance, at the time. In one 1853 letter, he noted an outbreak of yellow fever in Philadelphia and later in the same letter commented unironically about being pestered by mosquitoes. Shultz Miller graduated in 1854 and came home to practice in New Market. The next year Caspar Henkel went to medical school in Philadelphia.

A page from a handwritten letter on blue paper.
A letter dated December 1, 1854, describing a threat.
Henkel Family Papers, National Library of Medicine #2934124R

Samuel Henkel wrote to both Shultz and Caspar while they were away at school, relaying family and local news, describing his noteworthy medical cases, and offering medical advice. The most alarming local news he imparted during the mid 1850s involved establishment of a new medical practice in New Market. Samuel was concerned that Drs. Jacob Sommers and Eugene Rice would catastrophically reduce the Henkel’s practice and he suspected that they were incompetent. One child, seen by both Solon Henkel and the new doctors, died. It was Solon’s opinion that their treatment likely hastened the death. The doctors, in turn, threatened him with physical violence. A bit later Samuel observed that a local 10-year-old boy’s broken arm was not properly set by the doctors and would be permanently deformed but, remembering Solon’s experience, remained quiet but felt vindicated in his original estimation of them.

In letters to Caspar, Samuel suggested important medical textbooks and stressed the importance, above all, of first-hand observation of a patient. While studying in Philadelphia, Caspar also filled his father’s orders for drugs at large pharmaceutical firms. In New Market, the Henkels compounded, bottled, and sold their preparations at their own pharmacy. Caspar was still in Pennsylvania in December, 1856, when New Market became vulnerable to a smallpox outbreak spreading from nearby Luray. To stem transmission, the road through Massanutten mountain pass between New Market and Luray was closed for a time. Samuel, Solon, and Shultz gave vaccinations in town as a precaution. Shultz wrote to Caspar about his cases, ranging from pulling teeth and treating burns to treating a woman for hysteria who was convinced her husband was poisoning her.

Interesting Times

Correspondence during the Civil War provides accounts of life from both civilian home-life and from the battlefront. Caspar served as a military surgeon for the confederacy for the entire war. Much of his medical experience involved treating the wounded, contending with a lack of sufficient medicines, and soldiers requesting certificates of medical exemptions from fighting. His absence, along with Shultz Miller’s conscription, left New Market with scarce medical care. An overworked Samuel Henkel spent his time treating military camp diseases such as typhus which had spread to town and relentless efforts to get Caspar and Shultz out of the army and back in New Market. Unsuccessful, he died of pneumonia in March, 1863.

A halftone reproduction of a photograph of three portable cases of medicine vials and surgical implements.
Civil War Period Surgeon’s Equipment
National Library of Medicine #101409992

Upon returning home from the army in 1865, Caspar, as the eldest son, assumed his father’s role as head of the family. He went into partnership with his uncle Solon and took responsibility for the education of his younger siblings, who increased by one after his sister Ellen died suddenly during the spring of 1865. Her husband William Fulmer allowed their young son, Samuel “Sammie” (1863–1874), to live with the family in New Market and be reared as Samuel Henkel.

Expanding Influence

Caspar’s brother Abram, who had spent much time accompanying his father on medical rounds and had subsequently worked in the family apothecary and read medical texts that Caspar recommended, began medical school at the University of Virginia in January 1867. He attended only through June then went to the University of New York Medical Department beginning in November. It was a new experience for the southerner. Abram was impressed by New York City as a place of high costs, noise, filth, and crowding. He eventually concluded that “…if a man can conduct himself properly in N.Y. he can and will do so almost under any circumstances.” He excelled at his coursework, writing to Caspar about new approaches for maladies likely to be encountered in New Market such as rheumatism, typhoid, bladder stones, and urethral strictures. After graduating in the spring of 1868, Abram chose to start a practice in Staunton, Virginia, rather than remain in New York on an internship. Thereafter, he maintained a regular correspondence with Caspar, telling him of noteworthy cases and occasionally asking advice.

Caspar then mentored the education of his youngest brother Haller. In 1874 with the encouragement of Caspar’s good friend, Judge George R. Calvert, Haller spent the summer of 1874 studying law at the University of Virginia. By 1876, Haller had decided to become a physician. In October he began at the University of Virginia’s medical school. Two years later he followed in his brother Abram’s path and enrolled at the University of New York School of Medicine in the fall of 1877. As Abram had, Haller wrote extensively about his instructors, their styles, personalities, and teaching effectiveness. One impressed him as “a perfect bombast, circus ringmaster in style.” Despite his sharp opinions, he was an exceptional student. He sent current medical texts and vaccine material to Caspar in New Market. His extensive letters went into great detail describing surgeries he observed, while he inquired about methods of treatment Caspar employed at home. His abilities earned him a prestigious post-graduate clinical training position at Bellevue Hospital in 1880.

A handwritten letter to Brother written in Staunton, Virginia.
A letter dated January 9, 1883 describing a “pretty mess”
Henkel Family Papers, National Library of Medicine #2934124R

In 1881 Haller went with his brother Abram in Staunton. He wrote regular lengthy letters through 1883 to Caspar telling of his cases and exchanging advice. The most noteworthy case occurred in 1883. Haller treated a gunshot victim at a local hotel who subsequently died. As he put it, he got into a “’pretty mess,’ mixed up with a murder, whores, and a murdered man!” The victim’s assailant was charged with murder and Haller was compelled to testify.

The End of an Era

A halftone reproduction of a formal photograph of a white man with a large dark beard and mustache.
Caspar Henkel, 1896

Haller Henkel’s death in Staunton in 1921 marked the end of this family’s great 19th century contribution to medicine. Haller’s brother and business partner Abram died in 1904. New Market residents were tended to by Shultz Miller until 1896, and Caspar ended three generations of family physicians in New Market when he expired there in 1908.

About the Collection

The Henkel Family Papers collection (MS C 291; 1.5 linear feet) consists of 828 letters and is largely the product of Caspar C. Henkel’s (1835–1908) life. Items dating before 1850 were written by ancestors of both Caspar and his wife, Margaretta. The bulk of the correspondence, however, is directly related to Caspar and Margaretta. Caspar retained letters written to him while he was away at medical school and in the field during the Civil War. Upon returning home from these extended absences, he apparently also collected several letters he himself had written to New Market. He also kept letters written to him from his two brothers during their medical training and afterwards when they lived and practiced away from New Market. Letters written to Margaretta from her sisters during the late 1860s and early 1870s are also included.

James Labosier is Associate Curator for the Archives and Modern Manuscripts Program in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.

One comment

  1. Typhus: really? Margaret Humphreys’ study, “A Stranger to our Camps” (Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 2006) makes that reasonable interpretation unlikely.

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