Alexander Humphreys (c.1757 - 1802)

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Birthplace: County Armagh, Ireland
Death: Died in Near Staunton, VA
Occupation: Physician
Managed by: Janna Michelle Stover
Last Updated:

About Alexander Humphreys

Alexander Humphreys, M.D., son of John Humphreys and Margaret Carlisle, was born in County Armagh, Ireland 1757. Alexander died May 23, 1802 in near Staunton, VA, at 44 years of age. His body was interred in Staunton, VA.


He married Mary Brown in Rockbridge Co., VA, April 8, 1788. Mary was born Augusta Co., VA July 14, 1763. Mary was the daughter of John Brown and Margaret Preston. Mary died January 28, 1836 South Frankfort, KY, at 72 years of age. Her body was interred in Frankfort Cemetery, Frankfort, KY.

Alexander's occupation: Physician.

  • John Brown Humphreys in near Staunton, VA, 1789.
  • Margaret Humphreys in near Staunton, VA, 1790.
  • James B. Humphreys in near Staunton, VA, 1794.
  • Samuel P. Humphreys in Staunton, VA, 1794.
  • David Carlisle Humphreys in Staunton, VA, October 15, 1796.
  • Elizabeth L. Humphreys in near Staunton, VA, January 1800.
  • Alexander Humphreys in near Staunton, VA, 1801

. A brief sketch of his life from The Prestons of Smithfield and Greenfield in Virginia by John Frederick Dorman (Filson Club, 1982) follows:

Mary Brown, second daughter of John and Margaret (Preston) Brown, was born 14 July 1763 and died 28 Jan. 1836, South Frankfort, Ky. She married 8 April 1788 Dr. Alexander Humphreys who was born 1757, County Armagh, Ireland, and died 23 May 1802, Staunton, Va.

Alexander Humphreys took degrees in medicine and surgery at the University of Edinburgh. He settled in Staunton, Va., in 1787 and on 22 March 1788 was granted permission by the County Court to build an "elaboratory" on the prison lot. In 1787 and 1788 he was appointed by the Court to examine applicants for Revolutionary War pensions, On 20 Dec. 1791 he was recommended to be added to the Commission of the Peace of Augusta County, and he took the oaths of a justice on 20 March 1792. The Act creating Staunton Academy, passed 4 Dec. 1792, named him as one of the trustees, and he was appointed president of the Board of Trustees 23 May 1793. On 12 Nov. 1793 he entered into partnership with George G. McIntosh to practice physic and surgery.

After his death Mrs. Humphreys moved to Frankfort, Ky., where in 1802-03 she built a house on Second Street which was later known as the Haggin House.

The following biographical material is taken from Augusta Historical Bulletin, Vo. 3, No., 2 (Fall, 1967):

ALEXANDER HUMPHREYS, M. D. 1757-1802 (Address delivered before the Augusta County Medical Association on the occasion of the dedication of a bronze tablet at the grave of Dr. Humphreys in Trinity Churchyard, Staunton, Virginia, April 15, 1951.) by Richard P. Bell, M. D. Staunton, Virginia. Today is an important one in the medical history of this city and county. The dedication this afternoon of the new King's Daughters' Hospital will, we believe, usher in for us a new era in medical practice; and on this day, when we are looking forward with so much hope and so much confidence, our Medical Society chooses also to look backward over a long period of time to the years between 1757 and 1802. This was the short life span of the man in whose honor we are here gathered.

Who was this Dr. Alexander Humphreys and what did he do to warrant this long retrospect? Alexander Humphreys was born in County Armagh, Ulster Province, in the north of Ireland, in 1757, being one of a family of ten children. His people were prosperous, well-educated members of the so-called Scotch-Irish race. That term, I claim, is a misnomer. These people were pure Scotch, transplanted to the north of Ireland by the forces of economic, political and religious adversity; and though living in Ireland, pure Scotch they remained. They neither intermarried nor intermingled with the native Irish; and now, after four hundred years, those who remain in Ireland of that Scotch-Irish race are still pure Scotch.

Of Alexander Humphreys' boyhood, we know little, except that he received the best schooling available. His people were highly religious and of strictest Covenanter type. His mother's brother, Dr. Carlisle, was a well-known medical practitioner nearby; and young Alexander, having decided in his early youth on medicine as a profession, in due time became the pupil of his uncle. Those were the days of Preceptorships, when medical students read medicine and secured practical instruction in the homes and offices of successful practitioners. This tutelage continued from two to four years; and after this time some students entered directly into private, independent practice. Others transferred to medical schools, which were few in number, and there finished their education under eminent professors, many of them receiving finally the M. D. degree, but a considerable number entering practice with no degree.

Alexander Humphreys, after absorbing all the medical lore Dr. Carlisle could impart, betook himself across the narrow waters and enrolled at the University of Edinburgh, then the most famous medical school in the world. After three years he graduated with the degree of Doctor of Medicine. By this time he had attained the age of twenty-five. The lure of America which was affecting so many of his countrymen began to draw him and he decided at about the termination of the Revolutionary War to emigrate to Virginia. The Scotch in Ireland were no lovers of England, and Humphreys doubtless heartily sympathized with the American Colonies and rejoiced in their triumph over the mother country. In fact, he had an older brother in Virginia who had lived in Augusta County near Greenville since 1764, and who had fought in the American Army. This brother, David Carlisle Humphreys, had become an influential citizen of the county; he had married a distant cousin, Miss Finley, and they had raised a large family of boys and girls who had intermarried with leading families in the county. Many descendants of David Carlisle Humphreys still live in this area. And so young Alexander, with his new medical degree and much enthusiasm, emigrated to the New World, came directly to Augusta County and settled near his brother's home. He lived and practiced in the county between the years 1783 and 1787. The latter year found him in Staunton, lured hither by the greater opportunities offered by residence in the county seat and largest town west of the Blue Ridge. And what sort of place did he find himself in when he moved here? A frontier town of about eight hundred people, one-fourth of them colored slaves; one church, the parish church of the county. The block surrounding this church had been presented in 1750 to the county by William Beverley. The cemetery was the community burying ground and was so used by all denominations and races until 1850 when it could hold no more graves. There were from fifteen to eighteen stores in the town, and seven inns. Staunton was at the crossing of two important highways and in those days of great migration to the west and south, many travellers stopped here. There was a courthouse, a primitive prison, a whipping post and a ducking stool, the latter never having been used because there was insufficient water in Lewis Creek to operate it. There were three doctors in the town besides Dr. Humphreys: William Groves, Hugh Richie and Alexander Long. Of them we know little. Richie was a Frenchman who had come over with the French troops who fought in the Revolution. There were no four-wheeled vehicles in Staunton, and only two gigs, or two-wheelers. Neither of these was owned by a doctor, so we conclude that these four were doctors on foot, sometimes on horseback. We have interesting but unflattering descriptions of the Staunton of that period written by two foreigners, an Englishman named Isaac Wald, and a Frenchman by the name of Rochefoucauld. From their accounts we learn that there were about two hundred houses in the town, mainly built of stone; that military titles and uniforms were very numerous; that gambling and betting were prevalent; that the food markets held twice weekly were exceedingly poor and that the horse races were miserable. Also, that the manners of the people were about like those of Richmond, whatever that may have implied. There was no post-office until 1793. The town was governed until 1802 by Trustees elected by the freeholders. Into such a town moved Dr. Alexander Humphreys in 1787, four years after peace had been concluded with England. He was then thirty years of age.

The following year he married Mary, the fourth child of the Reverend John Brown of New Providence Church, the first Presbyterian minister of Rockbridge County, and a man of outstanding character, education and intellect. Dr. Brown had a marked effect for good in his community. Beside his great work in his Church, he established and taught the first school in this part of the Valley of Virginia. Four sons and two daughters were born to Alexander and Mary Humphreys.

Searching for information about Dr. Alexander Humphreys, we find references to him in court records, deed books, various medical histories of his time, in government archives, in private letters and other sources. Pieced together, these records and references, all too few, seem to present the picture of a man whose short life had three different aspects: -- his life as a citizen in a growing pioneer town; his life as a busy doctor; and his life as a teacher of medical students. As a citizen of his new home, he soon came into prominence. We find him in 1790 helping to organize a Fire Company. Along with about forty of the leading business and professional men of the town, he became a member of that highly important organization. We next find him appointed by the court to a committee of five prominent citizens to report on plans for a new jail. We have records of his buying and selling numerous pieces of real estate in the town and in this and adjoining counties. We note his appointment, in 1791, as Gentleman Justice of the Peace. In 1792, with twelve other leading men, he was appointed by the Legislature as Trustee of the Staunton Academy, the first school established in the town. He was elected first president of its Board, and the following year we read of his serving on a committee of three Trustees to examine an applicant for the chair of Latin and Greek in the new school. During Dr. Humphreys' life-time this academy was housed in rented rooms; but the year of his death saw the construction of a large brick schoolhouse on the northeast corner of New and Academy streets, which stood until about forty years ago. Dr. Humphreys served on a court of Gentlemen Justices, acting as a grand jury which indicted John Bullitt for horse-stealing, for which capital crime this unfortunate man was hung at the place of execution located by the court at the intersection of New and Augusta streets in the then northern limits of the town. From this fact that part of Staunton was for many years known as Gallows Town. As a practitioner of medicine, Dr. Humphreys appears to have soon become exceedingly busy and increasingly well-known throughout the town, the county and adjoining counties. His name appears in numerous court records attesting wills of prominent citizens, certifying the fitness of midwives to perform their duties, examining Revolutionary War pensioners. Some of these latter records show his intimate knowledge of anatomy. In 1793 he found it necessary to employ an apothecary to assist him with his work. Accordingly, he wrote to Edinburgh and secured the services of one George C. McIntosh, making a contract with him for a period of four years. McIntosh after one year defaulted on the agreement and entered practice independently, advertising his services to the public, claiming to have graduated at Edinburgh and to have studied under the great Dr. Monroe. Humphreys sued him for breach of contract, but the suit was dismissed at the cost of the defendant. In 1788, soon after his arrival in Staunton, Humphreys petitioned the court for permission to erect an "elaboratory" on the prison lot. Permission was granted and he accordingly built a workshop at about the site of the present jail. Here he compounded drugs and carried on dissection for his own benefit and for that of his students. His own office and rooms for instructing students were also located in this building. His fame spread, he was sent for by doctors at a distance in consultation over difficult cases. One of these consultations we know was historic. Dr. Jesse Bennett, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, had settled in Rockingham County at the village of Edom. On January 14, 1794, his own wife was in labor with her first child. The labor was prolonged and unproductive, and Dr. Bennett, becoming alarmed, dispatched a messenger for Dr. Humphreys. On his arrival, the two endeavored in every way to bring about a successful delivery, attempting to apply forceps several times. The pelvis was found to be contracted and normal delivery impossible. Two procedures were then discussed: first craniotomy, with destruction of the child; second Caesarian section, an operation never performed on a living woman up to that time. Dr. Humphreys advised against the Caesarian operation and advocated craniotomy. Mrs. Bennett, the patient, then spoke up and begged for the Caesarian section, saying thata she felt sure she would die under either procedure and wanting the life of the child saved. Dr. Bennett then requested Dr. Humphreys to operate, but he most positively desclined to do so. Bennett then decided to attempt the job himself and accordingly, on a table of two planks resting on barrels, with two negro women holding the patient and a huge dose of laudanum the only anesthetic, this heroic maan proceeded to perform the first Caesarian section in history on a living woman, and remarkable to relate, both mother and child survived and lived, both of them to old age. Dr. Bennett has not been accorded the place in history which he deserves, because he failed to report the case in medical literature. When asked by his colleagues wwhy he failed so to report it, he replied that there were two reasons - First, no decent man would report such an operation on his own wife; and, second, his medical friends already knew of the operation and that doctors who didn't know him would never believe him if he reported it, and he was not going to give them the opportunity to call him a liar. This operation has since been duly authenticated and recorded by other doctors. It antedated Ephraim McDowell's ovariotomy by fifteen years. Incidentally, double ovariectomy was done by Dr. Bennett as part of the operation. But it is as a teacher that the name of Alexander Humphreys has persisted for one hundred and fifty years in medical history; and it is mainly for his achievements as a teacher of medicine that we honor him here at his grave today. He attracted students from near and far. How many young men studied under him as preceptor, we do not know. Immediately after his death in 1802 his whole family moved to Kentucky and his records were either destroyed or taken along by the family. It is inconceivable that a man of his ability kept no recerds of any sort. Let us hope that there are records and that one of his six children preserved them and that they may some day come to light. Out of the group of young doctors that Dr. Humphreys trained, there are five of whom we know who attained eminence of one sort or another. William Wardlaw, one of his first students, studied here more than two years, then emigrated to Tennessee and became famous in the early medical history of that state. William Wardlaw and another student. James McPheeters, unwillingly brought trouble upon their preceptor. The remains of a human body which they had caused to be exhumed and had used for dissection, were sewed up by them in a crocus sack and deposited in a cave on Sear's Hill. The sack had the name of Dr. Humphreys on it; and after being found and inspected, a grand jury investigation was held. A traveller had disappeared from one of the town taverns and murder was suspected. The grand jury, on hearing the testimony of the students, acquitted Dr. Humphreys; but rumors spread to other towns and he had much worry and unhappiness and several lawsuits in connection with the case. Another student was Andrew Kean of Goochland County. He afterwards made a name for himself as a physician in his home county. He was chief surgeon of the Eighth Regiment of Virginia Militia in the War of 1812. He became more and more eminent after this war and was offered a chair in the medical school of Thomas Jefferson's new University of Virginia. He declined the offer and continued in private practice. William Henry Harrison, ninth President of the United States, in his youth started to study medicine under Dr. Andrew Leiper of Richmond. He then came to Staunton and continued his studies under Dr. Humphreys. Then he entered the University of Pennsylvania and was there when his father, Benjamin Harrison, of Charles City County, died. William Henry Harrison then gave up medicine and entered the Army, rising to the grade of General. He defeated the Indians at the famous battle of Tippecanoe Creek and soon thereafter was elected President, defeating Martin Van Buren. He died one month after his inauguration and was succeeded by Tyler, his vice-president and a fellow Virginian. Samuel Brown, younger brother of Dr. Humphreys' wife, was also a medical pupil of his brother-in-law. He studied in Staunton three years and then entered the University of Edinburgh, where he remained two years. He did not graduate, but returned to America in 1795. He tried out several locations, near Washington, in New Orleans, in Alabama, and, finally, he settled in Lexington, Kentucky. He was pioneer vaccinator of America. Four years after Jenner's famous discovery, Samuel Brown had vaccinated successfully more than five hundred persons in Kentucky. Vaccination was still being only tentatively used at that time in the large cities of the East. Brown became professor of medicine in Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, the first medical school west of the Alleghanies. He was also a scientist and contributed to scientific magazines. He wrote the first medical paper published by a Kentucky doctor. He also had the distinction of introducing lithography into America. Last, and most famous of Dr. Humphreys' pupils, was Ephraim McDowell. Born in Rockbridge County just south of Fairfield, he moved to Kentucky with his family at the age of twelve. His father became one of the first judges in the new state. At the age of nineteen, Ephraim returned to Virginia and enrolled under Dr. Humphreys. After three years here, his teacher persuaded him to finish his education in Edinburgh. He remained there two years but did not graduate. He was mainly interested in surgery and was greatly moved and influenced by the famous Edinburgh surgeon and anatomist, John Bell. Returning to America in the late summer of 1794, he remained in Staunton until January, 1795, when he returned to his home in Danville, Kentucky. There he accomplished his amazing and revolutionary work in surgery, acquiring the title of Father of Ovariotomy and Founder of Abdominal Surgery. His work is too well known and reported to be further commented on here. How are we to appraise and evalute the worth of this man, Alexander Humphreys, one hundred and forty-nine years after his passing? I submit that he was a doctor and a teacher far ahead of his times, and that he carried the torch of medical learning with honor to himself and benefit to humanity. It is pleasant to think that he may know of this gathering here today to do him honor; but whether he does or he doesn't, I would say to him:-"Dr. Humphreys, your successors in medicine after many years salute you; and it is our prayer that your great energy, your keen intellect and your abounding zeal to learn and to teach may so inspire us that we may become better and more useful practitioners of the art of healing."

REFERENCES

  • 1. Biography of Ephraim McDowell: Mary Young Rutenbaugh. W. J. Donovan; Philadelphia, 1887.
  • 2. Supplement to Kentucky Medical Journal, 33: No. 9, September, 1935. 3. Medicine in Virginia, Wyndham Blanton.
  • 4. Annals of Augusta County, J. Addison Waddell.
  • 5. Doctors on Horseback, Flexner.
  • 6. Surgery, Queen of the Arts, William Haggard.
  • 7. Historic Families of Kentucky, Thomas Marshall Green.
  • 8. Scotch-Irish Influence, Ann. of Med. Hist., 1938, N. S.,X: 71-82, 162-168, H. H. Trout.
  • 9. Augusta County Court Records, Lyman Chalkley.
  • 10. Humphreys Family in America, Frederick Humphreys, M. D., Humphreys Print; New York, 1887.
  • 11. Augusta County Deed Books; Augusta County Will Books; Augusta County Order Books. (Reprint from Virginia Medical Monthly, Vol. 81, pages 13-16, January, 1954)


      
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Dr. Alexander Humphreys's Timeline

1757
1757
County Armagh, Ireland
1788
April 8, 1788
Age 31
Rockbridge Co., VA
1789
1789
Age 32
Near Staunton, VA
1790
1790
Age 33
Near Staunton, VA
1794
1794
Age 37
Near Staunton, VA
1794
Age 37
Staunton, VA
1796
October 15, 1796
Age 39
Staunton, VA
1800
January 1800
Age 43
near Staunton, , virginia
1801
1801
Age 44
Near Staunton, VA
1802
May 23, 1802
Age 45
Near Staunton, VA