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America’s prominent doctors

John Conway
Posted 1/20/23

It was Saturday, January 26, 1895, and throngs of mourners were gathered at the Church of the Incarnation in Manhattan for the funeral of one of America’s most prominent doctors.

Dr. Alfred …

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America’s prominent doctors


It was Saturday, January 26, 1895, and throngs of mourners were gathered at the Church of the Incarnation in Manhattan for the funeral of one of America’s most prominent doctors.

Dr. Alfred Lebbeus Loomis, who had revolutionized the way tuberculosis was treated in this country, had died on January 23rd, just two days after his personal physician had ordered him confined to bed because of a spiking fever. Dr. Loomis, diagnosed with tuberculosis some 30 years earlier, had contracted pneumonia, and would never recover.  

Loomis’ black cloth-covered casket was carried into the church by ten pallbearers, including J.P. Morgan, Elbridge T. Gerry, and former New York City Mayor, Abram S. Hewitt. Bishop Henry C. Potter presided over a simple Episcopal service without sermon or eulogy, and burial followed in the Woodlawn Cemetery. Aside from the prominence of the mourners, there was little to suggest the great things the man had accomplished.

Loomis was born in Bennington, Vermont in 1831. His father, Daniel, was a cotton merchant, and served for a time as postmaster. Daniel Loomis died of tuberculosis in 1833, and there was much tuberculosis in the Loomis family, prompting young Alfred to develop an early interest in medicine because of his own weak lungs. As a child, he was convinced he would not live past age 30, for most of his family had not, and although he did considerably better than that, he was himself diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1867. After a sojourn in the Adirondacks restored his health, he became persuaded of the curative powers of the forested mountain air and devoted himself to the study of respiratory problems. Thereafter, he spent at least two months of every year in the Adirondacks and became an enthusiastic champion of preserving the region’s woodlands as a “natural sanitarium.” 

Loomis graduated from Union College in 1850, and the College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1852, and became a practicing physician in New York, treating consumptives in the charity hospitals on Wards and Blackwell’s Islands. He was eventually appointed to the staffs at Bellevue and Mount Sinai Hospitals. 

Loomis authored a number of books - including “Lessons in Physical Diagnosis” (1868), “Diseases of the Respiratory Organs, Heart, and Kidneys” (1876), “Lectures on Fevers” (1882), “Diseases of Old Age” (1882) and “Practical Medicine” (1884) - and dozens of articles for medical journals.

In 1886, an unknown friend of the University of New York gave through the good doctor a $100,000 endowment to build and equip the finest laboratory of its kind in the country. There were just two conditions: That the donor remain anonymous, and that the laboratory be named the Loomis Laboratory.

Loomis was instrumental in liquidating the debt of the University’s Medical School in 1886 and in reorganizing the course of study at the school in 1892. 

He served as president of every organization with which he was affiliated, including the American Climatological Society and the New York Academy of Medicine, over which he presided for two terms, declining a third in 1893 because of failing health. 

He was so well respected that when President Garfield was shot in the summer of 1881, and the nation followed his ultimately failed recovery through the newspapers of the day, the New York Times repeatedly ran accounts of Loomis’ opinion of the case, despite the fact that he had not examined the President. When former president Chester A. Arthur became seriously ill in February of 1886, his doctors summoned Loomis to Arthur’s New York City home in an attempt to prolong the former president’s life. 

After his own recovery in the Adirondacks, Loomis had treated a young medical doctor, Edward Trudeau, and persuaded him to spend the winter in the mountains. Trudeau’s recovery was even more dramatic, and Loomis continued to send his tuberculosis patients to the north woods year around. When Trudeau advanced the idea of establishing America’s first sanitarium for consumptives at Saranac Lake in 1885, Loomis became co-founder. His experience with the widespread devastation caused by tuberculosis in New York City convinced him that a facility similar to the one he had built with Trudeau, but closer to the metropolitan area, was desperately needed. He began sending patients to the Catskills with good results, and eventually decided to build his sanitarium in Liberty. He began raising money for the project but died before his plan could come to fruition. 

Largely through the efforts of his sister-in-law, Mrs. Richard Irvin, and wealthy patients such as J.P. Morgan, Loomis’ dream was realized when the Loomis Sanitarium for Consumptives was opened as a memorial to him in 1896.  Mrs. Irvin employed some of the most renowned architects of the day to design the various buildings at the sanitarium, and some of those buildings remain today. The facility, among the most successful in the country, comprised at its peak over 700 acres, included its own post office, fire department, electric generating plant, and water and sewer systems, and was able to treat 235 patients at a time. It operated through 1942.

Loomis was married twice, first in 1858 to Sarah Patterson of Hoosick Falls, New York, with whom he had two children, and then in 1887 to Annie Morris Prince, a widow who was originally from Baltimore. Interestingly, Loomis’ daughter Adeline later married his second wife’s son, and so the doctor had the unusual, though probably not unique, circumstance of having a son-in-law who was also his stepson. 

Following Dr. Loomis’ death, a memorial tablet was erected in Bellevue Hospital, with the following inscription: 

“A man of rare attainments, he had a strong will, untiring industry, and directness of purpose. These traits, with his well-ordered and resourceful mind, made him one of the ablest of his profession and won for him its highest honors.”

John Conway is the Sullivan County Historian and a founder and president of The Delaware Company. Email him at jconway52@hotmail.com.


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