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Is There a Doctor in the House?

Updated: Jan 17

Dr. Thomas L. Chapman (1817-1889)

Collection of the Longmeadow Historical Society

The town of Longmeadow has had many doctors in the past, some formally trained and others who gained their knowledge by mentoring with a more experienced physician. Thomas Luce Chapman (1817-1889) originally planned to study to be a missionary. During a prayer meeting, Chapman was badly burned when lightning "went down his back and [out] his boot, seriously affecting his heart."

One report noted, "A pretty full prayer meeting, supposed to number three hundred, were in attendance at the lecture-room [in the meeting house], when the lightning struck and descended the rod to the eaves. The rod had become detached from the building, and swung loose. There the lightning parted. One portion descended the rod to the earth, and there made a mighty display of its wonderful power. The other portion entered the lecture room...[and followed a system of stove pipes from the second floor to the first floor] and passed out through the underpinnings."...several were severely injured. (From the History of Pittsfield (Berkshire County) Massachusetts, 1876).

Inspired by his brush with death, Chapman decided to study medicine at the Berkshire Medical Institute in Pittsfield, MA. At the time, medical treatment was primarily an attempt to determine which of the four humors in the body were out of balance by blood-letting, blistering, and the administration of purgatives and emetics. When Chapman studied at the Berkshire Medical Institute, formal study at a medical school was not a large part of most doctors' professional preparation. As late as the Civil War, only 50% of all doctors had graduated from a medical school. The rest had become doctors by "reading" with an established local doctor. Chapman graduated from BMI in 1842 at the age of 25. Chapman came to Longmeadow to practice medicine after his graduation.

"By Medicine and Medical Attendance"

The California Gold Rush began January 24, 1848 when gold was discovered at Sutter's Mill in Coloma, CA. Thomas Chapman joined thousands of others who went west searching for treasure. He left on February 5, 1949 on the steamer S.S. Crescent City bound for the Isthmus of Panama, carrying with him a letter of recommendation from the Reverend Samuel Wolcott of Longmeadow. While thousands of others were stranded at Panama awaiting passage up the Pacific coast, Chapman hired on as the ship's physician on the S. S. Oregon, bound for San Francisco.

After returning to Longmeadow, sadly without a fortune in gold, he married Charlotte Langdon in 1850. He and Charlotte lived at 788 Longmeadow Street. The Chapmans had stillborn twins, and then lost a six-year-old, Lillie, to "Scarlatinna" or scarlet fever, which was one of the leading causes of death in children at the time.

788 Longmeadow Street

Doctor Chapman tended to the healthcare of Longmeadow residents for nearly thirty years. He as also elected to the state senate in 1863. After his wife, Charlotte, died in 1874, he remarried to Mary Chapin of Springfield, the daughter of Marvin Chapin, proprietor of the Massasoit Hotel.

Mary kept a diary, and recorded the remarkable life of her husband. The reverse of the wedding photo dated December 27, 1876 included a description of her wedding dress "the lace...was combined with a garland of apple blossoms and draped on the dress of pearl gray silk." She described their winter wedding: "I have had often in mind the events of our wedding day...Our departure in an open sleigh, with our trunk on behind, gliding over the beautiful snow--under the brilliant moon to our home."

Dr. Chapman and his second wife, Mary Chapin, 1876

Early medicine, and Thomas Chapman's interesting life is featured in an exhibit at the Storrs House Museum, home of the Longmeadow Historical Society, along with stories of other interesting characters from Longmeadow's past, including gravestone carvers, and early merchant, and artist and a pigeon racer. 

Contributed by Betsy McKee/ Al McKee, Longmeadow Historical Society Board Members

Originally published June 3, 2021

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