The biographies published in the 1881 “History of Napa and Lake Counties, California” by Lyman L. Palmer featured about a dozen local physicians. While their individual paths to their mutual profession and journeys to Napa County varied widely, more than half of these doctors highlighted in the book lived in St. Helena, including the subjects of this column.
Presenting these local physicians in alphabetical order, the first of these upvalley doctors is Frederick W. Colman, a Portland, Maine native born in 1838. He began his career in the health industry at the approximate age of 17 years old. In 1855, he became a druggist, or pharmacist, apprentice at drugstores in Salem and then Boston, Massachusetts. He departed for California, via the Isthmus of Panama, in 1860. Following his disembarking from the ship at San Francisco, Colman worked at drugstores throughout California’s Central Valley until the eruption of the Civil War. He returned back East to enlist in the Union Army. But he failed his physical examination due to a physical disability.
Within days, Colman was aboard a westward bound ship. Although he arrived in San Francisco, he soon traveled to the then Washington Territory. Colman chose to remain there to live and work. Between 1863 and 1870, Colman owned and operated a Walla Walla, Washington drugstore. While there, he also married Emily W. Sylvester, a Brooklyn, New York native, in 1867. The first two of their five daughters, Annie and Emily, were born in Washington.
At the conclusion of those seven years, 1870, Colman sold his Walla Walla drugstore and moved his family to Napa. As he ran his own downtown Napa drugstore, Colman began taking classes at the Medical College of San Francisco. He graduated with his medical degree on November 4, 1873. Two months earlier, Colman had been elected to serve as the Napa County Coroner, a post he continued to hold in 1881.
Another of his accomplishments in 1873 was his appointment as physician of the Napa County Hospital Infirmary, once located in Napa. Colman held that position through 1874. He also opened a medical office in Napa, which remained open until 1880. In August of that year, the Colmans moved to St. Helena.
Before that relocation, and during their Napa residency, the Colman family grew by three new members, daughters Charlotte, Florence and Mary. The latter was born in Napa and just before her mother Emily’s 40th birthday. More than likely, Mary was one of the last few if not the last of the children born to Frederick and Emily Colman.
A contemporary of Colman’s was Cornelius E. Davis, however, Davis was also a dentist. Born in New Jersey in 1832, Davis moved to Ohio with his parents when he was a toddler. While living in Ohio, Davis earned his medical degree. Shortly thereafter, in the spring of 1853, 21-year-old Davis and six of his siblings, five brothers and one sister, crossed the plains to reach California by October of that year.
Davis opened a medical office in Stockton and continued his practice until his failing health forced him to close his office. He moved to San Francisco and “turned his attention to dentistry for a time,” Palmer continued, “and then went to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to complete his education in that profession.”
Shortly thereafter, Davis returned to San Francisco, but only for a brief time. He left the city to travel throughout California in search of a suitable community. Davis lived in several different towns before returning to San Francisco. But by that time, once again, he was very ill.
Palmer wrote, “With the idea of bettering his health he paid a visit to Napa County with the intention of remaining a short time, but liking the climate and location of St. Helena, he concluded to locate in that place, and in 1868 Dr. Davis opened his office (in St. Helena) ... and for the past thirteen years he has practiced his profession without intermission...”
Palmer also noted Davis did not have to work because, through sound investments, such as buying a block of St. Helena business buildings, he was a very wealthy man. His biography also mentioned Davis had been married twice and had five children.
Next week Memory Lane will continue, and conclude, this review of the early medical community of St. Helena.