REPRESENTATIVE AND LEADING
MEN OF THE PACIFIC
BY CALVIN B. McDONALD.
DR. ISAAC ROWELL was born in Coos county, New Hampshire, in 1818. He is descended from the Pilgrims, his ancestors having come from England with that historic company who came in the Mayflower; and through successive generations his family have been earnest and progressive Republicans, in the broad and national sense of the term. He was educated at Dartmouth College, including its literary, scientific, and medical courses, and at once entered upon the practice of medicine at Gardiner, Maine. In 1849, he joined the great procession of enterprise and adventure moving to the farthest West, and coming by way of Cape Horn, arrived in San Francisco on the 16th of June of that year. He at once announced himself as a physician and surgeon, opened an office near the place still occupied by him, and soon became a popular and successful practitioner. From that time to the present, his office has been the daily resort of suffering humanity, a large portion of his attention and skill being devoted to the poor, expecting and receiving no reward save the pleasant consciousness of having sought to relieve the distresses of the friendless and despairing.
In 1852, Dr. Rowell became interested in military affairs, and raised the first cavalry company organized on this coast—the Eureka Light-House Guards—which afterwards became the First Light Dragoons, and which was remarkable as one of the finest companies in the Union. After holding command several years, having been unanimously elected captain at the organization of the company, the First Light Dragoons, the National Lancers, Capt. Thomas Hayes, the First National Guard—Light Artillery—Capt. Thomas D. Johns, united under the organization known as the First California Mounted Battalion; and at the first meeting, every member being present, every vote was cast for Dr. Rowell as commander—an instance of that popularity which he has always enjoyed in every relation of life.
In 1855, he took a leading part in organizing the Medical Department of the University of the Pacific, and was elected to the Chair of Chemistry; also lecturing in various other departments of the institution; and for one full term occupying the Chairs of Chemistry and Surgery with complete satisfaction to the Faculty; while at the same time performing the duties of an extensive and increasing practice; affording an illustration of physical endurance and executive capacity almost unparalleled in the history of his profession, and which could be performed only by the most vigorous and resolute mind. At the commencement of the War of Rebellion, this institution was broken up; many of the students betook themselves to the field, and became distinguished in the reports as army-surgeons, attesting the thoroughness of the instruction received of Cooper, Rowell, and the other earnest and devoted men who had founded a college of Medicine and Surgery among the first public institutions of their young State.
In 1866, he was elected a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, having been an independent candidate, and received a large majority of the popular vote. That position, hardly less important than a membership of the State Legislature, was sought in order to correct abuses and errors existing in the City and County Hospital, to which Dr. Rowell gave his earnest attention during his term of office. Having served in that capacity two years and a half, and accomplished the desired reform, he declined a renomination; and on his retirement from office was publicly presented with a magnificent set of silverware by a number of leading citizens, who desired to express their approbation of his faithful and public spirited conduct as a member of the local Legislature. It was the most beautiful and costly gift ever received by any private citizen of San Francisco, and was so referred to by the public journals of that time.
Up to the commencement of the great rebellion, Dr. Rowell had been an active and conspicuous member of the Democratic party; but at that time, together with thousands of earnest and patriotic men who held the principles of Thomas Jefferson, he at once took a foremost and resolute stand for the restoration and preservation of the Union. He supported the second election of Mr. Lincoln, made his first political speech in behalf of that illustrious man, and abandoning a large and lucrative practice, traversed the State at his own expense, and took an active and important part in the presidential campaign. His political speeches were earnest, inspiring, and effective, and perhaps no single citizen did more to create and give directions to public sentiment during the cloudy and perilous days of our country. Everywhere the sturdy and enthusiastic doctor communicated the electrism of his own strong and earnest soul to the people; and he returned with honor and distinction from a turbulent and even dangerous canvass, to resume his gentler rounds among the children of affliction, having obeyed the irresistible impulses of his hereditary nature, and struck a blow for Union, freedom, and the right of men.
In 1868, he was elected Health Officer of the city of San Francisco by the Board of Supervisors; and in that capacity, during an alarming and desolating epidemic, displayed a characteristic energy and devotion, giving himself up wholly to the duties of a perilous and thankless office, visiting the dreary abodes of the pestilence, contributing to the relief of the poor, and as ever, earnest, active, conscientious, and untiring. We believe he made the only post mortem examination of small-pox that occurred during the prevalence of that awful scourge.
Having glanced rapidly over the public services of one of the most noted and valuable of private citizens, it may be added that Dr. Rowell ranks high with the most distinguished physicians and surgeons of San Francisco. Being one of the oldest, he is also one of the ablest and most popular, not only in the estimation of the public, but likewise with the members of his profession. In private association he is social, generous, and sympathetic, ambitious of popularity and of distinction as a man of liberality and public spirit; caring far more for the good opinion and friendship of his fellow-men than for all the golden treasures that could be heaped around him. In the lecture-room, he is versatile, instructive, and entertaining, giving apt expressions to thoughts original, philosophical, or humorous, as the circumstances and fancy of the moment may suggest. The structure of his mental organism leads to inquiry, analysis, and invention; and perhaps no member of the Faculty in this State is better adapted to the requirements of the lecture-room in a medical institute. As a citizen, he is well informed, public spirited, and liberal, closely observing every new movement of the public mind, taking part in every worthy enterprise, and contributing freely, generously, and almost thoughtlessly to the appeals of charity; the chief obstacle to his greater professional success and fame being the multiform and eclectic nature of his occupations, and his irresistible desire to take part in every great public enterprise, and to be personally identified with every great work of progress and reform. The physician’s highway to eminence is through the quiet and sorrowful places of affliction, and it is a long distance; but in the scale of an unselfish philanthropy, it may claim precedence in the loftiest occupations of mankind. To breast the beating storm at midnight, and linger till gray dawn in the abode of poverty, in spite of the invocations of sleep, and with scarcely any hope of reward other than the intangible fees of conscience, are acts of the sublimest heroism.
Professor Rowell is still in the prime of vigorous life, as appears from the excellent portrait preceding this sketch. In personal presence he is as many and noble as he is refined, humane, and generous in the structure of his mind. And whether in social companionship with his friends, in the public assembly of his fellow-citizens, or in the abodes of threatening death or friendless poverty, he is always recognizable among the highest types of enlightened mankind and the truest of American citizenship.
Transcribed by: Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.
Source: Shuck, Oscar T., “Representative & Leading Men of the Pacific”, Bacon & Co., Printers & Publishers, San Francisco, 1870. Pages 539-543.
© 2008 Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.