February 1991

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Old-Style Family Physician

Corning's "Doc Mac"



Robert F. McNamara

Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Act One, Chapter 2, Act Two, Chapter 3

Chapter Two

The Making of a Medic: Act One

Most Corning physicians a century ago were presumably from families that had long American backgrounds. Thomas A. McNamara, on the other hand, was a first-generation American, the second son of an Irish immigrant railroad hand. But the children of Patrick McNamara were to furnish an interesting illustration of quick upward social mobility.

Patrick (1822 - 1905), was a native of Ballycahane, Monaster, County Limerick. In the middle of the last century when thousands of Irishmen were bolting from their luckless country, his middle-aged parents Daniel and Ann McInerny McNamara brought their whole family to America, settling in Hornell, New York (then called Hornellsville). Hornell was already a rather important center on the Erie Railroad; so Pat, being an adult, got a job as a "gandy dancer" or section hand on the Erie maintenance crew. A man of enterprise, however, he soon won promotion to foreman in charge of a section of the railroad bed that ran between Addison and Hornell.

On June 14, 1854, at St. Ann's, Hornell (the regional Catholic church), Patrick McNamara married Frances McMullen from nearby Greenwood. Frances' parents were also immigrants, but they hailed from County Antrim, in Northern Ireland.

There is a hamlet near Canisteo named Adrian. Adrian was significant enough in 1854 to have its own Erie station. Because it was centrally located beside his railroad section, Foreman McNamara decided to settle there, and built (or bought) a little "vernacular" house facing the tracks. A few other Irish families lived in the town, but it was basically a Yankee community. Here the gentle and considerate Frances McNamara gave birth to her eight children, of whom all but one reached maturity. They were Daniel (1855); Thomas Alexander (December 16, 1856); William (1858); Alexander (1859); Mary (1861); Fannie (1863); and Patrick, Junior (1865). Adrian proved to be a healthy and wholesome place to raise a brood. Irish immigrants to America usually preferred to locate in the "Little Irelands" of our large cities. By choosing to live at a "Yankee" crossroads, the Patrick McNamaras probably hastened the Americanization of their children. I think that this fact explains my father's good understanding of non-Irish Americans, and why he was never a "professional" Irishman.

Not that Adrian was a Garden of Eden for lively youngsters. My grandparents strictly forbade their boys to frequent the general store. They did not want them exposed to the coarse vocabulary of the tobacco-chewing locals who made it their club. But Patrick positively encouraged his sons to hang around the little railway station. As a result, they all had a chance to learn the art of telegraphy. Adrian had no church of its own, of course, but Pat could always borrow the Erie handcar on Sunday and pump the family to Hornell for Mass at St. Ann's and for the weekend shopping.

How much schooling Patrick had I do not know. He certainly encouraged his children to pursue learning as far as they could, although they would have to pay their own way. As it turned out, Thomas acquired a broader education than any of the rest. All the McNamara siblings learned the "Three Rs" in Adrian's own district school, a smart stone's-throw from their back door. When he was 15, Thomas enrolled at Canisteo Academy, some four miles from home. He was probably able to travel there on a railroad pass.

The funds that had paid for this first year of high school ran out at the end of the Spring semester. Fortunately, Tom got a job as telegrapher at the Adrian depot. Two years later he resumed his schooling, this time at Alfred Academy. Alfred was 18 miles west of Adrian, but still on the Erie line. Displeased somehow by his course there, Thomas finished his high school course at Woodhull Academy, some 20 miles from home. This institution had a high rating and a relatively large student population. Because of the distance between Woodhull and Adrian, he may have had to room and board with some Woodhull family during the school week, earning his keep by chores.

By now, Dad ambitioned college. This time he turned to teaching to defray the costs. He had learned some of the professional ropes the previous summer when substituting as a schoolmaster in the Adrian elementary school. Now he was hired as an instructor in the district schoolhouse at Rexville, a dozen miles south of Canisteo. He was then eighteen-going-on-nineteen.

With enough money in hand by Fall 1876, my father left home for the college of his choice. It was the "College and Seminary of Our Lady of Angels," at Suspension Bridge on the Niagara River, just outside the city of Niagara Falls, New York. As the name of the school suggests, the main reason why the Vincentian Fathers had established this institution in 1856, was to train students for the Roman Catholic priesthood, but nonclerical collegians were also welcome.

If Thomas himself, a devout young man, was perhaps thinking of becoming a priest, he said nothing about it. All conjecture about that possibility was cut short when he decided to leave the college in 1879, after three years of residence. At this point he seems to have been experiencing a crisis about his life objectives.

Brother Dan now got Tom thinking about a medical career. That same year Daniel made arrangements with a Hornell physician, Dr. Joseph Robinson, to enter his office and "read" medicine. "Reading" medicine with an established doctor, like "reading" law with an established lawyer, was apparently still a recognized gateway to a medical career. However, it was fast yielding to education in a medical school. By 1859 there were already eight medical schools in New York State alone. Dr. Robinson himself had done graduate work at the medical school of New York University, and it was quite likely he who talked Dan into enrolling there. Thomas decided to go with him.

To cover the costs of his new course of study, Dad returned to the school room. He was engaged to serve as schoolmaster for the year 1879 - 1880 in the district school of Rathboneville, some 14 miles east of Adrian on the Erie line. When this new professor called his Rathbone disciples to order that Fall, he was no longer the callow teen who had faced the pupils at Rexville. Now he spoke with all the dignity of a 23-year-old man with three years of college to his credit. Even so, Papa proved no match for his students when they chose to outwit him. Thus, one cold winter evening they decided to turn the next day into a holiday. In a classic conspiracy, they broke into the schoolhouse after dark, kidnapped the potbellied stove, and dropped it through the ice in the nearby river. The holiday they got.

Daniel and Thomas McNamara matriculated in the medical department of New York University in the autumn of 1880. At that time the standard course in medicine lasted only two years. On March 7, 1882, therefore, the McNamara brothers and their 211 other classmates attended the commencement, splendid in their formal coats and those necessary doctoral symbols, the beards. At the graduation they listened, no doubt, to much medical oratory; they took the noble Hippocratic Oath of the medical profession: they received their scrolled diplomas. But when they trouped out from this staid ceremony, these dignified new Doctors of Medicine kicked up their heels and staged an impromptu snake dance along Broadway. After all, they were still mostly in their mid-twenties.

When Dr. Dan and Dr. Tom returned to Adrian sporting the new credentials, their three brothers were deeply impressed. This trio, too, eventually decided to study medicine. William entered the new medical school, located in Buffalo, of Our Lady of Angels College, by then known as Niagara University. Unfortunately, hereditary asthma forced him to abandon his plans and move to Colorado. But Alexander and Patrick, Junior, won their medical degrees from the University of Buffalo: Alec in 1887, and "Pack" (who briefly changed his Christian name to "Patterson"), in 1889. Thus Erie foreman McNamara saw four of his sons embrace one of mankind's noblest professions. That must be some sort of record.

Back, now, to Doctors Daniel and Thomas. Today's physicians must not only take four years of basic training; they must afterwards spend three years of internship and residency in a hospital. But graduates of 1882 faced no further delay once their two-year course was done. After they had received diploma and license they could proceed at once to nail up their shingles and start their practice.

Dr. Dan decided to open shop in Batavia, New York, although, being a restless man, he later moved to Syracuse, then to Binghamton, and finally to Utica.

Dr. Tom, after a brief hesitation, chose Corning, New York, as his locale. His aunt, Mary McNamara Kennedy lived there, and surely influenced the decision. Her husband Thomas worked out of Corning on the Fall Brook Railroad. Dr. Thomas could board with them at first (Aunt Mary's apple pies were famous), and they and their six children could be his "family" in this strange new town. Furthermore Corning could use his services. With a population of some 4,000 in 1882, it was a growing little industrial center that would achieve the status of a city only eight years later. Since mid-century it had had a fair-sized Catholic population, a few of them Portuguese immigrants, a good many, German, and most of them Irish. After the present century began, the later immigration would bring in other Catholics: Poles, Ukrainians and Lebanese, and a very large number of Italians. Dr. Mac, who was apparently the first Catholic physician to settle in Corning, could certainly count on the patronage of some of these, his fellow-parishioners at St. Mary's Catholic Church.

Therefore, Thomas Alexander McNamara, M. D., a trim, handsome, vibrant young medic with sharp blue eyes, wavy brown hair, and a fine set of Burnside whiskers, set up in Corning his sign as "Physician and Surgeon." He had rented office space in the "Concert Block," a brick building on the main village square. As completed in 1851, the Concert Block's ground floor was occupied by stores, its second floor by professional offices, and its third floor by a multipurpose public hall. (For instance, its stage had been graced in 1856 by the famous midget, "the Original Gen. Tom Thumb.") The "concert-hall" story was sheared off a generation ago; at present the ground floor houses the Corning Trust branch of the Chase Lincoln Bank; but the second floor is still used for professional offices. My father's two rooms were on the back, alley side. One of them he furnished as an office, the other as a bedroom.

It was one thing to open a doctor's office; it was quite another to get people to enter. Papa used to tell with amusement in later years about his seemingly endless wait for the first patient to darken the threshold. When that man finally entered, he encountered a physician probably even more nervous than himself.

"Let me feel your pulse," the doctor began. The sick man complied. "Let me see your tongue." He obeyed.

"Hmm!," said Doctor Mac. "Let me feel your pulse again." No problem. Then, "Let me feel your tongue . . ."

The doctor must have diagnosed the ailment correctly and proposed an adequate remedy. Had the poor fellow died, Dad would surely not have told the story as a joke. But now the ice was broken. T. A. McNamara had inaugurated his career of healing.

1991, Robert F. McNamara
Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4
Index to articles by Robert F. McNamara
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