Monday, May 16, 2011

George B. Willson - updated 2/8/2015 NAME CHANGE

Dr. George B. Willson was born in about 1830, possibly in Canada.

Described as “perhaps the brightest man in medicine which [St. Clair County] has ever known,” George Willson came to Port Huron, St. Clair County, from Canada sometime around 1850 and while there studied medicine with Dr. Zeh. He eventually graduated from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in 1857 (his faculty mentor there was Dr. Stockwell). The eminent geologist Professor Winchell of the university “found in him a congenial spirit and spent days with him in the most enjoyable companionship.”

Dr. Willson was also considered, at least in later years, to be something of an acute diagnostician.

Supposition and guesswork were never satisfying to him. To verify a diagnosis he used every means at his command. In one instance where he was called to see a dying man, he made a diagnosis of cancer of the stomach, which diagnosis was at variance with that of a fellow practitioner. Wishing to verify the existing conditions he asked the privilege of making an examination of the stomach after death. The relatives promised, but when death had taken place the promise was withdrawn. Not to be thwarted, he, accompanied by a medical student, went in the middle of the night following the day of the funeral, to the cemetery, which was located in an outlying, lonely place. There, after removing the dirt down to the coffin removing the lid, he proceeded by the light of a dark lantern, to make an autopsy. He verified his diagnosis, finding a cancer of the stomach; then, replacing the lid of the coffin and covering in the earth, he departed just before dawn, satisfied and paid for all the risks he had run. “At a time,” noted one biographer, when to deal surgical [sic] with the brain was supposed to invite death, he was called to see a man through whose forehead and into the center of whose brain had been driven the breech-pin, with its binding screw, of an exploded gun. With Dr. Willson there was no hesitancy as to what course to pursue; to his mind it was plain that where a missile had gone, and had not killed, he could go. He enlarged the opening in the forehead (it being found necessary) and after removing considerable disorganized matter, succeeded with considerable difficulty in removing the foreign body. The man recovered and lived for many years afterward. 

 George married New York native Cynthia (b. 1833) and they had at least one child: Emma (b. 1858).

By 1860 George was working as a physician and living with his wife and daughter in Flint’s 2nd Ward, Genesee County; also living with them was George Stockwell (b. 1847) and a servant Mary Buryes as well as George’s brother James (b. 1833) who was also a practicing physician.

George was a 24-year-old physician living in Ionia County, Michigan, when he was commissioned as Assistant Surgeon on October 15, 1861

According to Dr. Charles Stockwell of Port Huron, Dr. Willson and Stockwell’s father were avid collectors of curios and during the war Willson apparently sent several pieces of Pohick church, Virginia, to Stockwell. In 1905 Charles testified that he had in his possession two balusters from the church. They were “about 22 to 24 inches long, square base, square top, upper half fluted, square piece near center, lower part turned with one portion of it apparently hand carved with oblique lines; painted light brown.” Stockwell added that he received one piece from his father who had gotten it from Dr. Willson and the other piece from Mrs. S. D. Sanborn who had also received hers from Willson. Stockwell further stated that his father and Dr. Willson “were collecting curios, antiquities and objects of historic interest and that is the reason Dr. Willson sent them to be preserved in our collection.”

Stockwell was asked if he knew how Dr. Willson came by the pieces and he replied he did “not know how sender obtained possession of said articles, whether he got them personally out of the church, or whether he got them from some other person.”

In any case, it appears that George contracted tuberculosis, possibly even before he entered the army, although this is uncertain. His biographer noted: “His spirits, burning and unquenchable, led him to spend night after night, till dawn, in study . . . His physical strength was unequal to the strain, so in a brief time it gave way.”

Dr. Willson resigned from the army on June 15 or 27, 1862, near Richmond, Virginia. He returned to Port Huron and was living there when he wrote an article for the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal in August. He died shortly afterwards, probably in December of 1862.

In 1865 his widow applied for and received a pension (no. 88377). By 1870 Cynthia was working as a school teacher and she and her daughter Emma were living with the Stockwell family in Port Huron’s 2nd Ward, St. Clair County. In 1880 Cynthia was working as a cashier and living in Port Huron.

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