If soap operas existed in 19th century Indiana, Dr. Asahel Clapp could have been a lead character.
Married first to a Scribner daughter and then shortly after her death to his late wife’s aunt, New Albany’s first doctor seemed to have an intriguing past. Renowned as both a physician and a botanist, Clapp traveled around America and met world renowned leaders in his field. Some of them even came to his Southern Indiana home to call on the distinguished Hoosier.
“He became a very famous well-known doctor and a very famous botanist and geologist,” said local historian Anne Caudill. “He was one of those people with a scientific turn of mind who spent his whole life investigating, taking notes and keeping a diary.”
But when you visit his grave at Fairview cemetery, you get the feeling Clapp’s life had plenty of heartache as well. Buried in the Scribner plot, the tombs of several of his young children are near his grave. His first wife died at the age of 17 during childbirth and five of his seven offspring through his second marriage didn’t make it past childhood. Even for a doctor, that’s a lot of death for one man to take.
When Clapp arrived in New Albany in 1817 at the age of 24, the doctor’s future was wide open, his life not yet marred by tragedy, at least as far as we can tell.
Little is recorded about his early life. Born Oct. 5, 1792, in Massachusetts, his family moved to Vermont where he received medical instruction from a local doctor. Somehow four years after this apprenticeship, he ended up in Southern Indiana at the home of Joel Scribner, one of the founding fathers of New Albany, where he boarded.
Former brother-in-law and business partner Dr. William Augustus Scribner writes of Clapp in his journal. Excerpts of this have been reproduced in the Daughters of the American Revolution’s history of the Scribner House titled “The Scribner House of New Albany: A Bicentennial Commemoration.”
William Augustus writes that in December 1818 Clapp attempted to treat another New Albany founder, Nathaniel Scribner, in a farmhouse off of Corydon Pike after his ill-fated return from then capital Corydon. Unable to stop the sickness, Nathaniel died that night.
In 1819, the young doctor married Joel’s daughter Mary Lucinda Scribner who died subsequently in childbirth in August 1821. That following January he then married Elizabeth Edmonds Scribner, Nathaniel’s widow, not to mention his own aunt by marriage.
Through the settlement of her first husband’s estate, Elizabeth received a plot of land next door to the Scribner House where the couple built a home. Now known as the South Side Inn Café, it still stands today.
Of course, Clapp did a lot more than marry Scribners. He immersed himself in the study of medicine, geology and botany with a deep curiosity. In 1820, the doctor became the first president of the newly formed Indiana State Medical Society. A pioneer of this time, Clapp also became the first fire chief of the New Albany Volunteer Fire Department in the same year.
By the 1830s, Clapp had begun to travel, mostly in order to buy medicine for his drug store. Always interested in learning, the New Albanian visited other prominent doctors and professors, particularly enjoying the time he spent at Yale University.
“He became well known on the East Coast. He went back several times. He was highly entertained at Yale,” Caudill said.
Scientists went out of their way to find Clapp too. In 1849, renowned English geologist Sir Charles Lyell paid a visit to Clapp and inquired about his research and fossil compilations from the Falls of the Ohio. Later, Clapp’s complete specimen collection from the area would be donated to Harvard University. As a botanist, Clapp also compiled a 222-page catalog detailing medicinal plants in America which the doctor presented at an American Medical Association meeting in 1852.
Probably the single most important contribution Clapp made to New Albany is his diary. Beginning in April 1819, he detailed the events of his professional and personal life. Thermometer and barometer readings and weather reports lead each entry, helping to document climate in the region long before any formal organizations were available.
“It is said that when the United States Weather Bureau was established at Louisville, Ky., a copy was ordered made for it of the temperature and barometer records from Dr. Clapp’s diary for the early years, which was also used for comparisons published in the newspapers,” said writer Kate Milner Rabb in a paper in which she documented Clapp’s history through the reading of his diary.
On Dec. 17, 1862, Clapp died at the age of 71. Having become one of the most distinguished doctors, geologists and botanists in Indiana, the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal posted his obituary Feb. 12, 1863. Of all the accolades written by his friend Dr. J.L. Chandler, none seem to summarize Clapp better than the following statement.
“For many years, Dr. Clapp has been one of the leading scientific men in his adopted city and state; in everything relating to his profession he is represented to have been an enthusiast, reading every new work on medicine and surgery; and devoting much time to the study of botany and geology,” Chandler wrote.
“He was eminently distinguished in Indiana, and in New Albany, the city of his early adoption, was no less honored for his professional skill than for his public spirit and his hearty cooperation in every human enterprise.”
Editor’s note: This is part of an ongoing series about the people and events that have shaped the 200-year history of New Albany. Read all installments by clicking on the bicentennial link under the “seasonal content” header at newsandtribune.com