Lane Library

Chapter II. Elias Samuel Cooper and the American Frontier

Elias Samuel Cooper and the American Frontier

"An Historical Perspective." This, the subtitle of our Book, refers to our special interest in exploring the historical background of individuals, institutions and events related to the origin and evolution of Stanford Medical School and its Predecessor Schools. Accordingly, we shall give in-depth consideration to the following selected themes in medical and world history:

  • Chapter 2: Elias Samuel Cooper and the American Frontier
  • Chapter 3: Quaker Heritage of Elias Samuel Cooper
  • Chapter 4: Education of Elias Samuel Cooper and Medical Schools West of the Alleghenies
  • Chapter 5: Elias Samuel Cooper and 19th Century Medicine

Stanford Medical School owes its existence to Elias Cooper - reason enough to begin the School's history with an account of his life and work, placed in perspective by commentary on relevant aspects of the 19th century world in which he lived.

Elias Samuel Cooper, destined to be the founder of the first medical school on the Pacific Coast, was born on 25 November 1820. His parents were Quakers and lived on a farm about a mile from the village of Somerville in Southwestern Ohio. The now great city of Cincinnati, 30 miles to the south, was then a town of only 10,000, located on the banks of the Ohio (an Iroquois word meaning "Great River"). Elias's grandparents, William and Mary Cooper, and his father Jacob, who lived in South Carolina, migrated to the west in 1807 through the Cumberland Gap over the Wilderness Trail blazed in 1775 by Daniel Boone. They traveled in a wagon train with other Quakers who, like themselves, were leaving South Carolina in protest against the introduction of slavery into their district. The Coopers acquired a homestead near Somerville and were among the early settlers at a time when this was the western frontier of the nation.

In 1810, Jacob Cooper (Elias's father) married Elizabeth Walls and they had nine children--six daughters and three sons. Their three sons were:

  • Dr. Esaias Samuel Cooper (1819-1893)
  • Dr. Elias Samuel Cooper (1820-1862)
  • Professor Jacob Cooper (1830-1904)

Their eldest daughter, Hannah (1811-1863), married Ira Lane in 1827. They had nine children, four daughters and five sons. Their first child was a son, Levi Cooper Lane (1828-1902). He was Elias's nephew and successor in the medical school that Elias founded.

With tales of the family trek over the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Ohio frontier forever fresh among his childhood memories, Elias no doubt came easily by the decision early in his career to move west in search of opportunity. During his formative years and the beginning of his practice as a surgeon, he lived in several small towns just emerging from the stage of frontier settlement. The last of these was Peoria, Illinois. All these communities were located in the region then known as the Northwest. His later years were spent in the new state of California. Unquestionably, his career was shaped by a singular phenomenon of American Society at the time - the westward movement of people. During the period from 1800 to 1850, in one of the greatest migrations of mankind, the boundaries of the United States were extended from the Alleghenies to the Pacific.

American settlers advanced in wave after wave to occupy newly acquired western territories as soon as they became available. Hunters, trappers and traders were in the vanguard. Alone or in small parties they penetrated the wilderness, avoiding or making their peace with the Indians, often finding a wife among them. These rugged pathfinders were followed by hardy settlers like the Cooper family who cleared land for farming, withstood the rigors of frontier conditions and the perils of Indian hostility. They ultimately formed towns where pioneers with other vocations joined them to create the diverse institutions of urban society.

History Professor Jackson of Harvard has said that the "crucible of the frontier" molded the American character, endowing it with "that coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless nervous energy; that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom". [1]

This sense of freedom was based on a seemingly boundless expanse of open land without barriers to the ruthless exploitation of its resources. The era of westward migration saw the vast buffalo herds destroyed on the plains, whole regions denuded of their virgin forests and the indigenous populations decimated and dispossessed. The nation's founders foresaw the day of reckoning that has now arrived. According to Chief Justice John Marshall, Jefferson thought that our government "will remain virtuous for many centuries," but only, he added with seer-like vision, "as long as. . . there shall be vacant land in America." Jefferson concluded that when the people "get piled upon one another in large cities as in Europe, they will become as corrupt as Europe." [2] Marshall himself predicted that "when population becomes so great that 'the surplus hands' must turn to other employment, a grave situation will arise. . . .As our country fills up, how shall we escape the evils which have followed a dense population?" [3]

Cooper lived and made his contribution to medical education during the great migration and the waning years of the American frontier. Clearly an historical frame of reference is needed if we are to appreciate the significance of his achievements.

Lane Library