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Chapter III. Quaker Heritage of Elias Samuel Cooper

Quaker Heritage of Elias Samuel Cooper

Elias Samuel Cooper was descended from early American colonists of English background. The first of the Cooper family line to come to America were William Cooper (1649-1709) and his wife Thomasin Porter. They were married in about 1672, had eight children and lived in High Ellington, Yorkshire, England.

William and his family were members of the Society of Friends (also known as "Quakers"), a religious group then subject to harsh repression in England. Hoping to find religious toleration and a better life in America, they joined one of the expeditions organized by the Quaker William Penn to colonize the Province of Pennsylvania. The Cooper family, including their eight children, sailed for the American colonies from Liverpool aboard the Britannia in 1699, and on their arrival went directly to Bucks County just north of Philadelphia where they settled. The Coopers were soon active in their religious community in the New World. According to family records, the first Quaker meeting in Bucks County was held in their home in 1700. [1] [2]

It is generally agreed that the positive influence of Quakers on British and American society has in past generations far exceeded their relatively small proportion in the population. In this regard, it is of interest to note that four physicians of Quaker background (Drs. Elias Cooper, Levi Lane, and Henry Gibbons Senior and Junior) at different periods during the half century from 1858 to 1908 played key roles in founding the first medical school on the Pacific Coast and in assuring its survival. Their success in creating and preserving the institution, under the difficult circumstances of the times, can best be attributed to the shared idealism of their common religious heritage. [3] [4]

Such a premise is supported by Dr. Lane's tributes to the Society of Friends in his eulogies of Drs. Cooper and Gibbons, Senior. Of Elias Cooper, Lane wrote that he requested during the last days of his life in 1864 that his obituary consist of only a single brief sentence stating the day of his death; "so, also, in regard to his last resting place, he requested that the simplicity of the Quaker faith, in the principles of which he had been instructed in his youth, and for the tenets of which he ever cherished the warmest admiration, should characterize it ... (and) that the spot should remain without grave-stone or epitaph". [5] In a Memorial Tribute to Dr. Henry Gibbons, Sr., after his death in 1884, Lane spoke in detail of the Quaker movement in England and of William Penn's Pennsylvania Colony where the forebears of the Gibbonses, as did those of the Coopers, found refuge from religious persecution, and freedom to live by the unpretentious and disciplined Quaker creed which they imparted to their descendants. [6]

Kinship is another tacit yet enduring bond that was crucial to the outcome of the precarious enterprise in which these physicians were engaged. There is no doubt that the medical school, founded in 1858 by Elias Cooper, would not have survived his death in 1862 were it not for the loyalty of both his nephew, Dr. Lane, and the highly respected Dr. Gibbons, Senior, who together revived the School after its suspension for a period of six years (1864-1870). Their stewardship was soon augmented by the appointment as Dean in 1870 of Dr. Gibbons, Junior, who was one of the earliest graduates of the School. Dean Gibbons served in that office for 41 years as a benign and stabilizing presence until his death in 1911. By that time the bond with Stanford had been sealed.

Pragmatic idealism and strong family ties, as exemplified in the lives of these early leaders of the school, are hallmarks of the Quaker faith. An ultimate embodiment of these values is to be found in the construction by Dr. Lane, at his own expense, of a splendid new medical school building in 1882, and its dedication as Cooper Medical College in memory of his uncle Elias.

Ideals and motivation are among the most potent determinants of outcome in human affairs. Thus we cannot avoid the conclusion that the Quaker heritage of our protagonists, with its undoubted influence on their goals and values, had a decisive bearing on the advent of medical education in the West. We have already described how the westward movement of the national frontier created external conditions full of challenge and opportunity to which Cooper and his closest associates responded with a vision and resolve that were vital to the success of their efforts. Now It seems reasonable to propose that their Quaker faith and ties of kinship were the inner resources responsible for their mutual trust and lasting commitment to the new medical school.

The importance of religion and the role of the Society of Friends in early American history lend support to this thesis, and make relevant the following discussion of religion in America and the contribution of Quakers to American medical education from colonial times to 1900.

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