Galveston has a long tradition of playing a leading role in Texas medicine.

Doctors have been trained in Galveston since what is now known as the University of Texas Medical Branch was established here in 1891.

The original school building known affectionately as Old Red is one of a Galveston’s best known landmarks. But long before the medical branch was founded, the answer to the question “Is there a doctor in the house?” was often answered “Yes” …. in the custom house.

Three medical doctors served as Collectors of Customs in Galveston before 1866. Even though only two of these men became longtime residents of Texas, they all played an interesting role in the history of the city and the state.

 

Dr. Willis Roberts, (1779-1853)

Dr. Willis Roberts was born in South Carolina and lived in Georgia and Alabama before arriving in Galveston in 1837 at the urging of his longtime friend, Republic of Texas President Mirabeau Lamar. Dr. Roberts attended the Medical College of the University of Pennsylvania, then the only medical school in the United States.

In 1824, Dr. Roberts moved to Mobile where he became the personal secretary of Alabama’s first governor. Dr. Roberts was a member of a three-man committee that selected Cahaba as the site of the first capital of Alabama.

While living in Mobile and Cahaba, Dr. Roberts became a partner in a mercantile store with future Texas vice president and later President Mirabeau Lamar and invited Lamar to live with his family at both locations.

After the failure of the Roberts and Lamar store, Dr. Roberts moved to Mobile around 1824 where he owned the City Hotel. While in Mobile, Dr. Roberts founded the Mobile Chronicle and offered the editorship to Lamar, who declined the position.

Dr. Roberts was the first superintendent of the Mobile City Hospital in 1830 and secured funding not only for the hospital but also for the Barton Academy, Alabama’s first public school.

Dr. Roberts was on the building committee for both City Hospital and Barton Academy, which are considered architectural marvels and still stand today as examples of some of the best Greek revival public buildings in the nation.

In 1837, Lamar, who had become vice president of Texas, convinced Dr. Roberts and his family to move to Texas. Upon Dr. Roberts’ arrival, he found Texas trees to be smaller and less satisfactory for construction than trees in Alabama.

To overcome this setback, Dr. Roberts arranged in May 1838, to have a frame house constructed from native timber shipped from Mobile to Galveston and assembled on Live Oak Point in Aransas County. This home has been described as the largest residence in Texas at the time it was erected.

Just a few months after the construction of the mansion was complete, President Lamar appointed his friend to replace Gail Borden as the Collector of Customs at Galveston.

Immediately, Dr. Roberts began work on a second magnificent home for his family in Galveston. This second house dominated Galveston’s East Square for nearly a century, even surviving The 1900 Storm. The home was said to have resembled the home of Galveston co-founder Michel B. Menard, which still stands on 33rd Street in Galveston.

Dr. Roberts’ tenure as collector of customs was short because of what may have been the first scandal in Texas involving public money. It was alleged that about $14,000 was missing from customs accounts under his control.

An investigation ensued that found that two clerks who worked for Roberts were responsible for the theft, but Roberts was ultimately removed by President Lamar, after only one year in this position.

Roberts returned to Mobile after this incident where he resumed his medical practice and continued to take an active role in economic, civic and social life.

Roberts died at age 74 and was buried in the Church Street Cemetery in Mobile.

 

Dr. William R. Smith, (1806-1873)

Dr. William R. Smith was born in Orange County, Va., and lived in Charleston, S.C., and Mobile, Ala., before coming to Texas in 1837 and eventually settling in Galveston.

According to contemporary accounts, Dr. Smith was one of Galveston’s most beloved citizens and contributed greatly to the health and progress of the city.

Dr. Smith studied medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and during the Mexican-American War was selected by Col. Albert Sidney Johnson as the chief surgeon of his regiment.

Gen. Zachary Taylor later transferred Dr. Smith to his staff and appointed him as his surgeon-in-chief. The two men became lifelong friends.

After the war, Dr. Smith became a much-sought-after doctor by well-to-do Galvestonians. Dr. Smith was part of the group that built the first railroad in Texas, he was the president of the First National Bank of Galveston and he lobbied for improvements to the Port of Galveston.

Dr. Smith acquired a large fortune and did not hesitate to spend much of it on improving the city and the welfare of its residents.

During Galveston’s frequent outbreaks of yellow fever, Dr. Smith treated patients without regard to the patient’s ability to pay. Once while traveling with friends in Europe, Dr. Smith learned of a yellow fever outbreak in Galveston and immediately returned to treat the sick.

Dr. Smith twice served as United States Collector of Customs in Galveston. He was appointed in 1849 by President Zachary Taylor and again in 1852 by President Millard Fillmore.

Dr. Smith died in Galveston at the age of 67 and was buried in Galveston’s Old Cemetery.

Dr. Smith was eulogized as follows on the front page of the June 10, 1872, edition of The Daily News:

“If the good works that men do on earth follow the disembodied soul to Paradise, what a glorious escort must have accompanied the good doctor to the gates of his heavenly home. His whole life was devoted to good works.”

 

Dr. Richard R. Peebles, (1810-1893)

Dr. Richard R. Peebles was born in Chillicothe in Ross County, Ohio. Dr. Rogers received his medical degree from Ohio Medical College in Cincinnati.

In 1835, Dr. Peebles came to Texas and settled at Washington-on-the Brazos where he established a medical practice.

Dr. Peebles served as a physician in the Army of the Republic of Texas and helped care for the wounded from the Battle of San Jacinto.

In 1843, Dr. Peebles married Mary Ann Calvit Groce and moved to Pleasant Hill Plantation near present-day Hempstead in Waller County.

In 1856, Dr. Peebles co-founded the city of Hempstead. Dr. Peebles was instrumental in having the Houston & Central Texas Railroad routed through the city. Dr. Peebles also helped to organize the Washington County Railroad.

Dr. Peebles’ other entrepreneurial interests included a partnership in the cotton-factoring firm J. Shackelford and Co., which had offices in Houston and Galveston.

By 1860, Dr. Peebles was one of the wealthiest men in Texas. But trouble loomed for Dr. Peebles.

Dr. Peebles was a slaveholder who opposed Texas succession from the United States and the Civil War. At a meeting in Bellville in February 1860 to voice southern grievances, he and four other Unionists were arrested for attempting to distribute a pamphlet advocating against Civil War.

As a result of his position on succession, Dr. Peebles was one of the first Texans charged with treason, imprisoned and later exiled to Mexico by Gen. John Magruder. While imprisoned in the Anderson County jail, Dr. Peebles lost sight in one eye and almost died of typhus.

After the Civil War, Dr. Peebles returned to Texas and was appointed United States Collector of Customs at Galveston by President Andrew Johnson. Dr. Peebles was the first United States Customs Collector to occupy the 1861 Custom House in Galveston.

Dr. Peebles was forced to resign shortly after his arrival in Galveston because of his poor health. Dr. Peebles was unable to resume his medical practice, and an adverse court decision in 1869 resulted in the loss of most of his wealth.

Dr. Peebles died at the home of his daughter in Gaylord at the age of 83 and was buried in the Hempstead Cemetery in Hempstead.

 

Important role

Galveston is justifiably proud of the many physicians trained at the University of Texas Medical Branch and their contributions to the community and health of all Texans.

But even before the establishment of the medical branch, Drs. Willis, Smith and Peebles played an important role in the development of Galveston and the state of Texas.

The commitment of these doctors to the health of Texans as well as their entrepreneurship and commitment to public service exemplified the spirit of the early settlers who built Galveston.

So even before Old Red became the home of the first training school for doctors in Texas, Galvestonians were likely to find a prominent doctor in, of all places, the custom house.

Steven W. Hooper is a retired special agent in charge of the United States Customs Service and a member of the Galveston Historical Foundation.

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