Seth Mabry Morris was a polymath and a physician, an academic and a man attentive to technology.
So it was that he became the first person believed to own an automobile on Galveston Island.
At the time — this was in 1902 — Galveston had been cut off from the mainland by The 1900 Storm, and so Morris’ motoring was strictly island-bound.
His 1902 Oldsmobile — the most advanced of its era — had arrived by boat, presumably shipped from Houston, which at the time boasted one of the first dozen or so dealers nationwide carrying Ransom Eli Olds’ newfangled Curved Dash Oldsmobile, its front rolled inward like that of a toboggan’s curled frontal face.
Olds in the final few years of the 19th century had developed nearly a dozen models of his so-called horseless carriage, some fueled by steam, others by a relatively new and highly combustible propellant known as gasoline.
The Curved Dash Oldsmobile ran on the latter fuel, no small irony given that of the 11 prototypes Olds had developed, only the Curved Dash had been rescued from an intense fire that destroyed the manufacturer’s Detroit factory in 1901.
The Curved Dash, running full out, was touted as capable of achieving 20 mph, although a standing joke at the time had it that at 5 mph, the sheet-metal body shook, at 10 mph the engine shuddered, and at any greater speed, the motorist’s bones rattled.
The boasted speed came thanks to Olds’ horizontally mounted, mid-chassis, 95-cubic-inch, one-cylinder, five-horsepower, water-cooled engine and its gravity-fed carburetor.
Its transmission boasted two forward speeds and one for reverse.
The Curved Dash Oldsmobile was a so-called runabout, a vehicle intended only for short jaunts, seated two and sold for a whopping $650.
Morris bought his when he was 35 and married, having wooed the former Eulah Stanley Evans seven years prior.
It seems that grown men taking the wheel in those early automotive days experienced something akin to the frisson that overwhelms teenage boys today when first handed the keys to the family ride.
“I can find plenty of sport driving in town and on the beach with my car,” the young lawyer Moritz Kopperl, a fellow islander and automotive aficionado, assured The Daily News, in 1903, when asked about motorists’ confinement to the island; under the rubric, “The Horseless Age,” Olds Motor Works in early 1902 had advertised that “The Oldsmobile runs everywhere.” Presumably, it went without saying, “water excepting.”
The Curved Dash Oldsmobile was the first American-made automobile ever to roll off an assembly line. Olds Motor Works assembled 425 Curved Dashes in its inaugural year; 2,500 the following year; and 19,000 in all by the time it was phased out in 1907.
Morris by then, already having garnered a certain fame as the youngest member of the faculty of the Medical Department of the University of Texas — it wasn’t known as the University of Texas Medical Branch until 1919 — and by having recognized that X-rays, discovered in 1895 by the German physicist Wilhelm Roentgen, were a diagnostic miracle.
He and colleagues set to work recreating the device — crude, pernicious to those regularly exposed to its rays, yet effective in peering into a patient’s body — and introduced it to practitioners across the island.
Morris had been born in Austin on June 15, 1867, the son of a physician who was a co-founder of the Texas State Medical Association. The younger Morris attended the University of Texas in Austin and went on to earn a medical degree from the Physicians and Surgeons College in New York, graduating in 1891.
He then returned to his home state and joined the initial faculty of the Medical Department in Galveston as the chair of the department of chemistry and toxicology. He was all of 24 years old.
In its early years, the medical school faced constant legislative funding shortages and so it was that young Morris’s workload grew year by year to the point that, in 1908, he taught chemistry, ophthalmology, otology, pharmacy and physics, among other disciplines.
His students fondly nicknamed him “Old Test Tube.”
All the while, he taught other physicians how X-rays could help diagnose fractures — some presumably caused by vehicular crashes — and, too, locate bullets embedded by Galveston’s not infrequent gunshot wounds of the era.
Morris kept at his practice until 1937, when he eventually retired from the faculty after 46 years of service. By then, a durable causeway had been built, and he could motor onto the mainland, where he lived out his final days.
Although 35,309 Americans were killed on the road in 1951, automotive pioneer Seth Mabry Morris was not among them.
No, the good doctor, on Aug. 8, 1951, died of perfectly natural causes.