Thursday, August 9, 2012

Caleb Harlan -- Physician, Poet, Agronomist

Dr. Caleb Harlan
For any given area, you'll always be able to find a few people who stand out from the rest. Not necessarily for their talent or success (although those may come with it), but just because they seem to think a bit differently from those around them, or do things that others don't. One such person in Mill Creek Hundred a century and a half ago was Caleb Harlan. He was born to a family of farmers and millers, but ended up using his intellect more than his frail body for both his profession and his passion. He had the mind of a poet and a radical thinker, but always remained focused on improving the well-being of his fellow man, both physically and economically. His name is almost forgotten today, but there was a time when I'm sure almost everyone in the area knew Dr. Harlan.

Caleb Harlan was born on October 13, 1814 to John and Elizabeth (Quinby) Harlan, at their home in Milltown. John Harlan (1773-1851) was a Quaker miller who, along with brothers Caleb, Jr. and Joshua, owned and operated a mill along Mill Creek at the intersection of Limestone Road and Milltown Road. The "new" mill erected by the Harlan brothers in 1815, converted in the 20th Century to a residence, still stands today. No other homes from this era remain (the brick house next to the mill was built by a later owner in 1860's), but it's very possible that the Harlan house(s) stood on the east side of the old course of Limestone Road. This would place them right in the current path of Limestone Road, as changed in 1964.

The young Caleb, as Scharf relates, "inherited a very frail constitution" from his mother, which undoubtedly helped to instill in him a great interest in diet and wellness. This led to his enrolling at the University of Pennsylvania, at which he studied medicine and from which he graduated in 1836. After getting his medical license, Dr. Harlan took up residence near Brandywine Springs and practiced traditional medicine for the next 11 years. During that time, however, he became more and more interested in a new, alternative form of practice known as homeopathy.

Homeopathy is a form of medicine developed in the late 18th Century by German Samuel Hahnemann, namesake of Philadelphia's Hahnemann University Hospital. You can read much more about it here, but basically homeopathic cures are based on two rather dubious tenets. The first is the "law of similars", which is the idea that, "a substance that causes the symptoms of a disease in healthy people will cure that disease in sick people". The second has to do with the creation of the remedies themselves, which is done through a process of serial dilution. The remedies are diluted so much, in fact, that often no trace of the original substance is left. So while homeopathic cures are usually not dangerous, I think any effectiveness they might have is explained more by the placebo effect than anything else.

Although homeopathy seems to have made a slight comeback over the past few decades (along with many other "alternative medicines"), modern science has pretty much relegated it to the level of quackery. And while in reality it never was more than that in the 19th Century, it was what I'd call "honest, well-intentioned quackery". Its practitioners, of whom Dr. Harlan was one of the first in Delaware, truly believed in their cures and were seeking an alternative to the standard medical practices of the day -- practices that in the 1840's, to be honest, were probably closer to ancient tribal remedies than to the modern medicine we have today. Caleb Harlan certainly believed in the power of homeopathy, and in 1847 moved to Wilmington to practice it.

Unsurprisingly, the new practitioners of homeopathy faced a fair amount of resistance and opposition from the established medical field, which the homeopaths termed allopathy. In defense of his methodology, Dr. Harlan published a pamphlet entitled, "A Lecture on Allopathy and Homeopathy", which seems to have been well-received, at least by those inclined towards that philosophy. Eventually homeopathy did gain acceptance, and was a regular part of the medical scene for much of the second half of the century.

Harlan's pro-homeopathy pamphlet seems to have been his first published work, but it was far from his last. Given that homeopathy was probably the 19th Century equivalent to New Age or Holistic medicine, it's not surprising to me that Harlan had the heart of a poet. His first published work as 1860's Ida Randolph of Virginia: A Poem in Three Cantos. It was originally published anonymously, supposedly just for circulation amongst his friends. It was another 19 years before the publication of his greatest and best known (yes, those are relative terms) work, Elflora of the Susquehanna. Written, like "Ida Randolph", in heroic couplet, Elflora even spawned its own sequel four years later. In 1883, Harlan published The Fate of Marcel, a novel that furthered the adventures of the antagonist from "Elflora".

Interestingly, in the preface for "Marcel", Harlan says that both works were written early in the 1836-1847 period when he was practicing as a traditional doctor near Brandywine Springs. As he tells it, few of his neighbors were willing to solicit the services of a young doctor, especially one whom most had known as a boy just a few years prior. For a few years, he had little work as a physician, but lots of time to write. The action in "Marcel" is set in Mill Creek Hundred, in the woods around Red Clay Creek. He implies that some of the characters are based upon real individuals, with names changed to protect their identities. As you can see, I've included links to some of Dr. Harlan's works. I'm certainly no literary critic, but read them at your own risk. My own very uninformed feeling is that Wilmington was in no danger of losing its homeopathic pioneer to the international literary scene.

While much of what Caleb Harlan wrote was poetic and literary, perhaps his most important work was at the other end of the spectrum -- scientific. In 1876, he published Farming with Green Manures, on Plumgrove Farm. I'll save you from having to read it (although I do know one person who has -- bless you, Dave), and tell you that "farming with green manures" is not nearly as gross as it sounds. Essentially it's a more scientific approach to the old idea of crop rotation. It attempts to advise farmers on what cover crops to periodically plant in their fields, these cover crops then being plowed into the soil in order to enrich the soil and help it to recover. From what I've read of it, Harlan put a lot of time, thought, work, and experimentation into his work. He may have been a poet, but remember that he also studied as a physician, and was well-acquainted with scientific methods. "Farming with Green Manures" seems to have been a popular work, having been reprinted in at least 7 editions, at least as late as 1912 -- ten years after Harlan's death. The experimentation for the book was done on Plumgrove Farm, a property Harlan purchased in 1863. Much more on that in the next post...

Harlan did marry in 1841, to a young widow named Eliza Montgomery. They had three children -- two daughters and a son -- but all of them died relatively young, and without issue. His son John followed in his footsteps, receiving his medical degree from Hahnemann Medical College, and briefly joined Caleb in his practice. Sadly, though, John died little more than a year after graduation. So with all his accomplishments as a healer, poet, and agricultural writer -- but with no grandchildren -- perhaps Caleb Harlan's greatest legacy lies in one other contribution he made to the community -- one which is still very visible today.

The Harlans of Milltown made a number of marital connections to other prominent families in New Castle County. Caleb's Aunt Sarah married John Ferris, son of a wealthy Wilmington family. They had a son also named John, who died in 1882 with an estate valued at nearly $250,000. John Ferris chose his cousin Caleb as his sole executor and trustee. After settlement of Ferris' estate (much of which was earmarked for various charities), there was over $80,000 remaining, which Ferris essentially left for Harlan to spend on whatever benevolent pursuit he saw fit. Ferris did, however, suggest that one good use would be for the establishment of "a House of Refuge, or place for bettering wayward juveniles". Harlan took this advice to heart and gathered a veritable who's-who of wealthy and powerful New Castle County citizens to create such an institution. After purchasing the Woodside estate on Faulkland and Centre Roads, Caleb Harlan became the first president of the Ferris Reform School in 1885. The circa 1810 white house at the center of the campus is today known as the Harlan Building, in his honor.

The establishment of the Ferris School, which is still an important part of the community today, was perhaps the crowning jewel to Caleb Harlan's lifetime of service to others. Whether it was healing their bodies, trying to improve the output of their fields, bringing joy to the world through his writing, or looking after the well-being of troubled youths, his Quaker roots and poetic heart combined to create one of the most unique personalities in 19th Century Mill Creek Hundred.


  1. Do you happen to know the Harlan/Robinson connection? Lydia Harlam or Harlan married William Robinson (1779 - 1815) It appears that they had all their children in Mill Creek, New Castle, but I can't seem to figure out which Harlam/Harlan is the father of Lydia. Since you have a great deal of knowledge about this area and the people, I hoped you might be able to shed some light on the Robinson Harlan connection.

    1. I spent all morning looking into this, and I'm afraid I don't have a good answer for you. I must be missing something, because I can't find either of them. There are several Lydia Harlans born in the 1780's, but I can't tell which if any of them married William Robinson. What I can tell you is circumstantial evidence. The Robinsons owned much of the land around Milltown before the Harlans arrived, including the mill. If you have a Harlan marrying a Robinson in this time period, I'd be surprised if there's not a connection. This goes back to my (half-joking, or is it?) theory that back then, if you had to walk more than 15 minutes to find a wife, it just wasn't worth it. Maybe if Donna Peters is still lurking around she could find something. I know she's good at this time period, especially if it involves Quakers, which the Harlans, at least, probably were. If I come up with anything else, I'll let you know.