The townsfolk of Luray, Va., probably owe their lives to Dr. Samuel G. Henkel. Back in 1857, he prevented a smallpox epidemic from spreading through their community.

In a letter to his son Caspar, also a physician, Henkel wrote about a tavern keeper’s death from the disease and how he then vaccinated “nearly every one in town.” Researchers say the absence of any mention of small pox in future letters hint at his success.

This story is among several pulled from letters exchanged among the Henkel family that paint a larger picture of daily living, the state of medicine, and the impact of the Henkel family on those living in the Shenandoah Valley during the 19th century. That rich history is the subject of a traveling exhibit to be hosted by the West Virginia University Health Sciences Library Oct. 31-Dec. 17.

“The Henkel physicians exhibit provides an interesting look into the daily lives of doctors who practiced more than a century ago,” said Lori Hostuttler, Health Sciences librarian. “These letters give us a deep understanding of the conditions and circumstances the medical profession faced at the time.”

The exhibit is based on the Henkel Family Correspondence Collection, which is housed at the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, Md. It contains more than 800 letters, some penned by Dr. Caspar Henkel (1835-1908) and some addressed to him.

Caspar Henkel offered a stark view into the front lines of the Civil War. Though not a slave owner, he stood with the Confederacy and served as an assistant surgeon for the 2nd Regiment, 7th Brigade of the Virginia Militia.

In one letter, he conveyed to his father his frustrations with the lacking field hospitals and the officers in charge of them.

“There is too much hardship to endure, too much danger, too much work to do, with no facilities to take care of the sick and wounded,” Caspar wrote. “I think the great deficiency lies in the incompetency of our medical directors of the Army. Regimental & brigade surgeons have their hands tied unless assisted by the med. directors of the army. The whole truth of it is we have few practical men at the head of the medical department of the army.”

In another letter, he expressed his concern about the havoc caused by battles throughout the Shenandoah Valley.

“Property will be almost worthless in our Valley by the time our troops and the Yankees get through pilfering and plundering it,” Caspar wrote. “The Lord only knows what will become of us by the time the war closes.”

More than a decade later, it was Caspar’s brother, Dr. Haller Henkel, who found himself in a crisis. Haller attended to a man with a fatal shotgun wound and found himself involved in a murder trial.

The letters detail how Haller borrowed medical books from Caspar to find support for his conclusion that the wounds were fatal regardless of treatment.

“I don’t feel at all worried but wish to be well posted so as to be able to reply to the lawyers in whatever ‘tack’ they may take,” Haller wrote to his brother.

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CONTACT: Monte Maxwell, WVU Libraries

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