Dr. William H. Wishard honed his medical skills in La Porte — but where’s his diploma? (And for that matter, where is Dr. Mayo’s?)

Wishard’s gravestone In Crown Hill Cemetery, Indianapolis. (Photo provided)

By Fern Eddy Schultz, La Porte County Historian

Dr. William Henry Wishard was born near Carlisle, Kentucky, January 17, 1816, and died in Indianapolis in 1913. When he was 22 years old, he began to study medicine

Dr. William Henry Wishard

under Dr. Benjamin Noble of Greenwood, Indiana. Two years later he became a partner of Dr. Noble, and in the same year he married Miss Harriet Newell Moreland. During the winter of 1845-46 he attended the Ohio State Medical College at Cincinnati, and in 1849 he graduated from the La Porte (Indiana) Medical College. In 1850, he was again a student of the Ohio Medical College.

Dr. Wishard told of his experiences during the Civil War in his paper, “Some Personal Army Experiences.” After his return from the army, with the exception of four years as coroner of Marion County, he devoted the rest of his life to his profession.

The book, “William Henry Wishard – A Doctor of the Old School” is a memoir detailing the life of the man, who was born to one of Johnson County’s first pioneer families. He rose from a life in the wilderness, becoming a prominent physician instrumental in forming the Indiana State Medical Society on June 6, 1849. The book details what the early years of medical practice was like in Indiana, as well as life in Johnson County before the Civil War.

La Porte County Historian Fern Eddy Schultz

The Wishards entered into Johnson County in 1824 when William Henry was 8 years old. In interviews later in life, William described Johnson County as an area teeming with birds of every description as well as bears, panthers, wolves and all manner of wild beasts. Only nine houses lay between the Wishards’ farm and the then-sparsely populated city of Indianapolis.

The harsh life of a pioneer made it necessary for both parents and children to bear the burdens of labor. William Henry, the oldest of 11 children, performed duties that today would be considered quite beyond the capacity of a child his age. This led to some very interesting adventures described in the book, all of which helped shape William for the rigors put upon physicians in the 1840s.

William’s limited early education did not keep him from becoming a doctor on April 22, 1840. Not all doctors at the time had medical degrees; William did not obtain a college medical degree until 1849. He learned his craft by following Dr. Noble of Greenwood, his mentor, for two years. The only doctors available to the pioneers in Johnson County were located in Greenwood, Franklin, Mooresville, Shelbyville and Indianapolis. Doctors in those days traveled long distances through dense forest and thick undergrowth to reach their patients, often finding themselves at the mercy of harsh weather and exhaustion.

William dealt with other obstacles in the early days of medical practice in Johnson County. Doctors had limited effective medicine before the widespread use of anesthetics, antiseptics and quinine for malaria, making the self-reliant pioneers skeptical of medical practices. William had to be prepared to face the social and moral habits and tastes from people who emigrated from a large variety of places.

William liked to joke that he was just 11 months older than his adopted state of Indiana. He was 97 years old when he died in 1913, just three years shy of our state’s Centennial. He left a legacy that his son, Dr. William Niles Wishard Sr., and grandson, Dr. William Niles Wishard Jr., would continue. Dr. William Niles Wishard Sr. served as superintendent of Indianapolis City Hospital from 1879 to 1886 and vastly improved the conditions at the hospital. He was the originator of the State Board of Medical Registration and Examinations and also helped establish Indiana’s first nursing school. Dr. William Niles Wishard Jr. graduated cum laude from Harvard University Medical School in 1925. In 1928, he entered into private practice with his father.

Dr. William Niles Wishard Sr. donated his father’s original diploma from La Porte University to the IU Medical School in Indianapolis, where for years it was displayed on the wall in the library. He also donated a copy of the diploma to the La Porte County Historical Society. A recent search for the original resulted in it not being located. The search goes on. The copy in possession of the La Porte County Historical Society may be viewed upon request.

During the time of his attendance at La Porte University, William Henry Wishard lived in the La Porte home of Judge John B. Niles. Although living quarters were available at the university, many students resided in private homes. Wishard was so enamored with Judge Niles that he named his son William Niles Wishard, who in turn also named his son for Niles. The Wishard name is quite in evidence in Indianapolis. William Henry is buried in Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis.

Recently a search was made for information about all known graduates of La Porte University in an attempt to find some mention by one of the students of his having attended classes with Dr. William Worrell Mayo or verifying his graduation from the university. It has been reported that Dr. Mayo — of Mayo Clinic fame — was a graduate in 1850, but his name is not included in the list published in the La Porte County Whig newspaper of the time. Helen Clapesattle, in her book entitled “Doctors Mayo,” uses as her documentation of his graduation that “he himself in 1860” said “I am a graduate of Indiana Medical College.” However, in 1942 she questioned her information after receiving further information from Charles F. Cochran.

There seem to be two ongoing questions in La Porte County history to which (up to this date) there is no definite answer: (1) Did Belle Gunness die in the house fire or did she move on?, and (2) Was Dr. William Worrell Mayo a legitimate graduate from La Porte University? And if so, where is the documentation?

FERN EDDY SCHULTZ is La Porte County’s official Historian. To learn more about our rich local history, visit the La Porte County Historical Society Museum and http://www.laportecountyhistory.org

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