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Dr. T. Gaillard Thomas: A Summer Colony Founder

Updated: Aug 30, 2022

Often credited as the founder of the Southampton summer colony, Thomas, the most celebrated gynecologist of his age, was an extremely busy physician in New York City. At one point in the late 1860s seeking respite from his many medical duties, he took a trip on Long Island and when he reached Southampton the quaint village cast its spell on him. Several years later he built Southampton’s first house on the ocean and encouraged his friends to make it their summer headquarters.

 

Dr. T. GAILLARD THOMAS (1831-1903)

Dr. T. GAILLARD THOMAS (1831-1903)
Corner of Main Street and Jobs Lane, Southampton

In a long letter to a friend, later published, Dr. T. Gaillard Thomas, a very successful New York City physician, describes the enchantment he felt in 1863 on his first visit to Southampton. He writes that he had been “worn out by the cares of a very large practice in the city of New York,” and had sought “leisure and repair of health” on a trip to visit Long Island villages, accompanied by his wife. He recalls his remarks to her as they were leaving Southampton for home. “I am charmed with this quiet old village,” he told her, “and by the respectability and apparent worth of the good people who inhabit it, and I am fully determined that should I ever build a summer home it shall be located here.”

The Surf at Southampton

Though Thomas did not mention it in his letter, local legend has it that during his visit to Southampton he walked seven and a half miles along the beach from Southampton to Water Mill in an ecstatic trance. Mesmerized by the surf and the beauty of his surroundings, he fell completely in love with the quaint village’s pristine beaches and unspoiled natural environment.

Edisto Island

No New York native, Thomas was born in the plantation-dominated society of South Carolina Low Country on idyllic Edisto Island. His father, the Rev. Edward Thomas--an Episcopalian clergyman--and his mother, Jane Marshall Gaillard Thomas,--a descendant of Huguenots and a niece of Chief Justice John Marshall--inculcate in their son the standards of conduct and courtly manners of the island’s high-caste society.

Medical College of South Carolina

By the age of 14 Thomas, bright and already a charismatic personality, is enrolled at Charleston College. After completing his junior year there, he enrolls in the state’s medical college in Charleston where he graduates with highest honors at 21 in 1852, having written his graduate thesis on “The Efficacy of Cod Liver Oil in Consumption.”

Off to New York City

The ambitious young graduate wastes no time before heading to New York City to launch his medical career where some of the nation’s leading members of the profession are putting innovative treatments and techniques into practice. Full of youthful adventurousness, and no doubt anxious to save money now that he’s out on his own, he makes the trip north by signing on to a coastal schooner as a common sailor.

Bellevue Hospital at 1st Ave. & 26th St.

Thomas surely has no trouble obtaining a residency at Bellevue Hospital which is racking up an impressive number of firsts--the first maternity ward, first appendectomy, first ambulance service--but which in 1852 is described by one chronicler as “a virtual pesthouse.” Emigration to the United States is at its peak, most of the immigrants reaching its shores having fled from the devastating Irish potato famine, packed like sardines in unsanitary conditions. Typhus fever is rampant and from the immigrant stations many of the sick are immediately transferred to Bellevue, which is not equipped for the influx and in dire need of trained physicians. “Few men,” according to one observer, “were willing to accept so dangerous an assignment but [Thomas] recognized an opportunity and seized it, an action which typified his whole career.”

Ward’s Island Emigrant Refuge & Hospital
Dr. James Marion Sims

When his internship at Bellevue Hospital is complete, Thomas is more than qualified to move on to a position as resident physician at the State Emigrant Refuge and Hospital founded to serve the sick and the indigent on Ward’s Island in 1847--and by the 1850s the biggest hospital complex in the world. There he serves under Dr. Thomas Addis Emmet, another southerner and a protégé of Dr. James Marion Sims, the native South Carolinian who is the towering figure of this southern-born medical fraternity.


Sims is a complicated figure in medical history. He was once revered as a pioneer in the development of modern gynecology and the founder in 1855 of New York’s Woman’s Hospital, where he performed ground-breaking gynecological surgery to relieve the suffering of many sick women. But today Sims is widely condemned for crossing moral boundaries in his experiments on enslaved women. (In 2018, his statue was removed from Central Park and relocated in Greenwood Cemetery.) In his day, his associates, including T. Gaillard Thomas, may not have approved of Sims’ methods or used them, but they remained in his orbit, and to some extent under his shadow.

Rotunda Hospital

However dedicated and tireless Thomas proved to be in his arduous work at Bellevue and Ward’s Island, he is surely thrilled in 1853 to be boarding a ship headed for Europe for some postgraduate training. He spends a year in Paris visiting hospitals and no doubt making himself welcome among Parisians with his buoyant temperament and social ease. Then it is on to Dublin where he receives excellent obstetrical training and experience at the renowned Rotunda Hospital.

Dr. John Thomas Metcalfe

In 1855 Thomas is back in New York ready to begin practicing his profession in earnest. It is not long before his reputation as a rising star--and no doubt his southern upbringing--call him to the attention of the Mississippi-born Dr. John Metcalfe. Thirteen years his senior, and ranked among the top practitioners in New York, Metcalfe is said to have “his finger upon the pulse of fashionable New York.” His offer to make Thomas an associate in his very large and prestigious practice gives Thomas the professional standing and financial security that convince him to settle permanently in the city, where he is soon recognized in medical circles as a brilliant and innovative practitioner. He is also an engaging clinical lecturer of rare eloquence, possessing the born orator’s rich voice and impressive style. In New York’s wider society he is much admired for his cordiality and courtly manner--not to mention his robust good looks.

A Call to Arms

The next dozen years are very successful for Dr. Thomas professionally and rather turbulent personally. He maintains a busy schedule in his practice with Metcalfe; is named visiting obstetrician at Bellevue, where he also teaches a course in diagnosis; and joins the faculty of obstetrics at NYU medical school. His marriage to his distant cousin Mary Marshall Gaillard in 1856 is a joyous occasion but ends tragically less than a year later when Mary and her baby die in childbirth. Then, when the Civil War seems imminent, Thomas struggles with his dual sympathies. Despite his private opposition to secession and his belief that the southern cause is hopeless, he feels his allegiance belongs to the Confederacy and travels south to enlist. There, most likely suspecting his northern loyalties, the authorities inform him that he is not needed. On his return to New York, he finds that he has been suspended from the New York Academy of Medicine, ironically as a suspected southern sympathizer. Later, he is reinstated.

T. Gaillard Thomas in his prime

The years 1862 and 1863 will see several very important and happy developments in Thomas’s life. In 1862 he remarries. His bride, Mary Theodosia Willard, is the granddaughter of the author and founder of the Troy Female Seminary, established to provide women with a college education equal to that received by young men. Well matched in every way, the couple’s affection will endure and expand to include their children: a son named for his friend Dr. Metcalfe; a son, Edward, who was born crippled and lived with a grandmother until his death in 1901; another son, Howard Lapsley Thomas and the couple’s youngest son, T. Gaillard Thomas IV.

Woman’s Hospital

Thomas will also expand his professional network in these years, increasing his appointments in 1863 at the Woman’s Hospital, where Thomas Emmet, his friend and former colleague at Ward’s Island, now dominates as chief surgeon. And at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, where his partner and friend, John Metcalfe, is professor of clinical medicine. He is purposely narrowing his professional work at this time in order to specialize in the relatively new field of gynecology. But most important of all, from our perspective here in Southampton, is Dr. Thomas’s decision to leave his heavy responsibilities behind in 1863 and take a vacation. He explains in a letter that he intends “to seek leisure and repair of health” by venturing onto Long Island where, on a stop in Southampton, he finds Paradise.

Dr. Thomas’s Book

It will be 13 years before Thomas will build his dream house in Southampton. They will be years of his greatest triumphs as lecturer and surgeon. The publication in 1868 of his book, “A Practical Treatise on the Diseases of Women,” will establish him as an international authority in his field. Although gynecology is making great strides, it is still at a rather primitive stage in the late ‘60s and records of its progress are scattered. Thomas’s textbook compiles the information needed by students and practitioners and the book is translated into five languages and goes through six editions. Meanwhile, Thomas is inventing new lifesaving gynecological instruments and surgical techniques and, according to at least one reliable source, becoming “the abortion specialist for New York’s top social levels--the best known solver of women’s problems.” (He will later publish his lectures on the subject under the title: “Abortion and Its Treatment from the Stand-Point of Practical Experience.”)

The Dunes/The Birdcage

The year 1877 is significant in both Thomas’s professional and personal life. It is the year that listerism--the acceptance of Lister’s germ theory of disease--introduces antiseptic measures in the operating room at Woman’s Hospital, coinciding more or less with the acceptance and availability of anesthesia. With these advances, Thomas’s bold surgical innovations become far less risky. It is also in 1877 that Thomas purchases 13 acres of beachfront from Charles Goodale and his wife and commissions construction of a summer home he will call “The Dunes” but villages will dub “ The Birdcage.”

The Hildreth Boarding House


With his own dreams of summer residency in Southampton now a reality, Thomas takes steps to assure that some of his patients who would benefit most from the village’s salubrious sea air might join him there. To that end he approaches the Hildreth family, proposing that they expand their farmhouse on Toylesome Lane to accommodate boarders. In these years following the 1870 arrival of the railroad in Southampton, greatly easing travel from the city, Thomas is the exception in building his own summer cottage. Even the well-heeled are happy to pay between $7 and $14 a week for lodgings in one of the local boarding houses. The Hildreths agree to the doctor’s plan and in a description offered by a granddaughter of the proprietors, the 40-room Hildreth House is portrayed as very lively indeed. Beds not occupied by Thomas’s patients are filled by some who are not ill. There are charades in the parlor and horses and carriages out in the barns with rooms attached for the coachmen who tack up pictures of their favorite trotting horses on the walls. (The granddaughter, by the way, was my mother and I spent my summers in that big old house until it was torn down in the early 1950s.)

Lake Agawam

With definite ideas not only for the design of his house on the dunes, Thomas is also eager to influence the development of the fledgling resort to accommodate a compatible community of so-called “cottagers” from among his friends and colleagues. While admiring Southampton’s quaint charm and respectable villagers, he sees much room for improvement if the hygienic and cultural standards of a modern-day resort are to be met. Like others from the city who follow his lead, he invests in local real estate, especially around Lake Agawam, and takes on a problem that has long plagued the lake and the unwholesome swamp at its northern end.

St. Andrew’s Dune Church

In 1879, Thomas is instrumental in giving the south end of the lake its most picturesque landmark. In the belief that an Episcopal chapel would be a useful addition to attract summer cottagers to the new summer colony, he purchases a building no longer in use by the government as a lifesaving station and presents it to the church. Guided by Thomas and other founders from among the early organizers of Southampton’s new summer colony, the building is then moved to its present site behind the dunes on land donated by C. Wyllys Betts. Over the years its rustic interior will be filled with many treasures, including, sadly, a memorial window donated in 1897 by Thomas and his wife after the death of their son Howard Lapsley Thomas of TB.

Thomas, center, with family members

In 1881 Thomas calls a meeting at his city home at 294 Fifth Avenue, to propose formation of the Southampton Village Improvement Society, which is to draw its membership more or less evenly from resorters and villagers, but with an agenda clearly defined by the New Yorkers. The Association will devote much energy and money over the years to making the lake safe for boaters, bathers--yes bathers--fishermen and, not least, for their houses ringing its shores. Another of their priorities is the creation of private clubs for socializing with each other and indulging in the hearty sports that will characterize Southampton’s summer club life--tennis, swimming, golf, polo and other activities of the horsey set. Thomas is himself known for his prowess on a horse.

Village Hall

Despite the SVIA’s many welcome contributions to village life, the organization’s sometimes heavy-handed improvement campaign and its clubby exclusivity inevitably cause tensions with the local population. When the cottagers overstep, they most often encounter resistance from Southampton’s best known protector of the rights and dignity of its local resident, Captain George White. In the early 1880s, there are repeated reports in the newspapers that “Dr. Thomas contemplates the erection of a large hotel near the beach...in the neighborhood of Old Town Pond.” Suspicions that this might turn out to be some seaside, members-only pleasure palace stirs concern and it is not allowed to happen. White goes to battle again when the cottagers offer to build a new Village Hall, presenting a costly plan but no commitment to fund it. White campaigns to scrap the plan, a competition is organized locally and the handsome building that survives today is the design of a prominent New York architect.

Capt. George White

White is a thorn in the side of those who disagree with him but he has everyone’s respect as a man of complete integrity and a fierce defender of local rights. Dr. Thomas, a giant in his field, is also held in the highest esteem as one of the city’s top surgeons--and this at a time when it takes enormous courage, confidence and skill to cut into a patient--especially a female patient. Surgeons are Gods toward the end of the 19th century to the point that one skeptic writes that going under the knife has become a fad among the fashionable.



The album, with inscription


So, the stubbornly principled salty old sea captain and the city surgeon, so accustomed to reverence, might seem to be on a collision course over Southampton’s future. Instead they develop a deep mutual respect that is in the end much more. It is a genuine friendship that expands to encompass White”s family. In 1888, Thomas presents a beautiful red velvet album to White’s wife with the inscription “Mrs. George G. White, With the kind regards of Dr. T. Gaillard Thomas, Xmas 1888.” (It is now in the archives of the Southampton History Museum.)

Thomas’ letter to White

Three years later, Thomas, congratulating White on his son’s academic success, is addressing White as his “dear old friend.” The final decade of the 1880s has seen Thomas easing his workload in the city He resigns from active duty at Woman’s Hospital in 1887, though he continues to operate his own private sanatorium until 1900 and to continue fulfilling some professorial and consulting commitments. The paring down gives him more time to watch over the condition of Southampton’s water and milk supplies, to carry on the struggle to eliminate Lake Agawam’s impurities, and to spearhead the SVIA’s ambitious tree-planting program, as well as its efforts to keep the roads clean, watered and properly illuminated. He remains active in the social life of Southampton as well--at the golf club, the Meadow Club, the Southampton Club and the various equestrian venues that are part of the social as well as the sporting life of the village. Southampton, which incorporates as a village in 1894, is growing, but three years later, in 1897, there are still only five telephones in the village. The quaintness endures.

McKinley Assassination

In 1901, Dr.Thomas is invited to speak at the Presbyterian Church at a memorial service following President McKinley’s death from an assassin’s bullet. With his rich, resonant voice and florid Victorian style, he predicts a day when children “will hear with bated breaths from their great-granddames what chanced on September 19th, 1901, in this old church, when the residents of Southampton did honor to their martyred President on the day of his burial…” That same year, in a more restrained goodby, Thomas offers his resignation as president of the SVIA, assuring members that he does so with regret, and yet, he says, having held the office for 20 years, “[I] have grown old in the work, and feel sincerely that a younger and more active man would greatly benefit the organization in which I have taken so much pleasure and pride in serving the Village.

Thanet House

Dr. Thomas dies suddenly while on a vacation at Thomasville, Georgia, on February 28, 1903, in his 71st year. An autopsy reveals that death was due to the rupture of an aortic aneurism. He leaves a net worth of more than $1 million to his family. His wife Mary inherits The Dunes, where she continues to summer until her death five years later. Their eldest son, J. Metcalfe Thomas, takes over the house but sometime around 1930 it is demolished, allowing Jesse Woolworth Donahue to expand her Wooldon Manor estate. In 1913, Thomas’s youngest son and namesake builds the handsome brick house on South Main Street known as Thanet House, which survives to cause confusion over which T. Gaillard Thomas was the builder and owner. As the house was built 10 years after Dr. Thomas’s death, there should be no reason to doubt that the house was built for the son, not the father

Dr. T. Gaillard Thomas' Tombstone

The entry for Dr. Thomas in Scribner’s Dictionary of American Biography leaves no doubt about the high esteem in which he was held as a national figure. It concludes with these words: “Thomas was a man of great culture, a born leader, and one who brought confidence and cheer into the sick room. He was kind, generous, and hospitable, and his friendship and advice were sought by many. He was a handsome, well-groomed man, of robust build and medium height. Physically alert, he was known to be an excellent horseman.” In Southampton, Dr. Thomas is remembered especially for his tireless work at the helm of the Village Improvement Association; for providing a spiritual home for Southampton’s fashionable Episcopalians who had no place to worship until he bought the old life-saving station which became St. Andrew’s Dune Church; and for his constant struggle to improve sanitary conditions in the village, especially around Lake Agawam where the task of eliminating the pestilential swamp that was polluting it was a particular priority.

Dr. T. Gaillard Thomas' Tombstone

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