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Fairchild, David Sturgis

Published onJul 30, 2021
Fairchild, David Sturgis

(September 16, 1847 - February 26, 1930)

Quick Facts

David Sturgis Fairchild was an Ames physician employed by the Iowa State Agricultural College as the first college physician and first instructor of basic sciences in the veterinary school.

Source: History of Medicine in Iowa by D.S. Fairchild, M.D., F.A.C.S.
reprinted from The Journal of the Iowa State Medical Society, 1927
transcribed from the original book for the Iowa History Project by S. Ferrall

David S. Fairchild was born September 16, 1847, in Fairfield, Vermont and educated in academies in Franklin and Barre. For his medical training, he attended lectures at the University of Michigan in 1866-1867 and moved to Albany Medical College of Union University to receive his MD degree in December, 1868. Albany would also grant the MD degree to the pioneering pathologist Theobald Smith who began his renowned epidemiological studies in the Veterinary Division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. David Sturgis Fairchild is not to be confused with the botanist David Grandison Fairchild who, after graduation from Kansas State Agricultural College (where his father George was president), studied at Iowa State before pursuing his career as a plant explorer. Both were descendants of the puritan Thomas Fairchild, whose offspring included an astonishing number of academic educators.

After graduation from medical school, Fairchild returned to his hometown for a preceptorship. He left in 1869 to begin his own practice in the small village of High Forest, Minnesota, fifteen miles from the practice of William Mayo. Unusual among physicians, the inquisitive Fairchild possessed a microscope the use of which enhanced the scientific basis and reputation of his medical practice. In 1870, he married Wilhelmina Conrad Tattersall of High Forest and a son, David Sturgis Fairchild Jr., was born the next year. Two daughters, Margaret and Gertrude, arrived later.

In 1872, Fairchild moved his medical practice to Ames, Iowa. Because of his science background he was the physician of choice for influential people in the area. He organized the Story County Medical Society in 1873 and later became its president. His notice card in the Ames Intelligentsier of July 4, 1879 states: D. S. Fairchild, PHYSICIAN AND SURGEON, Ames, Iowa. Offices in Bradley’ Brick Block, over Thomas & McLain’s drug store, Office hours from 10 AM to 12 N, from 2 PM to 6 PM; from 7 PM to 8 PM. In 1872 Fairchild was invited to be the “regular college physician” and in 1878 he was officially appointed to be the College Health Officer at the Iowa State Agricultural College (ISC, now Iowa State University) for an annual salary of $100 with the understanding he could continue his private practice. During his time in Ames, Fairchild was retained as surgeon for the Northwestern and Milwaukee Railroads, increasing his surgical skills and providing data for his medical reports. He was elected professor of histology and pathology at the Iowa College of Physicians and Surgeons of Des Moines; he served as president of that institution for two years prior to its merger with Drake University. Son David S. Fairchild Jr. was a graduate of Drake University College of Medicine, Class of 1897.

Fairchild was dedicated to his patients and would go to the hospital late at night and even spend the night with sick students. During an epidemic of human typhoid fever in 1883, he found a defective sewage system thought responsible for the disease and, with two other persons, privately borrowed money from the Union National Bank to make the system safe. One of his pioneering efforts to improve the student medical service at ISC was construction of a college hospital. His advocacy was vital to the establishment of the state-funded tuberculosis sanitarium at the State University of Iowa in 1904.

When the Veterinary College was established in 1879, Dr. Fairchild became the professor of pathology, histology, and therapeutics at a salary of $200/year. Comparative Anatomy was added later. He also gave students “a few lectures in psychology.” The house on campus formerly occupied by Dr. A.S. Welch became his laboratory in histology. Fairchild and Dean Milliken Stalker bore the burden of responsibility for the new School of Veterinary Medicine from its beginning in 1879 until June, 1893 when he moved to Clinton, Iowa as chief surgeon of the Northwestern and Milwaukee Railroads.

He acknowledged that the quality of instruction was not up to par since he had little equipment and scarcely any room. Writing of Dr. Herbert Osborn, an entomologist that lectured to veterinary students, “We have a feeling even to this day that the professor was somewhat amused at the course of instruction. … We had no apparatus, not even a chart. The best we could do was to make some drawings on a blackboard.”

Fairchild writes of controversy between faculty and Iowa State Board of Trustees which he thought typical of new colleges west of the Mississippi: “The utilitarian idea was predominant. The faculty never lost sight however, of the cultural value of a college education; the members of the Board of Trustees were generally of a different mind. They estimate the value of an education from the standpoint of its efficiency in earning a living in the workshop or the farm assuming many times a degree of contempt for the cultural side of a mental training.” In 1883 President Welch requests for funds for a college hospital building from the Board of Trustees because of outbreaks of infectious diseases among students.[1] The matter was not taken seriously by the Board of Trustees who suggested that, “if the college physician would waive all claims to an appropriation for a college hospital and would join the veterinary department in securing a liberal appropriation for a veterinary hospital,” an old barn near the horticulture department (then the veterinary hospital) would be vacated and remodeled for use for the care of sick students. The proposal was declined.[2]

The buildings, Veterinary Hospital (top) (approximately where the Pine Room (Memorial Union) is located) and Sanitary Building (above), are built approximately on the site of the Memorial Union for a cost of $10,600. The Hospital includes all of the "modern appliances for the treatment of diseased animals, and the Sanitary Building houses offices and classrooms," according to the I.A.C. catalog. Both buildings are torn down in 1926-1927 to make way for the Memorial Union.

Source: University Archives, Iowa State University Library

Fairchild was a leader of medical societies. He was elected president of the Iowa State Medical Society in 1894, of the Iowa State Medical Society in 1895, of the Western Surgical Association in 1898, and of the American Medical Association in 1914. He was a fellow of the American College of Surgeons and was its first vice-president. He continued to improve medical care in the railway system and was elected president of the American Association of Railway Surgeons in 1914.

As editor of the Journal of the Iowa Medical Society (1911-1928) he developed a keen interest in Iowa’s medical history. Much of what is known about Iowa medicine in the 19th century is due to Fairchild’s efforts to preserve stories of Iowa’s pioneer physicians. He wrote three monographs in the last three years of his life: History of Medicine in Iowa (1927), Medicine in Iowa from its Early Settlement to 1876, and The Iowa Medical Profession during the Great War.

Fairchild died in Clinton, Iowa on February 26, 1930. His legacy includes improvements in medical education, leadership of state and national medical societies, and preservation of the history of pioneer medicine.

Selected Sources

Anon. 2017. Fairchild Family 1608-1988.

Fairchild, D. S., Pammel, L. H. 1925. Recollections of First College Physician. Alumnus of Iowa State College, p. 45.

Schaefer, M. 2009. Fairchild, David Sturgis. The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa, University of Iowa Press.

Stange, C. H. 1929. History of Veterinary Medicine at Iowa State College. 1879—Semi-Centennial—1929. Iowa State College Publication.

"David S. Fairchild," Journal of the Iowa State Medical Society 20 (1930), 176–77.

Inside Iowa State, “125 years of student health care at Iowa State", by Annette Hacker, Dec. 17, 2009. Iowa State News Service:

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