“Sent for Dr. Chittenden and had a consultation with him.”

Lavinia Goodell, May 7, 1877

When Lavinia Goodell and her parents lived in Janesville, Wisconsin in the 1870s, their family physician was G. W. Chittenden, a surgeon as well as a homeopathic practitioner.

Dr. G. W. Chittenden

George Washington Chittenden was born in Oneida County, New York in 1820. His father fought in the Revolutionary War. Dr. Chittenden graduated from Albany Medical College in 1846 and after practicing a few months in Chicago, where he investigated the principles of homeopathic medicine, he settled in Janesville in 1846 and practiced there for the rest of his life.

December 19, 1846 Janesville Gazette

In the early years of Dr. Chittenden’s practice, homeopathy was little known and had many skeptics, but he successfully incorporated homeopathy into his practice as well as continuing to practice allopathic medicine and surgery. The Goodell family were strong adherents of healthy living. They followed a modified version of Sylvester Graham’s ascetic lifestyle, and in 1877 Lavinia was briefly captivated by the blue glass health craze, so it is not surprising that the Goodells  would put their trust in a homeopathic physician.

Physicians routinely made house calls, and Lavinia’s diaries contain many mentions of sending for Dr. Chittenden and having him come to the Goodell home on South Academy Street when she or her parents were ill. On May 18, 1877, Dr. Chittenden and two fellow Janesville physicians came to the Goodell home and drained Lavinia’s massive ovarian tumor, “letting out 16 ½ pounds of villainous dark stuff.” Prior to the procedure, Lavinia’s sister wrote her to inquire, “Did Dr. Chittenden advise you to have the operation, did he think you would have a good chance of recovery? I am very anxious on this point.” In the week after the operation, Dr. Chittenden called at the house each day to check on his patient’s progress. Three days after the procedure Lavinia wrote in her diary, “Dr. Chittenden called, and spoke encouragingly of my health.”

By early 1878 Lavinia’s ovarian tumor was growing again, and she considered a number of treatment options, including travelling to Michigan to be treated by a mysterious German woman who claimed to have healing powers. Lavinia’s sister, who lived in Michigan at the time, strongly cautioned against that treatment, so Lavinia asked for Dr. Chittenden’s opinion. In a letter to her cousin Sarah Thomas, Lavinia wrote, “Called on Dr. Chittenden, showed him those letters & consulted him about that Detroit Dr. He don’t think much of her & I have decided not to try her.”  Lavinia ultimately chose to travel to New York where she underwent a complicated and dangerous surgery to remove the tumor. Unfortunately, that treatment was also unsuccessful and by late 1879 the cancer had returned. In the weeks before her death in early 1880 she sought treatment at a Turkish bath establishment in Milwaukee.

Dr. Chittenden spent the rest of his life practicing in Janesville. His son, George G. Chittenden, became his partner in 1879. Dr. Chittenden died in 1899 at age 79. Newspaper accounts of his death stated that he was one of the oldest practicing physicians in Wisconsin. The Janesville Gazette eulogized him by saying, “Dr. Chittenden was a good citizen and an able man. His impress was felt upon the community, and his death will be generally mourned.”

Sources consulted: Lavinia Goodell’s diaries;  Maria Frost letter to Lavinia Goodell (May 1, 1877); Lavinia Goodell’s letter to Sarah Thomas (January 4, 1878);  History of Rock County, Wisconsin (Chicago: Western Historical Company, 1879); Janesville Gazette (May 29, 1899); https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/12758613/george-washington-chittenden

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