The Strange Case of James Burnite SeBastian, DDS

Without the full story, you have to read between the lines, and this cabinet card photograph inscribed “Yours, J. B. SeBastian” offered lots of room to do just that.

The portrait, taken at the 17 W. Lexington Street studio of William Ashman (1863-1902), displays all the typical characteristics of a post-1900 card photograph: Oversized, simple black textured mount, understated advertising mark, plain background uncluttered by scenic backdrop or papier mache rocks and balustrades.

It didn’t take me long to figure out that I’d found yet another graduate of the University of Maryland Dental Department.

He was listed among the 1902 graduates of the program in the commencement announcement published in the journal Dental Cosmos. I quickly found census and directory listings in Baltimore from 1903 on for a James Burnite Sebastian, dentist, born in Delaware about 1875.

He had an undistinguished career as a dentist, eventually buying a two-story, two-bay row house at 3521 Greenmount Avenue, just east of Johns Hopkins University’s Homewood campus, in a now-faded neighborhood called Waverly. The ca. 1920 house stands today, virtually unchanged.

Dr. Sebastian served in the US Army Dental Corps Reserves. In these records, his origin was listed as Wilmington, Delaware, born 18 October 1875. His wife, Caroline, applied in 1947 for an Army-provided headstone in Lorraine Park Cemetery, Baltimore, on the basis of his service, using this date of birth.

Things became odder from there, however.

I couldn’t find anything on Dr. Sebastian earlier than 1902.

After trying a number of different possible spellings and variations, I found the surname Bastian. Thanks to the efforts of a family historian on Ancestry.com, I then found an obituary for a Delaware farmer named George M. Bastian (1832-1909) that listed a son, a Baltimore dentist named James Burnite Bastian.

But what the what??

James Burnite Bastian, or J. Burnite Bastian, was already three years old in the 1870 census–not in Wilmington, Delaware, but near a small rural peach-growing and peach-packing town named Felton, in Kent County, Delaware. He was born a good seven or eight years earlier than he’d claimed.

This same portrait, under the name James B. Bastian, appears on page 133 in the 1902 year book for the professional schools of the University of Maryland, Bones, Molars and Briefs.

Why the name change? And why fudge his age–something more usual with women of the period?

His family was a perfectly respectable one: farmer George M. Bastian rated a sketch of his life and family history in volume two of the Biographical and Genealogical History of the State of Delaware.

This history suggested a clue to James’ change of surname. The sketch mentioned that the family traced its roots to a vague “Count Sebastian” who had fled some sort of unspecified royal persecution in the 18th century.

They had settled in Lycoming County, Pennsylvania. George M. Bastian worked as a carpenter in Tioga County, Pa., eventually saving enough to buy a small farm in Delaware, where he and his wife, Rachel (Brion) Bastian (1836-1919), raised 10 children. George and Rachel Bastian are buried in Hopkins Cemetery, Felton, Delaware.

So James had reinvented himself in the city as a younger man with the legendary family surname, telling his classmates that he was 25 when in fact he was about 32 years old at the time he graduated from dental school. His signature on the back of this portrait connects the two parts of the surname with a capital “s” and a capital “b,” suggesting the self-consciousness of the change.

Vanity, thy name is SeBastian.

“A lovable and strong man”: Dr. Charles T. Harper, Wilmington, North Carolina

A young Dr. Charles Thomas Harper (1872-1915) had his photograph taken at the studio of William Ashman, whose establishment was located at 17 W. Lexington Street ca. 1889-1904 (Kelbaugh, Directory of Maryland Photographers 1839-1900).

Harper might  have made a present of his cabinet card portrait to a friend while studying medicine in Baltimore.

After a period of pre-med study at Davidson College in Davidson, North Carolina, Harper earned his medical degree from the University of Maryland in 1894. He married Jessie Glenora Zimmerman in 1895,  and they remained in Baltimore for a number of years.

He was  “Demonstrator of Anatomy at the Woman’s Medical College in 1895, and also during that year Assistant Demonstrator of Histology at Baltimore Medical College. In 1896 he was Chief of Clinics of Surgery at Baltimore University, and in 1897 lecturer on Minor Surgery and Bandages at Baltimore University” (Henry E. Shepherd, History of Baltimore, Maryland, p. 91).

By 1900, Harper and his wife and daughter Jessie returned to Wilmington, North Carolina. Dr. Harper’s family was prominent and prosperous. His father, Capt. James Thomas Harper, ran a tugboat service, was a partner in the  Boney & Harper Milling Company and proprietor of the Wilmington Steam Laundry.

Capt. Harper built a home at 5 Church Street, today known as the Harper-Newbold house,  in 1905.  He also owned the Wessel-Harper house, 508 Front Street.

But it was at 1 Church Street, a sprawling 1828 house backing onto the Cape Fear River, that Charles Harper grew up.

Dr. Harper’s granddaughter, Anne Newbold Perkins, remembered the house, which remained in the family from 1882 to 1992,  as a center of activity for the neighborhood children,  “a big old house . . . a wonderful house, fourteen rooms- no central heat. So you were either freezing or burning up. And we just had a good time there” (2006 oral history of Anne Newbold Perkins, William Madison Randall  Library, University of North Carolina Wilmington).

Charles and his family moved back into the big Harper home with his parents and sisters, Mary and Anna.

Once settled back in Wilmington, Dr. Harper took a leading role in matters of municipal health as well as county and state medical affairs. He served as port physican and superintendent of health for the City of Wilmington and was a member of the North Carolina State Board of Medical Examiners.

In 1910 Harper founded a small sanitorium, in a Second Empire-style building at Front and Castle streets, where, ironically, he died of complications from an appendectomy in 1915.

After his death, the Association of Seaboard, Airline and Railway Surgeons published a memorial  to Dr. Harper in the  International Journal of Surgery:

“Dr. Harper was a lovable and strong man, and was always willing to bear the infirmities of the weak and lowly. His genial personality and bright disposition endeared him to all who had the pleasure of his acquaintance  . . . Among the profession he was universally popular” (International Journal of Surgery, v. 28, 1915).

Charles T. Harper and his wife Jessie are buried in Oakdale Cemetery, Wilmington, North Carolina, along with their daughter, Jessie Harper Newbold.

Ashman’s operator used the very popular vignette style, which burned out the background so that the figure seems to float. Curiously, Harper’s bow tie remains the most vivid thing in the photo–the tie seems so real you can almost imagine reaching in and touching its shiny folds.

View a portrait of an older Dr. Harper at the New Hanover County Public Library Digital Archives.

Dentists I Have Not Known: Dr. Theodore A. Cross, Piedmont, West Virginia

As far as I can determine, Theodore A. Cross, another 1888 graduate of the University of Maryland Dental Department, lived a quiet bachelor life as a Piedmont, West Virginia dentist.

He was born  9 Mar 1862 in Westernport, Md. to William R. Cross (1831-1895), who became head of the carpentry department for the B & O Railroad operations in Piedmont, and milliner Penelope (Jameson) Cross (1838-1891).

Piedmont was a key B & O Railroad hub, and in its heyday was a prosperous town. The Cross family’s upper middle class status probably enabled Theodore to study for a profession in Baltimore.

Dr. Cross died on 4 Mar 1944, Burlington, Mineral, West Virginia.He and his parents are buried in Philos Cemetery, Westernport, Allegany Co., Md. He was a member of the Knights of Pythias, Piedmont Company No. 10, Uniform Rank, which held graveside services for him at his death.

Cross had his cabinet card portrait taken at the studio of William Ashman (1863-1902). Ashman learned photography from his uncle, stereoview photographer and publisher William M. Chase. The young photographer worked  for David Bachrach, then in 1877 left to open his own studio.

As with many of the portraits of dentists I’ve written about, Cross’ photograph focuses on the bust and employs vignetting–careful overexposure of the background–to create a floating effect. The popularity of vignetting may point to a shift away from the gimmicky props and backdrops  of earlier years.

The technique has, however, the unfortunate side-effect of destroying depth and flattening the sitter’s image. Compare this lack of depth with the much more attractive and dimensional effect created when a nuanced, textural backdrop returned to the studio in the 1890s, as in this moody later Ashman portrait.

“The gospel of work”: Dr. Alexander Douglas McConachie

I’ve so far documented nine cabinet card photographs of dentists and physicians who studied and/or practiced in Baltimore.

Alexander Douglas McConachie (1864-1951)  number ten, is the only one not from the United States.

Born in Woodstock, Oxford, Ontario, Canada to Scots immigrants William and Elspeth (Shand) McConachie, Alexander came to Baltimore to study dental surgery and medicine in 1886.

He was part of the University of Maryland Department of Dental Surgery graduating class of 1888, along with Leonidas Wilson Davis and Frank Ryland Steel.

Dr. McConachie went on to study medicine at the University of Maryland and earned an MD there in 1890. He did post-graduate work at Johns Hopkins, and then pursued his medical studies in Europe.

During World War I, Dr. McConachie served in the Army Medical Corps in Orleans, France.

He was president of the Medical Alumni Association of the University of Maryland for 1923-1924, and a professor on the faculty of the Maryland Medical College.

McConachie settled in Baltimore and in 1898 married into an old Cecil County clan. His wife, Mollie Manly Thomas Drennen, through the Hylands traced her Elkton roots back the 18th century.

According to a Daughters of the American Revolution Lineage Book, Mrs. McConachie was descended through her mother, Ann Elizabeth Worrall Manly, from a Lt. John Hyland, born in Kent County, Maryland, in 1746.

After his marriage, Dr, McConachie and his wife settled on Charles Street, in Baltimore, where they lived for the rest of their lives. McConachie, who specialized in disorders of the ear, nose and throat, had his practice at the same address for 50 years.

Dr. McConachie  took his Presbyterian Protestantism seriously. When asked for his definition of success, he told the authors of Men of Mark of Maryland:

“Being content and happy in doing my daily duty as it arises, I never feel the sting of failure, but if I have failed (according to the judgment of others), I should say that I have not succeeded in applying assiduously my gospel, which is a gospel of work, and more work, by which we work out our salvation here and hereafter.”

Fortunately, his gospel did not stop him from enjoying life. An avid sportsman, he loved the new pastime of “motoring” and “hoped to fly.” He liked movies and the theater, and read widely.

The portrait of the young doctor here was taken at the studio of William Ashman, probably as a graduation remembrance in the late 1880s. The National Library of Medicine’s later  portrait of Dr. McConachie shows a handsome man in his confident prime.

He and his wife are buried with his wife’s people in Elkton Cemetery, Cecil County.

Dentists I Have Not Known: Dr. Frank Ryland Steel

Baltimore photographer William Ashman (1863-1902) took this cabinet card portrait identified in period ink on the reverse as Frank Ryland Steel (b. abt. 1867, Virginia), DDS. Steel may have sat for this photograph upon the occasion of his graduation from the Dental Department of the University of Maryland in March 1888.

After completing his studies, Frank followed his father,  George B. Steel (1835-1916), and his half-brother Charles Lowndes Steel (1860-1904) into the family dental practice in Richmond, Virginia. Charles had also studied in Baltimore–earning his DDS from the  Baltimore College of Dental Surgery in 1881.

Frank got his middle name from his mother, Martha “Mattie” Ryland Fleet (1839-1871). His father married three times in all, so the Steel household was a large one. All told, there were 12 siblings and half-siblings.

Frank Ryland Steel married a much younger woman, Dora Robertson,  in 1924; it appears they had no children, and by 1930 he was a widower, living alone in the small tidewater town of Urbanna, Virginia.

I have not been able to trace the Steels back beyond the census of 1860. Frank’s father George B. Steel was active in Richmond politics, and a 1911 campaign advertisement says only that George B. Steel’s father was “George Steel, a former merchant of this city” (Richmond Times Dispatch, 16 September 1911).

However ordinary his life appears, someone cared enough about Frank Ryland Steel to keep his portrait in their collection of dentists all these years.