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Stanford University School of Medicine and the Predecessor Schools: An Historical Perspective
Part III. Founding of First Medical School and Successions 1858-

Chapter 19. The Last Days of Elias Samuel Cooper

Dr. Cooper Is Stricken

Within a few months after his arrival in San Francisco, Elias Cooper developed an obscure neurological condition. In addition to wandering neuralgic pains in his extremities and indigestion, he suffered both motor and sensory paralysis of the left side of his face. During the years that followed scarcely a day passed without pain in his limbs which sometimes became excruciating. That he could have labored and especially written so much while so afflicted was certainly remarkable - yet he often said that work was his chief solace.[1]

Professor Morison, whose office was in the Pacific Clinical Infirmary, saw Dr. Cooper frequently and recalled that the work schedule of the Professor of Anatomy and Surgery was so arduous during the Spring of 1862 that he slept not more than two hours in the twenty-four. It was to these exertions that Professor Morison attributed the severe exacerbation of Cooper's chronic illness which occurred in May. After the onset of this attack, Levi Cooper Lane was at his uncle's side much of the time and, as his faithful memorialist, described every detail of the lingering course that followed:[2][3]

In the latter part of May 1862 Dr. Cooper's neuralgic symptoms assumed an unusual violence; - they also had their usual accompaniment - indigestion. He then went to bed, with the hope that a few days rest would afford him relief; so far, however, from any improvement, he rapidly grew worse, and on the tenth day afterwards, he was attacked with amaurosis, - complete blindness coming on in a few hours; on the same day, clonic spasms, and, finally, convulsions of most violent character supervened. The convulsions were arrested by epispastic counter-irritation, conjoined with local depletion. The loss of vision, however, continued for a few days. (At the time of the convulsions he suddenly and unaccountably regained normal sensation and motor function in the paralyzed left side of his face.)[4]

It is the case with most men, that, when, on the supervention of some great misfortune, they stand most in need of courage, they show the least of it. With the subject of our notice, it was very different. At no time in his life did he show so much resolution as in the cheerful submission with which he bowed to these calamities. On finding that he was blind, he said that, for one of his active habits, it was a hard fate. Yet, in an hour afterward, he remarked that, acting on the principle which he had adopted as a rule of his life of cheerfully yielding to what could not be surmounted, he was now content. This was said when he and his medical friends believed that he was hopelessly blind. It would be hard to find a similar instance of so immediate and cheerful obedience to the will of Providence.

In the course of a week he recovered his eyesight, though his vision was subsequently feeble. At the suggestion of his friends, he now sought the valley of San Jose, of which the warm and unchanging atmosphere, it was thought, would hasten his convalescence; and at the same time, along with avoiding the noise and confusion of the city, he would be wholly freed from the annoyances of professional business. For a few days the change appeared to have a most happy influence; then came again his neuralgic pains, which greatly enfeebled him. On returning to this city his friends all saw that he was far from being well. The sallow complexion and bloodless lip told of some lurking difficulty that was sapping the foundations of life.

When at home this time he ligated the femoral artery. Though so feeble that he could not walk a hundred steps without being wholly exhausted, yet his hand was perfectly steady, the incision made with as much precision as regarded the arterial relations, and the ligature applied in almost as short a space of time as if he had been in perfect health. In speaking of the operation afterwards, he observed that he thought the effort it caused him to make, as well as the momentary excitement which it gave his mind, had really a beneficial effect upon him.

A few days after this, as he did not seem to improve but rather to grow worse, he left the city a second time, and sought the highlands in the vicinity of Santa Clara. A month's residence there appeared to have improved him so much that he returned again to San Francisco. As was the case after his return from San Jose, his neuralgic symptoms came back with so much violence in the lower extremities soon after returning home, that he was confirmed in the notion he had long entertained - that his disease was kept up and aggravated by the cold, bleak winds which constantly prevail at San Francisco during the summer months. In that belief, he decided to seek the country once more with the intention, in case the change proved beneficial, not to return home again until his health was fully restored. The journey selected this time was to the mountainous regions of the Northern part of the State, as the climate there would be warm and free from those changes which occur in San Francisco.

(In this trip the route taken was through Sacramento and its lush valley, then north by a precipitous ascent along the rocky gorge of the North Fork of the Yuba River to Downieville in the heart of the Sierra gold country.)[5]

During this journey, in which he was absent from the city near six weeks, I accompanied him, and during this period, was scarcely from his side an hour at a time. Then I too plainly saw what, with so much anxiety, I had long apprehended - that despite all the most thoroughly studied means of treatment to which resort had or could be made, as well as despite all the energies of his otherwise invincible will, still, all was in vain.

At times, however, he had hours of comparative ease and signs of apparent improvement. These, again, were soon succeeded by accession of violent pain, and obscure morbid complications. Hence, amidst these conflicting alterations, our minds were caused to vibrate perpetually between hope and fear, the latter continually gaining the ascendancy until, at length, it became so evident that the dark hour which destiny has fixed as the ultimate fate of all men was so near at hand, that a further indulgence in hope would be irrational. Then, with all the heroic coolness which men can display when in full possession of health and all their powers, but which often forsakes them in the hour of pain and disease, he turned his face from the world with as much composure as if he never had a name or a hope there, and gave himself up, with undisturbed tranquility, to a contemplation of the approaching shadows of death.

He then consulted with me in reference to returning home desiring, if I thought it possible, to reach there in order that he might die amidst his friends. It was decided to attempt it, he remarking at the time that "he feared he would be so long dying that he would exhaust the patience of his friends."

Four days after our arrival in San Francisco he breathed his last. He died easily, without struggle or groan. A few moments after death, his countenance lapsed into that smile of happy serenity which was so natural to it in health, but which, during the past three months, had been disturbed by anxiety and, at times, terrible suffering. During our sojourn in the North, he had an attack, resembling an apoplectiform seizure, in which he suddenly became blind, deaf, speechless, and apparently insensible. In this state he remained near four days when, on returning to consciousness, he said that, much of the time, he had suffered pain too terrible for description. After this, followed a dysenteric attack, which was no sooner controlled, than there supervened a pneumonia, of passive type, accompanied by profuse spitting of rust-colored sputa, orthopnea and dyspnea, of most painful character. The pneumonic attack placed the seal on his destiny. From it he never rallied; the little remains of life which it left him were soon expended in a painful, labored respiration consequent on an extensive pleural effusion, also seemingly of passive origin. After his return home, every breath which he took required a painful effort. Hence it was apparent to all that exhausted nature, under such a burden, must quickly sink which, as we have said, soon took place.

As his disease had assumed so multiform a character, sometimes appearing to be seated in one organ, sometimes in another - one day the brain appearing to be organically diseased, the next, merely functionally, - it was his special and urgent request that in case of his death, a careful post-mortem examination should be made, - he himself actually designating the parts where he desired the disease to be sought for. Fearing that my feelings, as his relative, might influence me to neglect this request, he repeated it to certain of his friends, obtaining a promise from them that it should be done.

In obedience to that request, a careful autopsy was made. Commencing at the brain, the vital organs were examined in order downwards. The brain was considerably congested, yet no organic lesion was found in it. The heart was enlarged, with dilatation and softening; lungs congested; extensive pleural effusion; stomach perfectly healthy; liver slightly enlarged, with some fatty degeneration; spleen much softened; pancreas with a scirrhus-like hardness at one point, otherwise healthy; a morbid fibroid structure, an inch and a quarter in diameter, hollow and containing a bile colored matter, was found in proximity with the semi-lunar ganglion; periphery of the kidneys nodulated and unhealthy in appearance - otherwise they presented nothing abnormal. It should be remarked that the medulla oblongata and upper portion of the spinal marrow were smaller than usual, presenting the aspect of having been somewhat atrophied.

Now, to deduce from the autopsy an explanation of the symptoms which were present in his mysterious and eventful disease would be difficult and perhaps impossible. Still, from the examination this much seems certain - that the prime seat of his disease was in the organic nerve-centres, whence the irritation was transmitted to the cerebro-spinal nervous system, whence it was eccentrically manifested, now in one organ, now in another, thus giving rise to these protean morbid manifestations to which allusion has been made. . .(In 1926 Professor Emmet Rixford wrote that Cooper died "most probably of nephritis." He did not state the grounds for his opinion which was presumably based on the abnormality found in the kidneys at autopsy.)[6]

A word more, in reference to Dr. Cooper's character. His great and leading characteristic was singleness of idea and continuity of purpose. The profession of Medicine he loved, cultivated and was devoted to with his entire and undivided mind. From the period in which he espoused it and fully began his career, every energy of his genius was given to it with an enthusiasm which nothing save the chilling hand of death could cool. It was this too intense devotion to that profession which has sacrificed him on its altar at a period of his life when it could truly be said of him that no man ever died with more unfinished work. Still, the brevity of his life is rendered more deserving of praise from the fact that in it he has won an unfading chaplet of honor, which will give his name an enduring place among the illustrious dead of our profession.

Funeral Services

The Daily Alta California and other San Francisco newspapers reported that Dr. Cooper died on Monday morning at twenty minutes before nine o'clock on October 13th 1862 at his residence on Mission Street. It was the forty-first year of his life. Funeral services were held at 10 o'clock A. M. in Calvary Church on Wednesday October 15th. Reverend Dr. Wadsworth and Reverend Mr. Wells officiated, with the President of the University of the Pacific also participating in the exercises. The Officers of the University, the students and the medical classes, and the Faculty of the Medical Department, all were present. The church was well filled by Dr. Cooper's medical colleagues and the ladies and families who honored him as their physician. The deceased was under the formal escort of the Masonic Lodge, of which he was a respected member, and the pall bearers were prominent medical men of the community. In accordance with his dying wish he was interred in Lone Mountain Cemetery where the Occidental Lodge of Free Masons conducted the last sad rites of the sepulture.[7]

Cooper's premature death awakened throughout the community profound feelings of sorrow accompanied by a deep sense of loss.

These sentiments were reflected in the numerous laudatory obituaries that appeared in the daily press following his death. Included among the eulogies was a lengthy poem by T. G. Spear, Esq., of San Francisco. The following stanza denotes its theme:[8]

Where art thou, son of science! born with zeal
To cope with ills in life's corporeal sphere?
Where is thy soul benignant, prone to heal
Or soothe the pangs of prostrate mortals here?
No answer greets us from the stars or waves,
Nor echo back the mountains in reply,
Nor the green garden-valleys, nor their graves
But, lo! it comes from voiced humanity!

Monument on Lone Mountain

It was almost three years after Dr. Cooper's death when the following notice appeared in the Daily Alta California for 21 July 1865:[9]

Over the tomb of Dr. E. S. Cooper, who a few years since, occupied a distinguished place in the medical fraternity of the coast, there has lately been erected (by Dr. Levi C. Lane) at Lone Mountain Cemetery, a very imposing as well as appropriate monument. The material is California granite, of a very beautiful quality and is the workmanship of a Mr. Farwell of this city. The monument consists of a shaft, in the form of an obelisk, which is nearly nineteen feet high, resting upon a base of such dimensions that the whole together is twenty-five feet in height, and presents all those elements of simplicity and enduring beauty which are the most befitting memorial to the dead.

As befits a timeless reminder of the honored dead, no date is anywhere inscribed on the monument's surface. The stone bears only the simple inscription: "Sacred to the Memory of Elias S. Cooper, Surgeon"

Lone Mountain Cemetery was on a brush-grown, treeless promontory known as Laurel Hill located beyond the western limits of the city and just north of Geary Street. The Cooper obelisk on its oval granite platform stood a solitary beacon high above the surrounding gravesites, commanding a grand vista of hills, city, ocean, and the rugged cliffs of the Golden Gate through which Cooper had passed ten years before. Eventually, the relentless advance of the city forced the removal of the cemetery. In 1946 the remains of Dr. E. S. Cooper were transferred to Vault 1395 in the Laurel Hill Mound of Cypress Lawn Memorial Park in Colma, California. The obelisk and countless other unclaimed gravestones of sacred memory on Lone Mountain were carted off for landfill or other mundane use.

To be precise, not all of Cooper's remains are interred at Cypress Lawn. In former times certain organs of the deceased were for sentimental reasons occasionally buried at another site or preserved unburied. For example, a famous poet, twice married, expressed a dying wish that his heart be buried in the grave of his first wife. As a token of high regard for his uncle, Dr. Lane arranged for Dr. Cooper's brain and heart each to be preserved in a separate glass jar. The jars were then mounted side by side in a sturdy framework that allowed for clear display of the organs. The preservative used is unknown but was presumably effective as indicated by the excellent condition of the specimens and the clarity of the surrounding fluid when last seen.

Dr. Emmet Rixford reported in his Address at the Dedication of the Lane Medical Library in 1912 that the only money Dr. Lane received from his family was the sum of $ 80 from his mother's estate. Rixford further reported that, when Lane had completed the construction of Cooper Medical College in 1882, he used these $ 80 for a pedestal to support the heart and brain of Dr. Cooper which were originally kept in an inner sanctum of the College museum.[10] The pedestal and preserved organs were last seen in about 1979 in the attic of the former Lane Library in San Francisco, where they are no longer to be found.[11] It is hoped that the missing organs may yet be discovered in order to determine whether their examination by modern techniques will provide clues to the etiology of Elias Cooper's mysterious fatal illness.

Last Will and Testament

Cooper's personal papers contain no information regarding his will and the amount of his estate. Years later, after the Cooper Medical College had been established in elegant new buildings funded entirely by Levi Cooper Lane, a rumor was circulated that he had inherited the money for the buildings from his Uncle Elias. The persistence of this false report was of such annoyance to Dr. Lane that he provided the San Francisco Examiner for 5 January 1895 with a copy of the following deposition by a Mr. Joseph W. Reay who made the statement under oath in 1893 (thirty-one years after the death of Dr. Cooper).[12]

State of California, City and County of San Francisco. Joseph W. Reay, being duly sworn, deposes and says he is a resident of the city and county of San Francisco and has been for more than forty-three years past (i. e. since 1850), that he was intimately acquainted with Dr. Elias S. Cooper during his lifetime and lived with him in the same house during all the time he was a resident of California and the city and county of San Francisco, and for many years he was his business agent, and after his death, which was in October, 1862, he was an executor of his will, and duly qualified and acted as such executor without compensation or commission from the estate. In his will Dr. Cooper bequeathed his entire estate to his relatives and he left no means, either by bequest in his will or by verbal request, for the erection of a medical college in this city or elsewhere.

Deponent further says that the total value of the estate left by Dr. Elias S. Cooper, deceased, was $ 8,500, as more fully appears by the record of the Probate Court of this city and county.

Deponent further says that Dr. Levi C. Lane advanced and contributed out of his private funds the sum of $ 1162.72 to pay some of the claims against Dr. Cooper's estate.

Deponent further says upon his information and belief that the building in this city known as the Cooper Medical College was erected by Dr. Levi Cooper Lane from his own private means and was so named to honor his relative, Dr. E. S. Cooper.

Further, affiant sayeth not.
Signed J. W. Reay
Subscribed and sworn to before me this 18th day of December, 1893.

We have sought to obtain additional information from the courts regarding Dr. Cooper's estate and Mr. Reay. Unfortunately, the records of the San Francisco Probate Court for the period of Cooper's death in 1862 and of Reay's deposition in 1893 were destroyed in the San Francisco earthquake and fire in 1906. Nothing relating to Cooper's estate is found in his personal papers where, regarding Mr. Reay, we find only numerous invoices (one of which includes a stove) dated 1856 to 1860 from the firm of Johnston and Reay, Plumbers, Tin, Copper and Sheet Iron Workers on Battery Street, San Francisco.

The San Francisco Directory for 1867 lists a J. W. Reay as a dealer in Stoves, and from 1868 to 1900 in Real Estate. By the close of the century, Mr. Reay had been joined in the real estate business by Joseph W. Reay, Jr., Charles G. Reay and Wallace R. Reay as "clerks." - presumably relatives. We believe the Joseph W. Reay whose deposition is quoted above is the same as the Reay in the San Francisco Directory.[13] However, none of our limited information on the subject allows us to verify Mr. Reay's statement in his deposition that he lived with Dr. Cooper "in the same house during all the time he was a resident of California and the city and county of San Francisco." In brief, the differences between what we know of Dr. Cooper's living arrangements and Mr. Reay's deposition are irreconcilable. We can otherwise accept his testimony and conclude that neither the school nor Dr. Lane benefited from the Cooper estate.


We recognize Cooper's founding of the first medical college on the Pacific Coast in 1858 as an historic achievement for one sufficient reason - the Medical Department of the University of the Pacific was the forbear of a succession of schools from which Stanford University School of Medicine is the lineal descendant. With the departure from the scene of Elias Cooper, the prime mover, we shall turn our attention to the epic progression of these schools spanning almost a century and a half from 1858 to the present day.

We have seen the fierce and unscrupulous opposition over which Cooper prevailed in establishing the predecessor institution. Soon after his death an even graver threat confronted its faculty - the long anticipated opening of the Toland Medical School. Deprived of Cooper's strong leadership in this hour of crisis, the Medical Department of the University of the Pacific suspended operations in 1864 only two years after his death. But the faculty later rallied and the school was revived in 1870. Thereafter, it maintained a steady course and Elias Cooper could at last rest in peace on Lone Mountain:[14]

He builded better than he knew -
The conscious stone to beauty grew.


  1. Levi C. Lane , "Editor's Table: Obituary of Dr. E. S. Cooper," San Francisco Medical Press 3, no. 12 (Oct 1862): 238 Lane Library catalog record
  2. James Morison , "Obituary of Dr. E. S. Cooper," Pacific Medical and Surgical Journal 5, no. 10 (Oct 1862): 307-309 Lane Library catalog record
  3. Levi C. Lane , "Editor's Table: Obituary of Dr. E. S. Cooper," San Francisco Medical Press 3, no. 12 (Oct 1862): 238-243 Lane Library catalog record
  4. Levi C. Lane , "Editor's Table," San Francisco Medical Press 3, no. 11 (Jul 1862): 177 Lane Library catalog record
  5. Levi C. Lane , "Notes of travel in the Interior," San Francisco Medical Press 3, no. 12 (Oct 1862): 217-225 Lane Library catalog record
  6. Emmet Rixford , "Master Surgeons of America - Elias Samuel Cooper," Surgery, Gynecology and Obstetrics 49, no. 6 (Dec 1929): 865
  7. News releases re Death of Elias Samuel Cooper from San Francisco Daily Alta California for 14 and 16 October 1862; and from San Francisco California Farmer for 17 October 1862
  8. Levi Cooper Lane , "Elias S. Cooper," in Representative and Leading Men of the Pacific, ed. Oscar T. Shuck (San Francisco: Bacon and Company, Printers and Publishers, 1870), pp. 246-247. Poem entitled "In Memory of Dr. E. S. Cooper" published originally in San Francisco Daily Alta California on 27 October 1862 Lane Library catalog record
  9. File of California Historical Society Library. Folder: Photocopies. News releases re Death of Elias Samuel Cooper from San Francisco Daily Alta California for 21 July 1865. E. S. Cooper Collection, Lane Medical Archives, Stanford
  10. Emmet Rixford , address at Dedication of Lane Medical Library, Leland Stanford Junior University Publications. Trustees' Series No. 22 (Published by Stanford University, 1912), p. 12 Lane Library catalog record
  11. Personal communication from Dr. William B. Neff former member of the Division of Anesthesiology of Stanford University School of Medicine in San Francisco
  12. San Francisco Examiner, "Cooper College. Due to the Generosity of Dr. Lane. A Chapter in the History of the Medical School and Hospital," January 5, 1895, Levi Cooper Lane Collection, Lane Medical Archives, Stanford
  13. San Francisco Directory (San Francisco: S. F. Henry G. Langley, Publisher, 1867) and (San Francisco: H. S. Crocker Company, 1900). Green Library, Stanford University
  14. Ralph Waldo Emerson , poem, "The Problem," second stanza, in The Harvard Classics, edited by Charles W. Eliot (New York: P. F. Collier and Son Co., 1910), vol. 42, p. 1299