A Montgomery County Inventor and Explorer

Yesterday morning, before we opened to the public, I opened a box from our archive to describe the contents.  I never know what I’m going to find when I do this, and this box was quite a surprise.

It contained papers concerning the Wetherill family, a family which began a white lead business in Philadelphia in 1762, later expanding into paints.  The bulk of the collection, however, concerned a member of the family who did not go into the paint business.  Henry Emerson Wetherill went to medical school at the University of Pennsylvania and he did practice as a doctor, but he he seems to have spent much of his time thinking up new inventions.

Some were directly related to his profession, such as this Oxy-Hemoglobin Scale:


Or the cleverly spelled “cizr-curjon” (I’m assuming the second “c” is also soft):


Or the “ventilated and comfortable” Perimetric I-shade:


Other inventions were for office use, such as his pocket typewriter, the Typen:


But his greatest invention, in my opinion at least, was the Trombone Flute, which he initially named the “Syrynxopanphone.”  Here’s a blueprint of it:


It doesn’t have keys, but a sliding handle, like a trombone or slide whistle.  Dr. Wetherill himself seems to have been particularly proud of this invention, which he called “a labor of love” and was photographed with it.


If you’re not convinced the world needs a trombone flute, here’s a poem or song he wrote promoting it.


In his later years, Wetherill lived as a recluse in the family home in Audubon, Fatland, and legends seem to have grown around him. One obituary claims that he served in the Spanish-American War, the Philippine-American War, and the Boer War, but those events all happened at more or less the same time and in very different parts of the world.  The same obituary also has him as a member of the Greeley and Peary Arctic expeditions.  However, Dr. Wetherill was only 10 years old in 1881 when Admiral A. W. Greeley explored the north.  Edward Hocker, aka “Norris,” in the Times-Herald, has Wetherill only on one of Peary’s early expeditions (not the one that might have reached the North Pole).

Dr. Wetherill donated the pamphlets and blueprints to the Historical Society himself, but, unfortunately, he did not give us any examples of his inventions.  As far as I can tell, none of them ever went into mass production.  So we may never hear the sweet sound of the trombone flute.


San Francisco, 1906

Among the collections in the Historical Society of Montgomery County, are the four boxes which comprise the Frank and Flora Zissa Papers.


Frank Zissa came to the United States from Germany with his family in 1889 at the age of 10.  The family settled in Stowe and his father worked in the Pottstown area iron industry.  In 1898, Frank enlisted with the military to fight in the Spanish-American War.  When that was over, he joined the Marine Corps.  He stayed in the Marines until 1919 and then was a reservist for another ten years.  During that time, he traveled all over the world to Japan, the Philippines, Mexico during the Zapatista Revolution, Haiti and Santo Domingo.


During that whole time, he was corresponding with Flora Huetter. Their letters begin  in 1906.  Frank had been corresponding with Flora’s father Robert Huetter, and he sent along a note for 21 year old Flora along with a set of postcards from the place he was stationed – Goat Island, San Francisco.

Flora responded first, describing herself and mentioning that they had once met a long time before.  She closes with this:


Frank, at 27, was also nervous about writing.  He added this postscript to his first letter, written in March of 1906.


Of course, if you know your history, you know where this going.  At 5:12 am on April 18, 1906, a very strong earthquake struck San Francisco, killing over 3000 people and nearly destroying the city. Frank’s next letter kindly reassured Flora that he was all right. Here is the two page letter in it’s entirety (you can click on the images to make them bigger).

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Frank also made the local news when he reported in a letter to his mother (Mary Zissa), that the Marines had been called out to prevent rioting by destroying San Francisco’s liquor supply.


Frank gave Flora more details in his letter of May 6.  it’s a long letter, but here’s the first page, in which he compares the few remaining brick walls and chimneys to gravestones.


Later in the letter, he adds this:


Frank and Flora married in 1915 and they had three children, including Robert Zissa who generously donated his parents’ correspondence to the Historical Society in 1991.

Are you smarter than a 10th grader?

On Monday, I took advantage of the Historical Society being closed for Columbus Day, to spread out in the reading room and process some nineteenth-century notebooks.  Most were from students, but I discovered one that belonged to a teacher.


The book was donated by Mary Hipple Vanderslice, herself a teacher, in 1953.  An accompanying letter explains that the notebook contains the tests given to tenth graders by the Montgomery County Superintendent of Schools.  The students of each township were tested together at a central site.  The notebooks belonged to Rachel A. Yerger of Linfield.


We’ll get to the questions in a minute, but first I wanted to find out more about Rachel A. Yerger.  The family file and our good old card catalog turned up nothing, so I tried HSMC’s newest resource – Ancestry.  Rachel appeared in the 1900 census, living with her father, sisters, and brother, and working as a teacher at the age of 25.  You can click on the image to enlarge it.


The notebook is divided into subjects, with different questions for different townships.  Rachel seems to have administered tests in Limerick, Upper Merion, and Upper Providence.  The questions are written in pencil, which can make them difficult to read, but here’s a page of physiology questions:


And here’s arithmetic and history:



So, how did you do?

The toils of the art of healing

Dr. Alice Bennett wasn’t born in Montgomery County, but she made some very interesting contributions to the history of the county as well as the history of medicine.

Alice Bennett

She was born in Wrentham, Massachusetts, in 1851, but later came to Philadelphia to study at the first women’s medical school in the nation, the Women’s Medical College of Philadelphia.  She graduated as an MD in 1876.

Nineteenth-century women who became doctors faced much opposition.  The Philadelphia Medical Society passed a resolution in 1858, which read in part, “the Censors respectfully report that they would recommend the members of the regular profession to withhold from the faculties and graduates of female medical colleges, all countenance and support.”  Two years later, the Montgomery County Medical Society responded, “the time has fully come when women should not be excluded from the medical profession…there is no intrinsic reason why women should not perform a part of the toils of the art of healing.”


One of the doctors who signed that resolution was Dr. Hiram Corson of Plymouth Meeting.  Corson was a prominent Quaker physician who was one of the founders of the Montgomery County Medical Society and whose writings on treating pneumonia, diphtheria, and scarlet fever had gained national attention from the medical field.  In 1878, Corson, with two other doctors, argued that female asylum patients ought to be overseen by female physicians.

18308 Admin Build for the insane

Two years later, Dr. Alice Bennett became the first female superintendent of female patients at the newly opened State Hospital for the Insane in Norristown.  She was the first woman in such of position in the state of Pennsylvania.  That same year, Bennett was the first woman to earn a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania.

Female Convals Building State Hospital

As the superintendent of female patients, Bennett implemented many new practices including art classes, and she reduced the use of restraints.

In 1890, she was elected the woman president of the Montgomery County Medical Society.  Bennett eventually returned to Wrentham and maintained a private practice.  She died in 1925.

Mid-Century Conshohocken

Recently, the Historical Society of Montgomery County received two postcards of Conshohocken from William D. Ramsey.  The first shows a bustling Fayette Street with stores, bars, and angled parking.


The other shows The First National Bank of Conshohocken.  I was curious to know whether or not the building was still standing and a quick search turned up this article by HSMC member (and Conshohocken expert) Jack Coll.  You can read the article for yourself here.  Jack writes that the bank was founded by Alan Wood, Jr. and others in 1872.  The building in the picture is the one that was built in 1924.  The bank merged with the Philadelphia National Bank in 1956 and moved to another building.  This building was demolished in the 1970’s.