Biographical Sketch: William Frederic Holcombe, M.D.

2019 is the 150th anniversary of the founding of the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society, which created in 1869. A century and a half later, the NYG&B has grown into the largest and oldest genealogy society in the state of New York and has helped hundreds of thousands of researchers discover more about their New York ancestor and heritage.

We're proud to present a series of articles related to the founding of the NYG&B and biographical sketches of the earliest members of the society. These articles are authored by Dr. Stanton Biddle, who is a longtime volunteer and has exhaustively researched the early history and members of the NYG&B as part of a recent project. The narratives and biographical sketches he has created, and the information he has discovered provide a much-needed chronicle of the society's history, and will be preserved and treasured for many years to come.

 

April 2, 1827 – March 17, 1904


A portrait of William Frederic Holcombe from volume 35
of the NYG&B Record.

William Frederic Holcombe was a physician.  He attended the organizing meeting of the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society, signed the Certificate of Incorporation, and was a member of the original Board of Trustees.

William Frederic Holcombe was born on April 2, 1827, in Sterling, Massachusetts, a member of one of the earliest families of the area.  He was educated at Williston Seminary in Easthampton, and, according to the memorial tribute published in the October 1904 issue of The Record, “… after a hard and varied experience of life in his boyhood secured by force of his own indomitable will a medical education, and graduated M.D. from the old Albany (N.Y.) Medical College…” in 1850. 

Early in his career Holcombe decided to specialize in the treatment of eye and ear diseases.  Immediately after graduating from medical school, he went to Europe where he spent six years studying under some of the leading figures in the newly emerging field of ophthalmology in Ireland, Germany, and France.  Upon his return to the United States he set up a private practice in New York City.  Over time he attracted a clientele that included luminaries of the period such as Daniel Webster, Charles Sumner, Presidents Ulysses Grant and Chester Arthur, Waterhouse Hawkins, and Thomas A. Edison. In addition to his practice, he was a lecturer on diseases of the eye and ear at the New York University Medical College; and was connected with the Eye and Ear Hospital, the New York Ophthalmic Hospital, the Medical College for Women, and the American Medical Association. 

Dr. Holcombe was a very cosmopolitan individual with a very broad range of friends, associates, and colleagues.  He and his wife, the former Margaret Wanzer, had an open door policy at their spacious home at 54 East 25th Street and welcomed strangers of all persuasions.  Thanks to his years in Europe and his exposure to European scientific and social celebrities, he was fluent in French, German, and Spanish.  His Bohemian lifestyle was attributed to the unstable upbringing he experienced as a child due to his father’s early death, his mother’s remarriage, and the series of “guardians” she imposed upon him.

Holcombe suffered a series of tragedies in his later life.  First, despite his specializing in diseases of the ear, he lost his hearing and had to depend upon others to continue his practice.  His wife died in 1891 and in 1898 his house and all of its contents were destroyed by a fire.  He died after a brief illness on March 17, 1904.

In addition to his role in founding the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society, it was noted in his memorial that “at its second and third meetings, the infant organization found itself at home with Dr. Holcombe, No. 54 East 25th Street, a position more convenient of general access than its original birth-place.  Dr. Holcombe was par excellence the Foster Father of this Society.”  He continued to be a leading member of the organization throughout his life, and a contributor to the pages of The Record.  During many years of his life he was engaged in compiling a genealogy and history of the Holcombes of America and England.  Unfortunately, this work was never published.

 

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