07: Seneca Egbert

Dr. Seneca Egbert (1863-1939) and Nancy Egbert

Dr. Egbert was a physician. He graduated from Princeton University in 1884 and received his medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1888. Before graduating, Dr. Egbert had been a demonstrator of hygiene in the Medical Department of the University of Pennsylvania. While in this position, he worked with Professor Samuel G. Dixon to establish the first Laboratory of Hygiene in the University, and was made lecturer on hygiene for 1890-1891. In 1892 the Drexel Institute of Philadelphia hired Dr. Egbert for a similar position. In 1893 he was elected Professor of Hygiene and Sanitation in the Medico-Chirurgical College of Philadelphia, appointed Vice-Dean of the same college in 1897, and elected Dean in 1898. Once the Medico-Chirurgical College merged with the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Seneca became a professor of hygiene. He was president of the Radnor Township Board of Health and he was esteemed as a public health authority.[34]

In 1897 Seneca Egbert and his wife, Nancy Bredin Egbert, bought part of the old Towne family farm. The home, now owned by Fred French, is located on Blueberry Lane.

Dr. Egbert was widely published. His book, Manual of Hygiene and Sanitation (seven editions), appeared first in 1898, as did his Home Sanitation, a Manual for Housekeepers. In 1919 Personal Hygiene for Nurses was published. He also wrote numerous articles for medical journals, maintained an impressive lecture schedule, and was a history buff who strongly advocated for the creation and maintenance of historic sites. He was not hesitant about venturing his opinion openly, and on at least two occasions made suggestions to Philadelphia politicians which received limited consideration. Dr. Egbert “was an advocate for ‘pure air, pure milk, and pure water.’ He felt that if people in the United States had these ingredients the average span of life would be increased by seven and one-half years.”[35] He pursued this philosophy in an article, “Pure Water for Philadelphia,” which proposed damming the Mullica River and its feeder streams at the head of the tide to form a reservoir all the way to Atsion, NJ, and then pump to a reservoir on the western side to flow towards the Cooper River and another reservoir, thence to be pumped under the Delaware in order to relieve the poor water quality in Philadelphia . It would have pumped a relatively small quantity, 450,000,000 gallons of water per year, to start. The potential value of his plan was not recognized, either then or, to judge from a 2011 Web comment, now.[36]

On another issue, the City of Philadelphia proposed clearing all buildings from three city blocks. In response to a request for ideas on how to use this space, Dr. Egbert suggested allocating some of the land to the federal government, some to the state and some to the city of Philadelphia. On a strip of land extending down the center of the whole space, Dr. Egbert suggested constructing thirteen buildings representing the thirteen original colonies, and calling the area In­dependence Square. Each building would house the contributions made by that state towards the forming of our Union. “The idea was considered ludicrous in design and in scope. Dr. Egbert was a physician, not an architect.”[37]

Despite his critics, Seneca Egbert was doggedly de­termined to maintain the quality of life for Americans. For example, he embraced the newest form of transportation, bicycling, and “saw cycling as a remedy for dyspepsia, torpid liver, incipient consumption, nervous exhaustion , rheumatism, and melancholia.”[38]

A portrait of Dr. Egbert was painted for the University of Pennsylvania by Nancy Egbert’s brother, Rae Sloan Bredin (1870-1937). Mr. Bredin was a member of the New Hope group of American impressionists and several of his paintings are owned by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Mr. Bredin was co-founder of the Philadelphia School of Design for Women and the New York School of Fine Arts. His portrait of Dr. Egbert hangs now in the home of Dr. David Egbert Sparks, Dr. and Mrs. Egbert’s grandson, who is a genealogist and retired head of libraries at Notre Dame.[39]

Like Dr. Thomas Montgomery Lightfoot, Dr. Egbert was a lecturer in the winter lecture series held during the years 1887-1895 sponsored by the Academy of Natural Sciences. Dr. Egbert’s lecture was titled, “The Prevention of Disease and the Preservation of Health.”[40]

Nelson’s own Parke Struthers wrote in A History of Nelson that like Dr. Egbert’s good friend Dr. Thomas Montgomery Lightfoot, Seneca Egbert “met his fellow Nelsonians on an equal footing, a trait in human relations reserved for only the Great.”[41] Mr. Struthers also states that the Egberts were “gracious, active in town affairs, and interested in the people of Nelson.” With their friends Dr. Lightfoot and his wife, Dr. and Mrs. Egbert served on the committee to make arrangements for the celebration of the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the first settlement of Nelson 1767-1917.

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