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He chased the story behind his surgeon uncle’s long-lost portrait - and found complicated family intrigue

"I had long felt an attachment to the students buried in the cemetery, almost 200 in number, but now I felt guilt as well, knowing that in some way my family had a personal connection to three of the graves."

Charles Fox stands by a portrait of his great-uncle, Dr. L. Webster Fox at Jefferson University on Oct. 15, 2019.
Charles Fox stands by a portrait of his great-uncle, Dr. L. Webster Fox at Jefferson University on Oct. 15, 2019.Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

For the past five years, I’ve been on a mysterious journey with my great-uncle, Dr. L. Webster Fox, that has traced from Alaska through the West and back home to Philadelphia.

I should mention, my great-uncle died in 1931.

We are only two generations apart, yet our births are separated by nearly 100 years. In April 1865, when he was 12 years old, my great-uncle and his younger brother, accompanied their father to see Lincoln’s funeral train arrive in Harrisburg. Almost a century later, in November 1963, I was 4 years old when I watched snowy, black-and-white images of JFK’s funeral broadcast on our family’s TV. That’s how distant our lives were.

Our journey together began in 2014. I was finishing research for an essay for the book “The Carlisle Indian Industrial School” — about the first federally operated boarding school for Native American children whose goal was the full assimilation into the white man’s culture. Some families sent their children willingly; other children were forcibly taken. As I paged through a digital copy of the Carlisle School’s newspaper from June 7, 1918, I found myself staring at an image that looked like a middle-aged version of my father. My breath grew short. I tried to rise from my chair, only to have my knees buckle. There was Webster Fox looking back at me.

I soon learned that my great-uncle had a relationship with the Carlisle school that had lasted close to 30 years, treating hundreds of students with eye issues for free. I had grown up a mile and a half from what were once the school grounds and for 15 years had a consuming interest in the school’s history. I was appalled at how determined our government had been to erase the culture of an entire race of people. But I had never, ever known about this family connection.

Searching for clues

Webster was a Philadelphia eye surgeon born in 1853 in Hummelstown, Pa. Like his father, Thomas, he attended Jefferson Medical College (now Jefferson University) and studied in Europe before returning to Philadelphia in 1881. For most of his career he was a professor of ophthalmology at Medico-Chirurgical College. The teaching hospital would later be absorbed by the University of Pennsylvania and torn down to make way for the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

History guards its secrets vigilantly, and uncovering certain details about Webster’s life proved to be difficult. I discovered that he had donated his personal papers to the Philadelphia County Medical Society, only to find they had been destroyed by water damage in 1966. I would walk by his former residence — a grand home on Spruce Street that now houses a law firm and apartments — just hoping that proximity would lead to clues or insight.

I knew there was a portrait of Webster from 1925 that hung for decades at Jefferson University. I had seen black-and-white reproductions of it, but never seen it in person. But when I inquired about it, it could not be located. Michael Hoad, the school’s vice president of enterprise communications, initiated a full search — first looking in likely places, then a floor-by-floor hunt. When he came up empty, he called in a sleuth with the name of a famous artist: F. Michael Angelo, Jefferson’s archivist.

“We have a tradition here,” Angelo explained. “Dr. Samuel D. Gross [the school’s famed professor of surgery] initiated the idea of adorning the halls with famous men to inspire the medical students. So we have a collection of about 240 oil portraits of faculty members and famous alumni.”

The number grows each year as Jefferson’s fourth-year medical students vote on a faculty member to be added to the collection. However, renovations starting in the late 1990s began to reduce wall space. Jefferson had become 50% female and there was a desire for the displayed portraits to represent current faculty and reflect that diversity. About 30 to 40 paintings, including Webster’s, were moved into storage.

“My biggest worry,” Angelo said, “was that it was not recorded where it got moved. That’s always the fear.”

In the service of others

In the summer of 2017, Inquirer reporter Jeff Gammage and I were working on a series of stories about Native American students who had died while at Carlisle and were buried in the cemetery there. Their tribes were in the midst of repatriating the students’ remains to the burial grounds on their reservations in the West. Among those being returned home was Little Chief (Dickens Nor), the eldest son of Chief Sharp Nose of the Northern Arapaho.

Just days before Little Chief’s reburial in Wyoming’s Wind River Reservation, his great-niece, Yufna Soldier Wolf, asked me an unexpected question:

“You had an uncle that was an eye doctor?”

I had known Yufna for over a year and had photographed both her and her father, Mark. No one had ever mentioned Webster Fox. Not knowing what was coming next, my legs once again began to quiver.

“He operated on my grandfather’s eye while he was a student at Carlisle,” she said.

Her grandfather was the late Scott Dewey (Scout’s Enemy), the younger brother of Little Chief, who for years had been the driving force behind the repatriation effort. On the day Little Chief was being reburied on a hilltop cemetery, I could see his new grave, and I could see the weathered cross marking Scott Dewey’s resting place. I thought about the many years the Northern Arapaho had fought for repatriation, peace, and closure. I thought about the great-uncle who had passed away 28 years before my birth and the connections that reach across generations and cultures. Yufna was burying a great-uncle, and I was connecting with one.

The scenario repeated itself with Eleanor Hadden, a Tlingit woman in Alaska I had known for 16 years before we realized that my great-uncle, Webster, and her great-aunt, Mary Kininnook, would have met in southeastern Alaska in 1903. As a medical examiner and friend, Webster had accompanied Capt. Richard Pratt from the Carlisle Indian School to southeastern Alaska to recruit students.

Mary, then 9, was part of a group of 32 Alaskan students selected to attend Carlisle that fall. Three students from that group, including Mary, now lie in the school cemetery, all victims of tuberculosis. Mary continues to suffer the indignity of being buried in one of the unknown graves. I had long felt an attachment to the students buried in the cemetery, almost 200 in number, but now I felt guilt as well, knowing that in some way my family had a personal connection to three of the graves.

Webster becomes Ni’naa Piitaa

It was among the Blackfeet in northwestern Montana, during the final decade of his life, that Webster achieved the accomplishments he was most proud of. Every summer from 1923 through 1926, Webster traveled to Browning, Mont., near Glacier National Park, to perform approximately 400 free eye surgeries to offset an epidemic of trachoma, a bacterial infection of the eye that can cause blindness. Trachoma affected 25% of the Native American community, and an even higher percentage among the Blackfeet.

He also taught his surgical methods at clinics for government physicians both in Montana and in New Mexico (his surgical technique would later become controversial and overused by the Indian Health Service). For his efforts, Webster was nonetheless made an honorary member of the Blackfeet and presented with regalia during a ceremony at East Glacier Park Lodge. He was given the name Ni’naa Piitaa (Chief Eagle) because of the eagle’s great eyesight. His relationship with the Blackfeet would continue the rest of his life.

Once again, there was a recurring scenario during the repatriation and reburial of Carlisle student George Ell, which had brought me to Browning in the summer of 2018. For George and his descendants, it was a homecoming 128 years in the making. For me, it provided an opportunity to visit the area where Webster had spent many summers and to maybe the chance to encounter the descendants of those he operated on.

While I was waiting for the arrival of George’s body in Browning, I handed a sheet of paper to Irvin Dale Ell and his wife, Henrietta. It contained a list of patients with Blackfeet names who I knew Webster had operated on, gleaned from a Montana newspaper. They scanned the list. Irvin Dale pointed to Ethel Rides at the Door.

“That’s my aunt, my mother’s sister.”

Webster had operated on Ethel as a child in 1924 for a serious case of trachoma. She also had a defective eye with a white spot where the pupil should have been. This condition let in too much light causing blindness in the eye. Webster tattooed the eye with India ink to restore sight to the eye.

“She wore glasses all of her life,” Irvin Dale Ell said. “But not once did I hear her complain about her eyesight. … Your uncle must have done a good a job.”

An ‘outstanding Jeffersonian’

As last fall turned to winter, I got word from Jefferson that Webster’s portrait was in storage, but it was going to take some work to get to it. I could only picture that final scene of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” featuring a warehouse of endless storage crates and wonder if Webster would ever again see the light of day. Meanwhile, winter turned to spring and spring to summer.

Coincidentally, my family was visiting one of our sons, Mackenzie, in Ketchikan, Alaska, the site that was ground zero for Webster’s 1903 trip to southeastern Alaska, when I received an email from Hoad. I opened the email, and for the first time I was seeing Webster in color.

The painting of Webster was in a basement with other archives, part of a group of about 20 paintings, neatly stacked with dividers in a climate-controlled area. Angelo and an assistant spent several hours carefully pulling out each painting. Naturally, Webster was the last one.

“I’m just sorry it wasn’t on a wall. It would have been easier and more honorable for all of us to say, ‘Oh, yes, he is in a place of honor’ and he had been for a better part of a century,” said Angelo.

Soon after returning from Alaska, I went with my wife, Theresa, and son, Bryn, to see the portrait in person. The massive painting, almost five feet in height, sat on an easel in a temporary spot. Enclosed in an ornate gold frame was Webster — his eyes, hair, and mustache all a distinguished gray, and an all-knowing smirk on his face. As I walked up to the painting, Hoad turned to my wife and said of me and Webster, “They even look alike.”

The painting had been commissioned by Webster’s wife, Beatrice, in 1925. The artist, Richard L. Partington, like Beatrice, was originally from England. Annoyed that Webster’s work with the Blackfeet had overshadowed his other accomplishments, Beatrice had insisted Webster be painted in his full academic robes. But Webster slipped a surprise into the dark-toned painting. On the right-hand side, on a tabletop, sat the headdress the Blackfeet had presented him with — the favorite of all the honors he had received.

In the end, it may be the headdress that gives the painting a pardon from being returned to storage. It provides an element that provokes curiosity that separates it from the other 200-some portraits. Hoad said he hopes that his proposal to have the painting paired with an explanation of Webster’s work with the Blackfeet and historic photos will give it a new home.

“It gives us an opportunity to put it somewhere where people can see it,” he said. It’s not just another old picture. It’s got a story, something you can go back and read about and study.”

Angelo feels it is this unique aspect and the story behind it that makes it especially worthy.

“Serving the underserved is the greatest thing you can do,” Angelo said. “He is one of the outstanding Jeffersonians.”

As for Webster and me, my instincts tell me our journey together isn’t over. Standing by the painting on an August afternoon did not seem like the final destination of our journey, but rather an affirmation of the things that connect us across generations and the things to come.