By Ronald J. Taddeo, M.D.
We have already reported that the name of the city of Willoughby traces its origin to Dr. Westel Willoughby, Jr. of Newport, Herkimer County, New York. This history includes two of his medical students, Drs. Henderson and Card, who came to Chagrin, Ohio, started and developed their medical practices and eventually after about ten years, began to pursue establishing a new medical school here, the first in northern Ohio. With the support of nine other citizens of Chagrin, including two other physicians who had trained under Dr. Willoughby, Dr. Hosmer Graham and Dr. Asahel Brainard, the thrust went forward to the Statehouse at Columbus. Despite the objections and skepticism of the Cleveland medical community, which opposed this proposition, a charter was granted on March 3, 1834 by the Ohio State Legislature establishing the existence of the Willoughby University of Lake Erie, Chagrin, Cuyahoga County, Ohio.
Although Dr. Willoughby had to graciously refuse the offer of presidency of this new medical college, he affirmed his interest and support by donating $1,200, a complete medical library and an outline of the first year’s curriculum with recommendations of professors to teach the courses. In his letter to Dr. John C. Bennet, President of the Willoughby college, dated January 20, 1835, Dr. Willoughby wrote, “I fell under greater obligation than my feeble language can express, to my friends of the University located in your village, that they have honored me by naming their college after me: and again, I am under renewed obligation to my much esteemed friends that they should deem my name worthy of designating their town.” This letter was in response to a communication to Dr. Willoughby dated December 31, 1834, which notified him of the naming of the university and also the village in his honor. This would appear to provide ample evidence that the town of Chagrin was renamed Willoughby before the year was over in 1834.
However, a question remains why the United States Postal Service which began in 1813, did not officially change the town name to Willoughby until 1835. Strangely, several accounts say that the “postal” name of Chagrin was actually “Chagrin River” and was changed to Willoughby by then postmaster, Dr. John M. Henderson. This occurred while Dr. Henderson, the first doctor in Chagrin, was serving his second term as postmaster between 1830 and 1839. No doubt it was with great pride that Dr. Henderson, on April 20, 1835, hung a sign over the post office door announcing to the world that this community would henceforth officially be known as Willoughby, Ohio in honor of his esteemed professor at the Fairfield Medical College of Herkimer County, New York.
NEXT: The life and times of Dr. Westel Willoughby, Jr.
Ronald J. Taddeo, MD is a retired plastic and reconstructive surgeon with an insatiable interest in history. Dr. Taddeo and his wife Sandy are members of most of the historical societies in northeast Ohio. For over twenty years, Dr. Taddeo has served as historian for the Lake County Medical Society, historian for the Ohio Valley Society of Plastic Surgeons and is a member of the President’s Advisory Committee of the Lake County Historical Society. Additionally, Dr. Taddeo is president of the Willoughby Area Welcome Center in downtown Willoughby where historical exhibits tell the fascinating stories of our Lake County communities.