By Ronald J. Taddeo, M.D.
As stated previously, before being renamed in 1834, Willoughby was known as Chagrin, taking this name from the river that runs through it. But where did the river get its name? There are numerous hypotheses concerning the naming of the Chagrin River, one of the three ancient river systems in northern Ohio, the others being the Cuyahoga and the Grand. Certainly it was not the alleged chagrin (annoyance/humiliation) of Moses Cleaveland who encountered the Chagrin before locating the Cuyahoga River! Another often repeated suggestion is that Chagrin is a corruption of a native American word, sha-ga-rin, which supposedly means “clear water”, though this has never been confirmed by students of the Iroquoian peoples who lived in this area before the arrival of Europeans.
What seems to be the most plausible derivation for Chagrin is the Anglicization of the name of an early 18th century French fur trader named Francois Sieur de Saquin (sometimes written Saguine) who is known to have built a trading post at the mouth of the Cuyahoga River and undoubtedly traversed the length of Lake Erie’s southern shore in his dealings with native Americans. Did Saguin become Chagrin? The Ohio Historical Society thinks so and has erected commemorative markers offering this explanation. Of course, none of this clarifies how Chagrin became Willoughby; so let’s get on with the story.
In the early 1830’s, two physicians practicing in Chagrin, Dr. John M. Henderson and Dr. George W. Card, began a quest to initiate a medical college in their hometown. The two doctors came to Chagrin in 1813 and 1819 respectively from Herkimer County, New York, where both were graduates of the Fairfield Medical College, whose president was Dr. Westel Willoughby, Jr.
Drs. Henderson and Card highly regarded their former professor and hoped to entice him to come to Ohio and head up a new medical school, which they planned to establish and name in his honor. Dr. Willoughby, an incredibly talented and multifaceted individual, kindly thanked his former students for their admirable offer, but responded that he had to refuse because of his age and the poor health of his wife, Sarah.
Despite the numerous, oft repeated myths concerning Dr. Willoughby’s connections with the medical college, his place of residence and practice, the naming of the city, his portrait and his last will and testament, the true facts have apparently eluded many previous would-be “historians”.
It is crucially important to note that Dr. Westel Willoughby never saw the medical college or the town of Willoughby that were named for him. In fact, Dr. Willoughby never visited the state of Ohio. The legend that he promised to leave his estate to the city if they would rename Chagrin, Willoughby, is absolutely, positively false! Dr. Willoughby never made any deals with the village of Chagrin regarding his estate, which when he died was quite sizable. His will clearly left his oil portrait to his sister, Sarah Larned, not to anyone else including the village of Willoughby.
Dr. Willoughby lived in Newport, Herkimer County, New York where he was a man of remarkable accomplishments. Not only was he one of the founders of the Fairfield Medical College, where he was also professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology, he eventually became its President. Additionally, he served as a physician/surgeon in the War of 1812, participated in founding the New York State Medical Society, was a judge of Herkimer County’s Common Pleas Court and in 1814, was elected to the U.S. Congress from the western district of New York. He was also a very busy medical doctor in Newport, NY, where he died in 1844 and lies buried in the First Baptist Church Cemetery.
What then was his connection to the fledgling medical school named for him in northern Ohio? Hopefully, you will still stay tuned!
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.