The Biography of Dr. Henry Plummer Lovewell
This article is a biography of the namesake of our company, Dr. H. P. Lovewell.
“A mean botanist”: The Biography of Dr. Henry Plummer Lovewell
Part One: The early years
In late 2017, I moved into a large Victorian home built in 1886 in the West End in Providence. As a historian by trade, I rarely can resist doing research on the houses I live in, so I subsequently began investigating the previous owners, and one stuck out. His name was Henry Plummer Lovewell, and he had lived in the home from 1897 until his death in 1934. My housemates and I were understandably enthusiastic about his surname, so we named our house ‘The Lovewell Collective.’ It was out of the kitchen of this home that Lovewell Farms was born. After a few months, I decided to do a deeper dive on my research of Henry Plummer Lovewell, considering that he was now the namesake of a formal company. What I found absolutely blew my mind. What follows is a three-part biography of Dr. Henry Plummer Lovewell.
Henry Plummer Lovewell was born in Mendon, Massachusetts on October 27th, 1866 to Baron Plummer Lovewell and Louisa Elvina Mowry. There is little in the historic record on Louisa, but plenty on her husband. Baron had been a First Lieutenant in the Sixth and Seventh Regiments of the ‘Colored Troops’ in the Civil War. After the war, and the birth of his only child, Baron and Louisa moved to Providence in 1867 to work first as a grocer before then beginning work at the Custom House, a job he kept until his death in 1904. At that time, Baron was considered the longest-serving public service official in Providence. His obituary read: “It is said of him that he never took a vacation during the 33 years that he was in the employ of the Government.” Baron and Louisa’s only child, Henry received his Bachelor’s degree from Brown University in 1889. Five years later, in 1894, he became Doctor Lovewell when he received his Medical Doctorate from Harvard Medical School. It was at that point that Henry began referring to himself as ‘Dr. H. P. Lovewell’–an identity that quickly became solidified by his many years of medical service in both Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Dr. Lovewell began his career in 1894 in Somerville, Massachusetts at McLean Hospital. In 1895 he moved to the Boston City Hospital and by 1897 he was able to move back to Providence to begin practice in his childhood city at the Rhode Island Hospital, as a physician to out-patients. During World War I, he served as an examining physician for the Draft Board. In August of 1900, in Brunswick, Maine, Dr. Lovewell married Helen C. Worthley. On February 11th, 1904 Helen and Dr. Lovewell had their first child, a daughter; Louise Baron Lovewell–born in Providence, Rhode
Island. Ten years later, Helen and Dr. Lovewell would have their second child, another daughter, Sally Keith Lovewell, on January 26th, 1915.
Between the two sisters, Louise seems to be the more prominent one in the historical record. She attended Pembroke, Brown University’s Women’s College and was a sophomore there in 1924, presumably she graduated in 1926. Helen, Louise and Sally Lovewell were socialites–they were all regularly written about in the Providence Journal as participating in a variety of charities in the community, as well attending important social events and musical performances. Louise and Sally were members of the ‘Good Will Club’– ‘an organization of very young girls committed to good work.’ Both sisters were also musicians (Louise played the violin and Sally played the piano) and they both often performed in public in Providence. During World War II, Louise served as a Technician Fourth Grade in the U.S. Army. She died in 1986.
Part Two: Dr. Lovewell and Indigenous influence education
In 1908, Dr. Lovewell served as a delegate to the Rhode Island Medical Society, beginning an important relationship with an institution whose membership he would maintain until his death. In 1917, Dr. Lovewell published his first medical journal article in the society’s nascent Rhode Island Medical Journal— it was entitled; ‘A Study of Cardiorenal Types.’ An otherwise unfascinating publication to the medical layman, the article includes multiple tables presumably hand-written by Dr. Lovewell, which means that his handwriting is preserved as a result of this publication. In 1920, he gave an ‘illustrated lecture’ to the Rhode Island Hospital Nurses’ Alumnae and Nurses Club on the benefits of medicinal plants. Dr. Lovewell’s affection for plant life did not end there, however. In 1921, he began to submit samples of various plants to the Harvard University Herbaria– starting with a small piece of dirca palustris, or eastern leatherwood. In 1929, he submitted a sample of ceratophyllum demersum, or ‘hornwort’. Both of these samples also capture Dr. Lovewell’s handwriting.
In May of 1922, Dr. Lovewell published his second medical journal article, this one also in the Rhode Island Medical Journal, entitled; “Medicinal Plants: With Special Reference to Our Early Materia Medica.” Presumably an extension of his earlier reference ‘illustrated lecture’, this article expertly details (for the 1920s) the role that Indigenous people played in American medicine. Lovewell writes;
“The medicinal uses of many of our native plants have descended from the aborigines. The Red Men of the forests had a keen instinct for scenting out the medicinal and poisonous plants; they had a Materia Medica of their own. They made use of certain plants as astringents and tonics; different species of the Iris and the root of Mandrake or May-apple were in common use as purgatives. At least a dozen plants were used as emetics, such as Gillenia trifoliata (Indian physic) and Euphorbia ipecacuanha. Seneca snake-root and Virginia snake-root were used as sudorifics.” Outside of the early twentieth century racial stereotypes, this is a surprisingly apt assessment of the role Indigenous people played, particularly in seventeenth-century settler
New England. What is so surprising about Dr. Lovewell’s statements is how he recognizes this role– contemporary historians were busy erasing and disavowing any Indigenous influence on modern society. He goes on,
“Johann David Schopf in 1783 began the first scientific study of medicinal plants indigenous to the United States. In pursuit of his studies he relates having visited Rhode Island and Connecticut. Unquestionably he received his knowledge of many of the plants listed in his ‘Materia Medica Americana’ directly or indirectly from the native Indian.”
The remainder of the article details a variety of plants that can be found in Rhode Island, and their various medicinal uses, particularly those used by the Indigenous people of the region, presumably modern nations like the Mohegan, Pequot, Narragansett and Wampanoag people. One example is the leatherwood (dirca palustris) he submitted to the Harvard Herbaria a year earlier. Of this ‘marshy shrub’ he writes that “some of our Indians used as a cathartic a decoction of the bark of the root, and they also used it for cordage.” Though Lovewell neglects to name a single Indigenous nation in his article, and thus perpetuate myths of ‘disappearing Indians’, he includes their medicinal usage of almost every plant he lists.
Part Three: “A gentleman of the old school
But Dr. Lovewell’s commitment to knowledge of plants and nature did not end with stuffy academic journals. The month after his article on medicinal plants was published, he took the show on the road and gave another ‘illustrated lecture’, this time for the National Association of Girls Camps in Wellfleet, Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The description of the lecture reads as such;
“Dr. Lovewell is a practicing physician. He also has a hobby of collecting medicinal plants. He will show us how a nature councilor can be a ‘first aider.’ Then we’ll go out and collect aromatic herbs for the camp attic–just as our great grandmothers did in days of yore.”
It seems at this point, childhood education of the medicinal properties of plants became very important to Dr. Lovewell. In 1923, he published his third journal article, this one in the Nature-Study Review, entitled; “What do I Expect Nature-Study Should Do for my Child?” In this article, Dr. Lovewell explains how a ‘love of nature’ can have many benefits for ‘young pupils’. He writes;
“This is an age of nerve tension. Get out into the silent places and you can relax. People sleep better in the suburbs than they do in the cities. Animals deprived of light become drowsy, many of them hibernate during the winter months. Hence get out into the fresh air and sunshine. The chemical rays of the sun exert a beneficial influence upon the body metabolism.”
For Lovewell, outdoor activity can help to enhance children’s powers of observation, using the outdoors to train a sense of color perception and to teach about ‘nature’s methods’ like cross-pollination. By 1929, Dr. Lovewell was a well-known member of the city of Providence– known as a ‘botanist of no mean ability’ and a ‘student of bird lore’ for his love of both plants and birds, he was not just a member of the Rhode Island Medical Society, but also the Rhode Island Fish & Game Association and the Audubon Society. In August of that year the Providence Sunday Journal Magazine published an article on Dr. Lovewell entitled; “Providence Physician Shows Relation of Red Man’s Remedies to Modern Medicine in Collection of Medicinal Plants.” Though, like Lovewell, the article’s author perpetuates myths of Indigenous disappearance, writing; “But today, except in the most benighted districts, the old-fashioned Indian medicine show is as passe as the kerosene street lamps under which it flourished. The herb doctor makes his rounds no more.” Such language by the article’s author only seeks to perpetuate the myth that Indigenous people of Rhode Island like the Narragansett, or the Nipmuc or the Niantic are all ‘vanished’. However, that couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Nonetheless, the article aptly captures Dr. Lovewell’s passion of educating the public on the role Indigenous people played in modern medicine. The article author quotes Lovewell; “Most of us do not realize how much we are indebted to the Indians for discovering the medicinal uses of wild plants.” When asked about how he came to start collecting herbs, Dr. Lovewell responded “I like to get out and tramp around. … The herbs are only incidental; they give me an excuse to ramble through the woods.” Clearly, Dr. Lovewell was a man of the outdoors. The article goes on to describe the various medical uses of a few plants found throughout Rhode Island, including star grass, bloodroot, dogwood and hemlock.
Dr. Lovewell died on January 1st, 1934 “after an illness of two weeks.” Curiously, Helen Lovewell also died on January 1st, 1934. Helen was, the Brown Alumni Monthly notes, also “seriously sick” and died “without knowing that Dr. Lovewell had preceded her.” They left behind their two daughters, ‘Mrs. Louise Sheldon’ and ‘Mrs. Sallie Barney’. At the time of their death, Sally had also had a child, so Helen and Dr. Lovewell also left behind a single grandchild. Dr. Lovewell’s obituaries spoke highly of him and his love of the outdoors and plant medicine. His fellow members in the Rhode Island Medical Society wrote that he was a “gentlemen of the old school.” That seems to be the case.
Upon conducting this research for my newly-formed hemp company, I could have never guessed that I would come across the fact that the namesake of the company was obsessed with plant medicine. But as the strands and threads began to come together, it became very clear that we had indeed chosen a quite perfect name for our business. Dr. Lovewell truly was paradigmatic to our approaches and values as a company–our commitment to Indigenous people, to education, and to female empowerment! After getting to a few dead ends, I was able to track down a living descendant of Dr. Lovewell, his great grandson, Bruce Sheldon. Bruce was the grandson of Dr. Lovewell’s older daughter, Louise. It turned out that Louise’s son, (Bruce’s dad) Arthur, was still alive– at 91. I asked Bruce to ask his father about Dr. Lovewell, and if he would approve of being the namesake for a hemp company. Bruce’s reply said this; “Dad feels Dr. Lovewell would be honored and would have no objections to you using the name Lovewell in your company.” I wouldn’t expect anything less from a ‘gentlemen of the old school.’