Monday, August 11, 2014

Doctor Thomas Elkins

This weathered marble monument stands near the crest of a low hill overlooking the Arsenal Burial Ground on the North Ridge.  Though eroded, the lettering can still be read:  DR. THOS. ELKINS 1818-1900.

Elkins was a doctor, an inventor, and a prominent member of Albany's 19th-century African-American community.  He studied surgery and dentistry under Dr. Alden March, a founder of the Albany Medical College.  Elkins operated a pharmacy on North Swan Street which he later relocated to Broadway at Livingston Avenue (the latter was still called Lumber Street at the time).  According to contemporary newspaper reports, the front window of the pharmacy was blown in by the powerful explosion of a nearby locomotive on February 25, 1867.

He seems to have taken at least a passing interest in horticulture as well;  in 1886, a committee of the African Methodist Episcopal Church agreed to plant a memorial tree in Washington Park and the tree in question was one grown from seed by Dr. Elkins.  The committee included a son of Samuel Mando.  Elkins also made a trip to the then newly-formed nation of Liberia and is reported to have brought back a collection of African artifacts, shells, and minerals, though the fate of his collection is not known. 

Elkins is perhaps best remembered as part of Albany's Underground Railroad. For a time, he lived a few doors away from Stephen and Harriet Myers on Lumber Street and actively took part in their work.  He is identified as a member of the local Vigilance Committee which assisted slaves fleeing The South.  As a trained doctor, it is more than likely he was able to offer medical assistance to those fugitives in need of such care.  During the Civil War, he served as a medical examiner to the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry (the unit made famous in the film Glory).

Elkins was also well-known as an inventor.  His work as a medical examiner led him to develop and patent a unit for the cold storage of corpses which is said to have been a forerunner of the refrigerator.  For this innovation, he received a certificate of "highest merit" from the New York Agriculture Society.  He also patented several pieces of multifunctional furniture, including a combination of a commode, washstand, bureau, mirror, chair, table, and bookshelf intended to save space in a small room. 

Elkins died in on August 10, 1900.  He was eighty-eight years old and the cause of his death was listed as apoplexy.  His funeral from his home at 888 Broadway was presided over by the canon of the Cathedral of All Saints and his pallbearers were the sons of several of his closest friends.


More on Elkins' inventions can be found here, including diagrams. 

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