American Medical Biographies/Bagby, George William

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Bagby, George William (1828–1883)

George William Bagby, first a practitioner of medicine, then writer of editorials, lecturer, and eminent man of letters and essayist, was born in the heart of Virginia, in the county of Buckingham, on August 13, 1828. His father, George William Bagby, was a merchant of Lynchburg, Virginia; his mother was Virginia Young Evans. He was educated at Princeton, New Jersey, and at Delaware College in Newark, Delaware, under John S. Hart. At the end of his sophomore year, when eighteen, he began to study medicine, taking his degree at the University of Pennsylvania (1849) offering a thesis on "Hysteroptosis."

He began to practise in Lynchburg, Virginia, on the site of the present Opera House, but, as Thomas Nelson Page says, "the pen was much more grateful to his hand than the scalpel … and he soon began seeking in the nearest newspaper the expression of his dreams. His first article to attract attention was a paper on Christmas, an editorial in the Lynchburg Virginian.

"All his life much of his work was thrown into the devouring maw of the daily press. His latest essays as among his first, were papers which passed for letters or editorials but were really literary essays which were masked under these ephemeral names.… They gave him local celebrity but nothing more.

"He is set down in a recent biographical encyclopedia merely as 'Physician and humorist;' he was much more than this—he was a physician by profession; a humorist by the way; but God made him a man of letters.

"Among all Virginia's writers few have had the love to feel, and the gift to portray, Virginia life as Bagby had. He was the first to picture Virginia as she was.… When the old life shall have completely passed away, as all life of a particular kind must pass, the curious reader may find in George W. Bagby's pages, pictured with a sympathy, a fidelity and an art, which may be found nowhere else, the old Virginia life precisely as it was lived before the War, in the tidewater and southside sections of Virginia.… He first of all discovered that in the simple plantation homes was a life more beautiful and charming than any that the gorgeous palaces could reveal."

Page also says of "The Old Virginia Gentleman," that it was "to my mind the most charming picture of American life ever drawn."

Bagby was interested in the Lynchburg Express, soon defunct; he wrote for Harper's Magazine, for the New Orleans Crescent, the Charleston Mercury, the Richmond Despatch, the Southern Literary Messenger and sometimes for the Atlantic Monthly, as well as for The Sun (Baltimore) and New England through the Back Door.

In the Civil War he enlisted as a private, but was detailed by Beauregard for clerical work at headquarters. He did a vast amount of literary work and corresponding during this period. After the War he sought in New York a journalistic and literary career, but his eyesight failing, he entered the lecture field, "in which a rich reception and a bountiful harvest awaited him." In the winter of 1865–1866 his lecture on "Bacon and Greens" fairly took the city of Richmond by storm. In 1869 he was appointed assistant secretary of state and custodian of the State Library under General James McDonald.

In 1863 he married Lucy Parke, daughter of Dr. Lewis Webb Chamberlayne, of Richmond, who survived him. They had eight children, four daughters and four sons; a daughter, Martha, married George Gordon Battle, of North Carolina.

Dr. Bagby suffered for years with chronic dyspepsia and other complications, and died November 29, 1883, "not all at once, but by gradual stages, as of a siege."

His essays of general interest were published in book form by Scribner in 1910, under the title "The Old Virginia Gentleman and Other Sketches," edited with an introduction by Thomas Nelson Page, and a sketch of his life by Edward S. Gregory. From these pages and from Mrs. Bagby, the above data and excerpts have for the most part been gathered.