Legal & Medical Practice History

From the 18th century on, many of Clermont’s owner families had members who were lawyers and physicians.  These professions often placed them in  roles as leaders and change agents  in their communities and beyond.

Elizabeth Williams (1945-2004), a lawyer, judge and last private owner of Clermont, was the daughter of Edward McCormick Williams (1903-1980) the longest-serving Commonwealth’s Attorney in Clarke County’s history (36 years).  Her cousin Province (1799-1873) was the second longest-serving at 25 years, including during the Civil War (for which his house was burned by Maj. George A. Custer).

Province’s son Marshall (1849-1918) was Commonwealth’s Attorney of Clarke for nine years in the 1870’s.   He served in the Virginia Senate 1883–1887, representing Clarke, Frederick, and Warren counties, and where. as Professor Peter Wallenstein points out, ” he co-sponsored a new election law, the Anderson-McCormick law of 1884.  Designed to address the open electorate that had produced the biracial Readjuster revolution in Virginia’s elections of 1879 and 1881, he was an architect of an early move toward disfranchisement to end such threats to the traditional leaders of the Commonwealth, to restore the supremacy of white Democrats.”  His former mansion “Rose Hill” in Berryville is now gone, but its site and former dairy barns are now the Town’s “Rose Hill Park” and arts and visitor center.

Two more of Province McCormick’s sons were lawyers, Hugh Holmes McCormick (1844-1870) and Province McCormick Jr (1847-1918).  They had each read law with Judge Richard Parker (who presided at John Brown’s trial in 1859) and practiced in Clarke County.  Another son of Province’s, Charles McCormick, was an assistant surgeon in the Confederate Army, dying in 1861 with the Army of Tennessee.

Province’s great-grandson from Clarke County, Dr. Horace Smithy, Jr. (1914-1948), was a pioneering surgeon specializing in valvular heart disease at the Medical College of South Carolina.  His experimental work provided early encouragement of the idea that heart surgery could have success and could be a useful therapy for valvular disease.  Three days after the major report on his research was presented to the American College of Chest Physicians to a standing ovation, he died of the same disease in Charleston, SC.

Elizabeth’s great-great uncle Dr. Cyrus McCormick (1804-1861), a graduate of Princeton and a distinguished physician, was one of three delegates who persuaded the Virginia General Assembly to create Clarke as a separate county out of Frederick County, Virginia, in 1836.

Another of Elizabeth’s great-great-uncles, Francis McCormick (1801-1872), was Presiding Justice of Clarke County just prior to the Civil War.  Francis’ son Cyrus (1845-1905) served in the Confederate Army at seventeen, was wounded at Brandy Station, and after the War took his medical degree at the University of Maryland.

Francis’ grand-daughter Rose Mortimer Ellzey MacDonald (1871-1953), who taught her cousin Elizabeth Williams how to read before she went to first grade, was appointed Clarke County’s first juvenile judge and was on the county bench from 1924-1931.  In 1930 she was appointed the first female member of the Virginia State Board of Education.

Elizabeth’s great-uncle Admiral A.M.D. McCormick (1866-1932), owner of Clermont, went to the UMd Medical School and was Fleet Surgeon of the Atlantic Fleet, Medical Director at Annapolis, and President of the Board of Medical Examiners, Naval Medical Dept, retiring in 1930.  Another great-uncle, Dr. James Jett McCormick (UVa Medical School) practiced for thirty-five years in Norfolk and as City Health Commissioner in the 1930’s promoted the pasteurization of milk and the eradication of mosquitoes.

Elizabeth Williams received her law degree from American University in 1981 after a career in journalism and returned to ClarkeCounty to start her own practice of twenty-two years.  She was one of the first two women admitted to the Bar in Clarke in 1982.  She later became the first woman to sit as a judge in the 26th Circuit of Virginia, as a substitute Juvenile and Domestic Relations judge.  She died in office in 2004 as Commissioner of Accounts and as Commissioner in Chancery for the County of Clarke.

Peter Wallenstein, Professor of History at Virginia Tech, who has looked at these individuals says:

As practitioners of another learned profession, medicine, Elizabeth Williams’ forbears stretched back into the 1730s, to her multi-great (five in all) grandfather Dr. John McCormick [1703-1768], an early doctor in the Shenandoah Valley.  So we can take one or both of these two professions, medicine and law, and track them through the Clarke County area for as long as the county has been here, indeed for nearly as long as people of European origin have settled in the area.  Viewed another way, Clermont is a portal through which we can trace local involvement in big events and broad developments through much of the country’s history, especially in Virginia but also the South more generally, and indeed the nation and beyond.

Wallenstein points out that this family record also illustrates that the large migration out of Clarke County from after the Civil War to World War II was about opportunity, to get specialized education and to use it.  In the case of a leading family like the McCormicks, we know their names, but there remain many unknown whites and blacks who found their way out of Clarke and into the larger society to find these same opportunities – and they potentially include medical and legal stories, contributions to society we know little about.

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