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Kentucky by Heart: Family of Louisville doctor David Yandell made mark on Kentucky, and the world

By Steve Flairty
KyFoward columnist

I recently came across Nancy Baird’s biography of a noted Louisville medical doctor from the 1800s. The book is called David Wendel Yandell: Physician of Old Louisville, and besides providing a fascinating look at Yandell’s life (1826-1898), the author’s account also reveals an interesting look at the political and cultural times in Kentucky, including events leading to the establishment of today’s University of Louisville of Medicine. Additionally, the book and other sources highlight the high-profile accomplishments of other members of the Yandell family.

David Yandell (Photo from University of Louisville School of Medicine)

David was the oldest child of Lunsford Pitts Yandell, Sr., himself a noted physician, and Susan Wendel Yandell. The family moved from Tennessee to Lexington in 1831 when Lunsford accepted an appointment at Transylvania University as a professor of chemistry and pharmacy. Young David was enrolled in a local private school, but his mother, according to Nancy Baird’s writing, noted that her son “learned little that he ought to know and a great deal that he could not if we kept him at home.” Susan withdrew David and took on the task of teaching her son. David flourished, and along with it, his mother trained him in doing chores around the house and to take on his personal responsibility as part of a functioning group, something he internalized and implemented greatly in his professional life.

David would advance through his years as an excellent student. The family moved from Lexington to Louisville in 1835 where his father helped establish the Louisville Medical Institute (LMI), a forerunner of today’s University of Louisville School of Medicine. David graduated from LMI in 1846, and with an adventurous spirit and a thirst to expand his medical knowledge, he spent the following two years in French and British hospitals. He became a medical faculty member of the University of Louisville in 1859, but when the Civil War started in 1861, he enlisted in the Confederate Medical Department.

Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of seven books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and six in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #5,” was released in 2019. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a former member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

He likely matured greatly during his service in the long and traumatizing war. He was particularly disheartened by the poorly trained, often inept medical colleagues around him. Through his own medical competence and devotion, he gained respect from Confederates and those, also, on the Union side (it happened that he treated, in some instances, Union military personnel).

He resumed private medical practice in Louisville after the war and opened a dispensary for indigent individuals. His respect for the poor and underserved became a hallmark of his life. To be fair, however, David was not perfect in all his ways, and could be arrogant. Having high and exacting standards, he could be difficult to work with. In 1867, he rejoined the faculty at the University of Louisville as a professor of clinical medicine and later as a professor of surgery. His students admired his ability as a surgeon and teacher, but his colleagues resented his efforts to extend the school to a much higher level of functioning. David used his role of most prestigious faculty member to get his way, and he often did.

Teaching and performing surgeries were not David Yandell’s only contributions. Here is a list of his robust professional and community initiatives:

• founded and edited the American Practitioner (which later merged with Louisville Medical News)

• served as president of the American Medical Association and later the American Surgical Association

• chaired the surgery section of the 1881 International Medical Congress

• received honorary membership in the London Surgery Society and the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Philadelphia

• founded the Louisville Surgical Society

• was member of the Louisville school board

• belonged to the Filson Club, Salmagundi Literary Club, and Pendennis Club

• founded the Louisville Kennel Club

• served on committees that entertained dignitaries coming to Louisville, including three U.S. presidents

Lunsford Pitts Yandell, Jr. (Photo from UofL School of Medicine)

David Yandell died in 1898 and is buried in Louisville at Cave Hill Cemetery.

His father was, like David, a mover and shaker in the medical community, and a faculty member at LMI, but later departed, unhappy with the “feuding” taking place there. He was hired at the Memphis Medical Institute in 1859 with the hopes that he could salvage the financially failing school, but the Civil War’s outbreak doomed those efforts and the school closed. However, he supervised a Confederate hospital in Memphis until the town’s fall to Union forces, and with that, moved to his wife’s former home in Daceyville, Tennessee, where he became a farmer and ordained Presbyterian minister. Lunsford, Sr. returned to Louisville with his wife in 1867 and resumed his medical practice. He also preached occasionally at local churches. Additionally, he engaged in professional medical organizations and published many articles in medical journals and even wrote in the field of geology, another passion. He died in 1878.

Son Lunsford Jr., brother of David, kept up family tradition as a medical faculty member at the University of Louisville and specialized in diseases of the skin. He, like David and his father, published medical articles. Brother William, also a physician, was a public health leader in the state of Texas.

Enid Yandell (Photo from Wikipedia)

Another member of the family achieved recognition in a completely different field. Enid Yandell, daughter of Lunsford, Jr., emerged as an acclaimed sculptor after graduating from the Cincinnati Academy of Art in 1889. In two years, she won a gold Designer’s Medal for contributions to the World’s Columbian Exposition at Chicago. Among her many career achievements, she created popular fountains in Providence, Rhode Island and in Louisville’s Cherokee Park and a Daniel Boone statue, also in Cherokee Park. While in France in World War II, Enid directed soup kitchens for artists, cared for abandoned and orphaned children. Coming back to America, she raised funds for the French children and worked with the American Red Cross in New York.

Over a hundred years ago, the Yandells of Louisville certainly made their positive marks on the world. Their legacies continue to positively touch lives today.

Sources: David Wendell Yandell: Physician of Old Louisville (The Kentucky Bicentennial Bookshelf series, 1978); housedivided.dickinson.edu; The Encyclopedia of Louisville (The University Press of Kentucky, 2001); Louisville.edu/medicine; The Kentucky Encyclopedia (The University Press of Kentucky, 1992); findagrave.com.

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