Iowa City’s Good Doctor – Henry Murray.

Dr. Henry Murray was born in Dublin, Ireland on March 3, 1816. And soon after his birth, the Murray family came to Baltimore – and later, moved to Cincinnati, where his father became a successful hardware merchant. As Henry was attending school, it was his work in a local drug store that first stirred him toward a career in medicine. So, before heading west, Murray attended the Louisville Medical Institute in Kentucky, graduating with high honors.

According to his biographer, Henry – with his medical degree in hand – boarded a riverboat in the late summer of 1838, taking it south on the Ohio River to Cairo, Illinois, where he then headed north on the Mississippi, past St. Louis, to Burlington, Iowa. It’s our guess that it was here – during the winter of 1838/39 – when he first heard about Governor Robert Lucas‘ decision – announced in January 1839 – to move the Iowa Territorial capital to Johnson County. Read more here. Interestingly, young Henry Murray most likely met Governor Lucas during his short time in Burlington, and several years later, after both had relocated to Iowa City, Dr. Murray became Lucas’ personal physician!

While there were a handful of other pioneers who preceded him in assisting those with minor medical issues, it was the good Irishman – Dr. Henry Murray – arriving here in the spring of 1839 – who became Johnson County’s first resident physician.

So, it’s very likely that – just as Chauncey Swan was choosing the site for Iowa’s new capital – May 1839Dr. Henry Murray arrived, settling into his new home – and in the process, not only becoming one of Iowa City’s earliest settlers, but also, Johnson County’s first resident physician! Iowa historian, C.R. Aurner put it this way…

Dr. Murray’s obituary states it this way… “(Murray) settled in this place, then but an embryo village, for the purpose of practicing his profession, where he has remained up to the hour of his-death. For many years, Dr. Murray was active and prominent in his profession, and but few men were better known in this county.

Stories about Dr. Murray’s work as a practicing physician in the early days of Johnson County abound…

The University of lowa Museum of Natural History has in its possession a beautiful feathered cape (above left), that according to museum records, was made for Meskwaki Chief Poweshiek by his youngest daughter in the winter of 1839. It was subsequently given to Dr. Murray as payment for medical bills for treatment of members of Poweshiek’s family – probably for smallpox.

In nearby Muscatine, William & Frances Leffingwell – who came to Iowa from Connecticut in 1839, had six children, and it was their oldest daughter – Ellen Bramwell Leffingwell, born in 1825 – that captured the attention of Dr. Murray. The couple was married in 1841, and soon after, moved briefly to Kentucky, where Henry continued his medical studies for a short season.

According to his biographer, Dr. Murray – because of his expertise – was offered the Chair of Anatomy position at Western Medical School, but declined – wanting to stay a general practitioner back home in Iowa. So, beginning in 1843, here in Iowa City, the Murrays had seven children – five of whom lived into adulthood: Ellen L. Murray Hess (1843), Lt. William B. Murray (1844), Charles H. Murray (1846), Mary F. Murray (1848), Glenn C. Murray (1853), Janette Murray (1854), and Fannie M. Murray Bachman (1856). Above is the 1860 U.S. Census which shows Henry & Ellen and their five children. Sadly, little Glenn and Janette Murray, who were both born in the 1850’s, died sometime before the census was taken.

Like so many others, in 1850, when gold fever hit, Dr. Murray went to California, but only for a short time before returning to Iowa City. And again, about 1862, as the Civil War was raging, he, along with a handful of others, made a return visit to the western gold regions, only to return less than a year later. Once again, historian C.R. Aurner, tells us more…

It’s obvious from his story, that while Dr. Murray was an adventurer – willing to take risks like heading west to explore for gold – Henry’s long-term interest remained in Iowa. Records show (above) that beginning as early as 1850, Murray was a solid investor in bringing the railroad westward into Johnson County, and some records indicate that it was the good doctor who was personally responsible for making certain that the Mississippi & Missouri Railroad made Iowa City its first “in-land” Iowa destination.

Another historical record (above) indicates that Dr. Murray also financed one of the earliest bridges in Iowa City – over Ralston Creek in 1847.

Here is a rare postal cover and letter from Dr. Murray to a potential business contact in Pennsylvania. Dated September 18, 1857, and postmarked the next day in Iowa City, it looks like the good doctor is selling yet another portion of land owned in Cedar County.

(JP-043) This rare postal cover, mailed by Dr. Henry Murray, is postmarked in Iowa City on September 19, 1857 and is headed to Henry Leamer in Hollidaysburgh, Pennsylvania. Leamer was a well-to-do businessman who never left Blair County, PA, and was obviously looking to invest in cheap land in Iowa.
Iowa City – Sept. 18th 1857

Henry Leamer, Esq

Dear Sir – I have just received your letter of 14th last, and in reply will say that you can have the other quarter – the north west of Section (14) Township (79) Range (1) West at $12.50 per acre by sending to Cook Sargent & Downey a draft for one third the amount and signing the two Blank Notes and send them all to them. On Receipt, I will send you a bond for a deed for said quarter.

Yours respt – Henry Murray

In early September of 1857, a disastrous financial depression – called the Panic of 1857 – was just beginning to unfold. It could very well be that Dr. Murray is selling some of his land investments (see map above) in response to this economic crisis. Read more here. It’s very possible that this September 18th, 1857 letter might be an early indicator of Dr. Murray’s urgent need to raise some cash – i.e. his return trip to the California gold fields (1862) – because not only did the 1857 Panic greatly affect Iowa City, but also in 1857, the State of Iowa moved the capital to Des Moines, leaving our city with a few years where nearly every family was struggling financially.

An Iowa City business man named William Bostick built this home (below) at 115 North Gilbert Street in 1851, and in July 1855, sold it to Alexander Rider and Dr. Murray who wanted it used for civic purposes. Rider was an early settler in Johnson County who owned the livery stable, and records indicate that Murray and Rider wanted the Bostick House for the purpose of having it serve as Iowa City’s first City Hall before the city was incorporated in 1853.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Dr. Murray played a key role in helping Johnson County form regiments and gather supplies for the Union Army. It’s believed that the Bostick House was used as a recruitment center for the war, and amazingly, Dr. Murray personally offered eighty acres of land to any Johnson County soldier who returned home from the war with an honorable discharge!

Meet four young men from Johnson County who helped with the war effort.

After returning from his second trip out west (1863), which almost ended in disaster when his traveling party was confronted by Sioux warriors, Dr. Murray remained in Iowa City for the remainder of his days. In the mid-1860’s, he was elected City Treasurer, serving three terms, and later, he became the Johnson County Coroner, and also served as the United States Examining Surgeon of the Pension Bureau. Henry & Ellen were also strong supporters of the Presbyterian Church here in Iowa City – one of the first churches formed here in 1840. Read more here.

The good Irish doctor – Dr. Henry Murray – died at his residence on May 9, 1880 at 4:30 p.m. He was only 64 years old.

Dr. Murray’s beloved wife – Ellen B. Leffingwell Murray – lived on for another 30 years, dying in Omaha – at age 85 – on June 12, 1910. Both Henry & Ellen are buried at Oakland Cemetery in their beloved Iowa City.

Several biographers have put together story lines on Dr. Murray. Here’s Dr. Frederick Lloyd’s memoir – first appearing in The Medical Directory of Iowa – 1883/1884, and reprinted in both Iowa City papers at the time – The Iowa City Republican and The Iowa State Press

We close with a big salute to Dr. Henry & Ellen Murray – two of Iowa City’s finest. Godspeed.


DYK-December 2, 2022

Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

First Doctors – Dr. Murray, History of Johnson County, 1883, p 306

Dr. H. Murray, C.R. Aurner, Leading Events in Johnson County, Iowa, p 30, p 197

Poweshiek’s feathered cape, University of Iowa Museum of Natural History, Buffalo Center of The West website

Mesquakie Chief Poweshiek’s Feathered Cape, Duane C. Anderson, Plains Anthropologist Vol. 30, No. 108 (May 1985), pp 161-164

Dr. Henry Murray, Historical Background – The William Bostick House – Iowa City, National Register of Historic Places – Section No. 7,8, page 5, Section 8,9, page 6

William Bostick House, Wikipedia

Henry & Ellen Murray Household, 1856 Iowa Census, Ancestry.com

Henry & Ellen Murray Household, 1860 US Census, Ancestry.com

Dr. Murray & M&M Railroad, History of Johnson County, 1883, p 237

Iowa Land – Sect.14 – Township 79 N -Range 1 West, RandyMajors.org

Henry Leamer, Find-A-Grave

Another Old Settler Gone, Iowa City Republican, May 10, 1880, p 3

Dr. Henry Murray, Iowa City Republican, July 30, 1883, p 4

Memoir Of Henry Murray M.D., Dr. Frederick Lloyd, Medical and Surgical Directory
of Iowa for 1853, Iowa State Press, August 1, 1883, p 4

Mrs. Murray Laid To Rest, Iowa City Daily Press, June 16, 1910, p 5

Ellen Bramwell Leffingwell Murray, Find-A-Grave

Dr Henry Murray, Find-A-Grave


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