The Coastal Post - January, 1997

Dr. Alfred Taliaferro: Marin's First Physician

BY JOAN REUTINGER

Dr. Alfred Taliaferro came from Virginia. The historian Bancroft calls the Virginians "eminently human, hospitable and companionable, reverent as to place, divinity and medicine." And so was Dr. Taliaferro.

He arrived in San Francisco after coming around the Horn in a ship carrying every sort of merchandise, including prefabricated houses, soap, tobacco and machinery, "to prosecute any and every kind of business that might be available in the new California." He rented land from Timothy Murphy in San Rafael and began to farm. "Not much was done in the way of farming," he admitted years later, "but prodigies were performed in hunting, dancing and other pleasures."

The 22-year-old doctored on the side, "half the time not getting a dollar for his services," reported Charles Lauff in "Reminiscences" San Rafael Independent, January 23 to May 23, 1916. The 1850 Marin census lists 321 county inhabitants-not many for the doctor to build a practice on.

Taliaferro was on the first county grand jury, and was the first San Quentin prison doctor in 1874, and in the same year was elected to the San Rafael Board of Trustees. Thus the doctor early on started public service which continued for 36 years, serving in the State Assembly and Senate as well as other, lesser offices. He established the Mount Tamalpais cemetery in 1878, which included 112 acres and was approached by a two-mile road which the doctor seeded himself with eucalyptus he had brought from Australia.

He built an exact duplicate of the Virginia mansion he was born in, on 40 acres he bought from Don Domingo Sais. He said the property reminded him of Virginia because of the oak trees. It was on San Anselmo Creek and is still there.

He knew Charles L. Fairfax, a descendent of Lord Thomas Fairfax, who also came from Virginia. Fairfax and his wife (often called Lady Fairfax) became permanent guests in the Virginia-style mansion, and the wife became the bachelor doctor's official hostess. Dr. Taliaferro finally deeded the property to the Fairfaxes, and later it became the town of Fairfax.

The doctor traveled everywhere in the county on his favorite saddle horse. Roads were few and far between and everyone had to travel by horseback. He was wounded by a bandit on a call to Calvin Dickson's ranch, just over the crest of White's Hill. The pistol shot struck his arm and was not a serious injury. Once at the farm, he first dressed his own wound and then attended to Mrs. Dickson's medical needs. The Dicksons asked the doctor to stay the night, fearing for his safety.

He attended to all the first families in the county, including the Pachecos and Captain William Richardson, the founder of Sausalito. He was in Richardson's bedroom when he died.

After a midnight call to assist at a baby's birth, Dr. Taliaferro caught cold and died of pneumonia in 1885. The town of San Rafael outdid itself for his funeral. The Marin County Journal bordered the story in black, a tribute Jack Mason tells us that was usually reserved for presidents of the United States.

The body of the doctor lay in state at the San Rafael Opera House (yes, they had an opera house in those days), and the flag at the courthouse hung at half mast. Banker V.M. Gordon took personal charge of the funeral and every San Rafael business house closed its doors. Pall bearers included United States Judge Ogden Hoffman (who was a very influential man in early Marin), Payne Shafer of Olema, John K. Ore, Hepburn Wilkins and Timothy Mahon.

On his grave in the Mt. Tamalpais cemetery was written, "His virtue was generosity, his friends are legion, his enemies none-one of nature's noblemen."

Stories grew up around him, some true and some imagined. Babies he delivered for free were named Alfred after him; he had been pro-South in the Civil War; William Kent remembered that the doctor's bird dogs were the best, and that he took pride in his horses. He was one of the first white men to settle in San Rafael. He operated a drug store on Fourth Street.