The Medical Branch
Lamport Hall, Northamptonshire, England, was the seat of the Isham family for four centuries. Althorp, where Princess Diana was raised, is a neighboring estate.
By Megan McKinney
“The Ishams were one of the oldest families in all of England,” according to social historian Robert Becker, “and count in their family tree a number of American emigrants and cousins, including Thomas Jefferson.” Further research shows that Isham dynasty roots can be documented as far back to the 12th century in the parish of Isham, Northamptonshire, England.
Dr. Ralph N. Isham.
In the1850s when Potter Palmer, Marshall Field and Levi Leiter were settling into the city where they would perfect high end retailing, two members of the extended Isham family arrived—separately–in Chicago, also from the American East. Each made an almost immediate impact. Dr. Ralph Nelson Isham arrived in 1855, followed three years later by an attorney cousin, Edward Swift Isham.
These were professionals, serious professionals. In a city developed by entrepreneurs, real estate developers, merchants, meat packers, inventors and manufacturers, they stood alone. And they almost immediately connected with the young city’s great achievers.
Dr. Isham, born in Mannheim, New York in 1831, was a 1854 graduate of New York’s Medical College of Bellevue Hospital. During his internship at Bellevue, he developed a pulmonary problem and, although he completed post-graduate work abroad, on his return to America he relocated to Chicago for his health.
Bellevue Hospital became a teaching hospital when New York University faculty began to conduct clinical instruction there in 1819.
Dr Isham, described as an “internationally known surgeon,” joined Chicago’s City Hospital medical staff in 1856 and made his professional debut in the city with a tracheotomy for quinsy performed on a son of the leading Presbyterian minister. Although his successful handling of the case brought him immediate prestige, the procedure was vehemently opposed by many of the minister’s pious parishioners as a direct interference with the way of providence.
The more mature Dr. Ralph Isham.
The Chicago of the 1850’s was a tightly knit community of hardy—and frequently extraordinary—individuals, some of whose names continue to resonate today. In 1857 Dr. Isham married Katherine Snow, daughter of one of these men, the leading pioneer George Washington Snow.
George W. Snow.
Snow had cast one of the 12 “aye” votes for incorporating Chicago as a town in August 1833, when its residents numbered 350. Four years later, after the population had mushroomed to slightly more than 4000, Chicago was again incorporated, this time as a city, and its first mayor, William B. Ogden, was elected.
George Snow arrived in the community he would make his home in 1832, as passenger in a canoe paddled to the mouth of the Chicago River by an Indian guide. The New Hampshire native became a lumber merchant and almost immediately after arrival built what is believed to be the nation’s first balloon frame structure, a warehouse at the river’s mouth. The balloon frame, credited with making possible such 19th century “instant cities” as Chicago and San Francisco, revolutionized house building in America throughout the next century and gained enduring fame for George Snow.
Balloon frame construction.
In 1859, Dr. Isham, with six other physicians, established Chicago Medical College, where for many years he held the chair of surgery and anatomy. Isham was a contract surgeon during the Civil War, chief surgeon of the Chicago and Northwestern Railway and consulting surgeon of the Cook County, Presbyterian and Passavant Hospitals, forming a long tradition of family support for Northwestern Memorial Hospital.
Passavant was predecessor of today’s Northwestern Memorial Hospital.
Katherine and Ralph Isham’s daughter, Katherine, married Arthur Lincoln Farwell, son of wholesale dry goods pioneer John Villiers Farwell. And a son, Dr. George Snow Isham, wed Katherine Porter, whose father was the formidable Henry H. Porter, a corporate free spirit with a Midas touch.
H. H. Porter.
Although Porter’s great interest was railroads, in which he was a pioneer and frequent owner, he was also a founder of U.S. Steel. His firm belief that a few strong railroads were preferable to many small lines led him to become a powerful force in making Chicago the railroad hub it became.
H. H. Porter’s house on Wabash Avenue was directly behind that of his close friend and banker Samuel M. Nickerson, now the Driehaus Museum.
An outstanding physician like his father, George Snow Isham was chairman protem of Passavant Hospital. However, he was to achieve visibility that would continue through many decades for an entirely different reason. Just before the turn of the last century George and Katherine Porter Isham engaged architect James Gamble Rogers to design a neo-classical French brick and limestone stately home at 1340 North State Parkway, completed in 1899.
This house, built by Dr. George Snow Isham, would bring fame—sometimes worldwide–generation after generation.
Theodore Roosevelt and Adm. Robert Peary were early guests in the 72-room mansion, and its 60-foot long oak paneled ballroom was the site of many elegant parties. During the second decade of the 20th century, the Isham ballroom was the setting for Miss Hinman’s Wednesday afternoon dancing class, which all proper adolescent Chicagoans attended.
However the property was best known as the original Playboy Mansion after Hugh Hefner bought it in 1959. Almost immediately the distingushed former Isham house became one of the mid-century’s most effective branding devices; people from New York to Hollywood were aware of the Playboy Mansion’s celebrity-sprinkled parties, the bi-level pool, down which nubile young women slid a pole to reach, the bowling alley, a 24 hour kitchen and an underwater bar.
The property was most famous, however, for the presence of Mr. Hefner, who rarely left his “office”, which was dominated by a large, round bed from which he allegedly worked attired in silk pajamas, a robe, and his signature Dunhill pipe. And everyone knew of the women, possibly Bunnies, Playmates or even Centerfolds who occupied nearby bedrooms.
By 1984, when everyone had become thoroughly accustomed to Playboy and the sexual revolution it had so robustly encouraged, Hef took the show to Los Angeles and gave the Chicago property to the School of the Art Institute, which put it up for sale in 1990. The house has since been converted into luxury condominiums, but the Hefner period was quite a stunt while it lasted.
One end of the George Snow Isham 60 foot ballroom.
Vintage chronicler of Chicago society Arthur Meeker, a former Miss Hinman dancing class pupil, wrote, “At one end of the room there was a platform, from which we were subjected to the critical stares of our mothers…who waited to reclaim us as we marched out sedately two-by-two at the close of the proceedings.”
Another view of the ballroom following the conversion of the mansion to individual condominiums. The immense space was transformed into a lobby-size living room.
Henry Porter Isham continued the family tradition with Northwestern Memorial Hospital as a long-time director and board president.
Clearing Industrial District, one of the nation’s first industrial real estate firms, was inherited by George and Katherine’s son, Henry Porter Isham, placing the family in the tangled history of Midway Airport and bringing another historic figure into the Isham orbit.
Long John Wentworth, the six-foot-six-inch one time Chicago mayor.
The South West Side property of Clearing was a portion of the 4700 acres once owned by the legendary “giant” Long John Wentworth decades before it came to Henry Isham through his Porter grandfather, who created the Chicago Clearing and Transfer Company in the early 1900’s. Nearly one hundred industries occupied the district, which was annexed to the city a century ago. Midway Airport now sits on a portion of the property.
Watch for Classic Chicago Publisher Megan McKinney’s next segment on this distinguished Chicago family: The Legal Ishams.
Edited by Amanda K. O’Brien
Author Photo by Robert F. Carl