March 5, 2015

Dr. Robert Calvin Coffey

Dr. Robert Calvin Coffey
"Dr. R. C. Coffey, an eminent surgeon of the northwest who has followed his profession in Portland since March, 1900, having now well equipped offices in the Corbett building, is a graduate of the Kentucky School of Medicine of the class of 1892.  A native of North Carolina, he is a representation of one of the old southern families.  Determining upon the practice of medicine as a life work in early manhood, he supplemented his literary course by study in the Kentucky School of Medicine at Louisville, and was graduated in 1892, after which he sought the opportunities of the northwest, locating for practice in Moscow, Idaho, where he remained for five years.  He then removed to Colfax, Washington, where he spent two years and afterward came to Portland, where he has practiced through a decade, giving his attention exclusively to surgery.  He is fast becoming a recognized authority on this subject.  A master of the construction and functions of the component parts of the human body, of the changes induced in them by the onslaughts of disease, of the defects cast upon them as a legacy by progenitors, of the vital capacity remaining in the throughout all vicissitudes of existence, Dr. Coffey is well equipped for the onerous and responsible duties that devolve upon him as a surgeon and his work has received the endorsement not only of the general public, but also of the profession.

"He is an ex-president of the Idaho State Medical Society, an ex-secretary of the Washington State Medical Society and in 1908 was honored with election to the presidency of the Oregon State Medical Society.  He is also a member of the Western Surgical Association and Southern Surgical Association, and thus keeps in close touch with the advancement that is being made of the profession as research and investigation broaden knowledge and bring to light the hitherto hidden truths of science.

"Dr. Coffey married Miss Clarissa Ellen Coffey, and they have three children, Jay R., Wilson Boone and Robert Mayo.  The Doctor belongs to the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks and the Royal Arcanum.  Of him it has been said 'he is wise in human nature, wise in the laws of general science, wise in social amenities.'"¹

Unfortunately, the life of Dr. Coffey came to a tragic end on Nov. 9, 1933 when he and many others aboard a multi-engine United Air Lines plane they were taking to San Francisco crashed at Portland, OR in dense fog as the plane was taking off.  It crashed into a hillside and the pilot and three passengers were killed.  Time magazine described the incident thusly:
"With fearful vengeance the Law of Averages proceeded last week to settle its score against United Air Lines. In 40 million miles of flying, no passenger had been killed in a multi-motored plane of United until last month when a ship was blown up on the New York-Chicago route (TIME, Oct. 23).* Last week near Portland, Ore. another United plane of the same new type crashed into a hillside in a fog. Pilot and three passengers were killed. Copilot, stewardess and four passengers survived.
"Fog lay thick around the Portland airport, situated on an island in the Willamette River, when the ship took off for its run down the coast to San Francisco. Among the passengers was Dr. Robert Calvin Coffey, Portland surgeon famed for his work with cancer. Across from him sat his assistant, Dr. John Straumfjord, with whom he was flying to Medford, Ore. to operate on a colleague. Leaving the airport the pilot circled gingerly up through the fog, edging perilously near the hills which rise abruptly to the west. Suddenly a wing tip gouged a tree on the hilltop. Down the ship crashed. It broke apart, caught fire. In an instant Stewardess Libby Wurgaft had the cabin door open. Four times she entered the blazing cabin, each time helped bring out an injured passenger. But nobody could save Dr. Coffey and the other two passengers on his side of the cabin. All three were killed by the crash.
"Fortnight ago Department of Justice agents said they were convinced that an underworldling had traveled in the plane several days before the crash, had concealed an explosive among the blankets in the plane's lavatory, for fear he would be searched at his destination. The explosive lay among the blankets until it fell to the floor.
"No kin of San Francisco's Dr. Walter Bernard Coffey, he addressed the American College of Surgeons last month on his method of draining the kidneys through the intestines in cases of cancerous bladder, and on his "surgical quarantine" of healthy tissue during treatment." 
 Dr. Coffey was a native son of North Carolina and the Yadkin Valley of Caldwell Co..  He was the eldest child of Patterson Vance Coffey and his wife, Nancy Martisha Estes.  His siblings were:

Judge James A. Coffey
James Alexander, born in 1872, received his BA from the Univ. of Idaho and an LLB from the Univ. of Minnesota. He practiced law in North Dakota from 1902 to 1910 when he was appointed by then Gov. John Burke to serve as a Judge on the bench of the 5th Judicial Districe where he served until 1919.  That year, the judicial districts were revised and he became a Judge on the bench of the 4th district.  He served there until 1928 when he returned to private practice. He died and was buried in Jamestown, ND in 1957.² 

Third born was Rose Ella Coffey in c1879.  In 1908 she married Harry Eyre Powell who was "a relative of the celebrated Baden Powell who held Mafeking during the British-Boer War.

Vanda was born c1888 but I have lost her.

The last child was Ada Boone Coffey, born Aug. 3, 1887 and died May 8, 1936 in Oregon.  She never married.  Her obituary tells of her accomplishments, both scholarly and professionally.
"Funeral services for Ada Boone Coffey, sister of the late Dr. Robert C. Coffey, were held Saturday with Rev. R. A. Simmonds of St. Mark's Episcopal church officiating. Interment was in Drain, Or., yesterday at 1:20 P. M.
"Miss Coffey was born in North Carolina in 1887 and came west with her family to Drain the following year.  She attended the University of Oregon and graduated from the Presbyterian Hospital Training School for Nurses in New York in 1913.
Her first professional work as a nurse was done in San Francisco.  She served in the Presbyterian hospital unit overseas during the war and later was sent to Serbia with the American Red Cross.  She was also connected with the public health department of New York state and Boston, Mass.
"Miss Coffey is survived by J. A. Coffey, Jamestown, N. D., and Mrs. Rose Powell of Portland."
Ada was buried at the Drain Cemetery, in Drain, Douglas Co., OR.

Dr. Coffey married his second cousin, Clarissa Ellen Coffey on Aug. 9, 1893.  They were in Portland, Multnomah Co., OR by 1910.  They were world travelers.  In 1932 they spend some time in Hong Kong as evidenced by their appearance on the passenger list of the SS President Taft arriving in Seattle, WA on Mar 5 of that year.³  Later that year they were on the passenger list of the SS Leviathan arriving from Cherbourg, France in October, 1932.

Dr. Jay Russell Coffey
He and Clarissa became parents of four children, all sons: Herbert Spencer was born before 1894 and apparently died at or shortly after birth.  Nothing else is known of him.  Jay Russell, born in 1894 at Moscow, Latah Co., ID also became a medical doctor.  He died of apparently natural causes in 1943 at the young age of 49.  Wilson Bryan Coffey was next, born in ID in 1898.  He later became the business manager for his father's hospital in Portland.  Their last child was Robert Mayo, born in OR in 1906, died in Lincoln Co., OR in 1972.  He also helped his father build and operate the Coffey Memorial Clinic.

¹Joseph Gaston, editor, Portland, Oregon, Its History and Builders in Connection with the Antecedent Explorations, Discoveries and Movements of the Pioneers that Selected the site for the Great City of the Pacific (Chicago, IL and Portland, OR: The S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1911), Page 135.

²Biographical Sketches of North Dakota District Court Judges

³Seattle Passenger and Crew Lists, 1882-1957 ; Micropublication M1383. RG085. 357 rolls. National Archives, Washington, D.C.

Hospital photo from

Links to previous blogs on this family:  Clarissa Ellen Coffey; Patterson Vance Coffey; Doctors Coffey; John Calvin Coffey

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