Governor Lucius F. C. Garvin M.D.

Inducted: 2008
Born: 1841
Died: 1922

Early in 1922, Rep. Lucius Garvin took the floor in the Rhode Island Senate to move for action on a bill to reduce the work week for children under sixteen from fifty-four to forty-four hours a week. His motion was defeated by a vote of four ayes to thirty nays. As had been the case on innumerable occasions since 1853, when he first entered the General Assembly as a representative from Cumberland, Garvin was on the losing side of a roll call on a piece of reform legislation.

He called for passage and strict enforcement of child labor legislation to ensure mill safety. He also recommended the installation of covers for gears, pulleys, and other sources of danger, a prohibition of cleaning machinery while in motion, and proper instruction on the safe use of machinery. He advocated the reduction of the work week for adults from sixty-six hours to sixty.

Garvin’s life was one of compassion, political struggle, tragedy, and service to all. He was born in Tennessee on November 21, 1841, to educated parents. His father, James, died when Lucius was only four. His mother, Sarah, a schoolteacher, was a first cousin of Edward Dickinson, father of poet Emily Dickinson. After her husband’s death, she moved to Greensboro, North Carolina, where she remarried and bore two more children. Lucius was sent to Sunderland, Massachusetts, to attend public school. At sixteen, he returned to North Carolina and entered the Friends’ Boarding School in New Garde, which later became Guilford College.

Garvin was attending Amherst College in Massachusetts when the Civil War broke out. Upon graduation, he enlisted in Company E, 51st Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. The regiment boarded the transport Merrimac at Boston and reached Beaufort, North Carolina, five days later. Quartered in Newbern in barracks on the banks of the Trent River, the regiment was decimated by malaria. Garvin was stricken with malaria and spent most of his enlistment in the Hammond General Hospital at Beaufort. His treatment involved large doses of quinine, which impaired his hearing for the rest of his life.

While recuperating, Garvin decided on a career in medicine. He began his medical education as an assistant to Dr. Sylvanus Clapp in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and entered Harvard Medical School in 1864. Upon graduation in 1867, he accepted an invitation to establish a medical practice in Lonsdale, Rhode Island. Immediately after opening his practice, he became concerned with public sanitation, work hazards, and housing conditions. Garvin warned that drinking water drawn from the Blackstone River contained many impurities and was the source of much sickness. He identified contaminated milk as contributing to the alarming rate of infant mortality among mill families, where mothers had to stop breastfeeding too soon to return to work. The ravages of tuberculosis also concerned him during the first five years of his practice in Lonsdale.

Dr. Garvin estimated that he had over one thousand obstetric cases from 1867 to 1921. As late as1919, Dr. Garvin conducted office hours seven days a week. Until 1899, he kept two horses that alternated pulling his buggy. He often went on foot to visit patients, and in 1921, he was the only physician in Rhode Island without a car.

In 1869, he married Dr. Lucy Waterman, a recent New England Female Medical College graduate and physician at South Hadley Ladies Seminary. They had three daughters: Ethel, Norma, and Florence. Lucy died in 1898, and Dr. Garvin married Sarah E. Tomlinson in 1907. They had two sons, Lucius, and Sumner.

Dr. Garvin became involved in politics, serving as the first town moderator for Cumberland, Rhode Island, in 1881. He became known as a progressive in the mold of Henry George, championing a “Single Tax” and popular initiative. As an advocate of labor, he spoke out to improve the working conditions for textile workers and endorsed a shorter workday. In 1883. Dr. Garvin was appointed to the General Assembly to fill a vacant seat in the House of Representatives. His first encounter with legislative adversity occurred on March 27 of that year when a resolution he offered on changes to the state constitution was defeated by a vote of 48 to seven. After the election to this seat in his own right in 1884, he introduced a civil rights act, a proposal to establish a Bureau of Labor Statistics, and an act calling for increased hygiene in public schools. He also presented petitions from constituents supporting a ten-hour workday. He introduced a petition for women’s suffrage and sought passage of a nine-hour workday.

By the late 1880s, Garvin had become a vocal advocate of wide-ranging reform in Rhode Island. His fight for reform became a bitter contest against the Republican party under the leadership of Senator Nelson W. Aldrich, Henry B. Anthony, and Charles R. Brayton. The Republicans remained in power by serving the interests of manufacturers and businesspeople who made large donations. The iron grip of the Republicans on the state was bolstered by the state constitution of 1843, which deprived the landless poor of the right of franchise, perpetuating disproportionate representation in the General Assembly. In 1902, Garvin was elected to the first of two consecutive terms as Governor of Rhode Island. In his inaugural address, he called attention to the great discontent of the population because of the unfair distribution of wealth. He expressed dissatisfaction with the neglect of law enforcement, particularly with the performance of factory inspectors who failed to enforce safety and health regulations. He also urged the construction of a tuberculosis sanatorium.

Due to the Brayton Act of 1901, passed by the Republican State Senate to limit the powers of the Governor’s office, Garvin could not make any executive, legislative, or judicial appointments. He successfully fended off a challenge from industrialist Samuel P. Colt in 1903 and was discussed as a possible candidate to challenge incumbent President Theodore Roosevelt in the 1904 U.S. Presidential campaign. In his second inaugural address, Garvin pointed out that unemployment was rising, wage cuts were widespread, and bank failures were frequent. He reiterated the need for the reforms he had proposed in his first term, all of which had been ignored by the Republican legislature. Garvin sent a special message of condemnation to the legislature, stating that bribery and vote buying were standard procedures in elections. To end bribes and vote buying, Garvin recommended the appointment of a commissioner whose only job would be to detect the crime of bribery and punish violators. Members of his own Democratic Party, some of whom were guilty of bribery, sided with Republicans to defeat the proposal. Garvin concluded that reform could not be achieved without another Dorr War. At the twenty-fifth anniversary ceremonies at the Rhode Island School of Design, Garvin praised Dorr as a great man and urged his statue be erected at the State House.

On January 8, 2014, Gail and Patrick Conley, Historian Laureate of Rhode Island, donated a statue of Thomas Dorr to the Rhode Island State House. Most appropriately, the statue stands in the entrance to the senate chamber where Dr. Garvin argued for child labor legislation, shorter workweeks and better pay for mill employees, safety standards in the mills, women suffrage, and better sanitation in public schools. He also tried to end political corruption and urged Blacks to participate in the political process to improve their societal conditions. At a gathering in Newport to commemorate the adoption of the Fifteenth Amendment, Garvin delivered a speech warning Blacks that their emancipation was incomplete.

The pattern of animosity between Garvin and the Republicans continued throughout his second term. He would complain about Republican abuses and call for reform legislation. The Republican bosses would deny the charges and ignore the Governor’s appeal for new laws. George H. Utter, the Republican candidate, defeated Garvin in the 1904 election. Dr. Garvin believed he had received enough votes to be reelected, but the election had been stolen. Utter beat him again in 1906.

Among his many other activities, Garvin was an accomplished author who wrote articles on various social issues. His bibliography begins with “Sanitary Requirements in Factories” (1876) and ends with a pamphlet entitled “The Industrial Conflict” (1921.) While he was Governor, he wrote five articles on reform that were published in Century Magazine, the North American Review, and The Independent. Although it was not built until sixteen years after his death, Wallum Lake, a sanitorium for tuberculous patients, came from a proposal he made as Governor.

His political losses did not diminish his commitment to the cause of reform. In 1906, he spoke of the polarization of privilege and power. He urged provisions for the recall of elected officials, women’s suffrage, and legislation by referendum. He had a dream calling for a thirty-hour work week, free public transportation, free public utilities, and a “Single Tax” on land. But his dream of winning another election did not come true. In 1909, he was defeated in a bid for nomination as a candidate for the state legislature from Cumberland. During the next few years, Garvin removed himself from the political arena. Although he had been a Democrat since 1876, he decided in 1912 to join other progressives in forming the Bull Moose party. Theodore Roosevelt had bolted the Republican convention and had launched the third party. Garvin went to the Chicago convention of the Progressive party and served on the resolutions committee. Although Roosevelt lost the election of 1912, Garvin remained active in the local organization of the Bull Moose party in Cumberland. He was elected state senator from Cumberland in 1920, regaining the seat he had won three times before.

Garvin made house calls on patients before going to the State House. He was often seen late at night, bicycling to his patients’ homes. But age was catching up to him, and he suffered from heart disease. On April 12, 1922, he submitted a petition supporting a forty-eight-hour work week. While the petition was under study, Dr. Garvin died suddenly on October 2, 1922, at age 80. His obituary in The New York Times described him as a “picturesque figure” known throughout the state, adding that he never owned an automobile, preferring to travel by bicycle.

On October 4, Cumberland schools and town offices were closed so people could attend his funeral. A large crowd gathered in front of his office to pay its respect to a man who had ushered over 1,000 of them into the world, treating their ailments while representing them in the political arena. Rev. Samuel G. Dunham praised Dr. Garvin as an “unselfish patriot in the midst of a selfish age.”

Dr. Garvin’s role as Governor of Rhode Island was distinctive. His tenacious adherence to reform principles and his persistent fight against corruption set the stage for later changes in Rhode Island’s political structure. Attacked for his views and denigrated by the press while serving as Governor, Garvin maintained his dignity and remained true to his beliefs. Garvin saw reform as the path leading Rhode Island to a better future. At the same time, his rivals and the press called him a dreamer. Rhode Island is the better for his having dreamed here.

Dr. Garvin was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 2008.

For additional reading:

  • “An Honest Voter is One Who Stays Bought, Scott MacKay, Providence Journal, January 24, 1999.
  • “Garvin for Presidency: Boom for Rhode Island’s Democratic Governor is Started,” New York Times, December 12, 1903.
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