Employees & Staff: Robert K. Stone (1822-1872)
Professor at Columbia Medical College and personal physician to the Lincoln family, Robert K. Stone was considered “the dean of the Washington medical community” and was present for the autopsy of President Lincoln.1
According to Dr. Milton Shutes, Dr. Stone “was selected (though politically unsympathetic) as the family physician and became a more or less frequent caller on the President and his family. Mrs. Lincoln suffered much from attacks of severe headache, and the children had the usual aches and pains of which most children complain. Tad was born with a partial cleft palate, and his pronunciation of certain words suffered accordingly.”2 In February 1862, the two boys fell sick, probably with a typhoid fever. Dr. Stone helped care for the dying Willie Lincoln and Tad, who survived.
Evidently, the President had faith in Dr. Stone’s professional opinion, writing to Surgeon General William A. Hammond in 1862: “I am personally acquainted with Dr. Stone, the writer of the within paper, and believe him to be a skilful physician, altogether capable of forming a correct opinion on the subject he within has spoke upon. I think it probable the disinfectant would be valuable in our hospitals and camps; and, with the consent of the Surgeon General, I should be glad for Dr. Kidwell to be allowed to introduce it.”3
Stone’s political sympathies, however, were much more pro-slavery than President Lincoln’s. “Reverdy Johnson and Dr Stone were talking this morning in my room. They both have relations & affiliations in the South,” wrote presidential aide John Hay in October 1863. “They get letters of the general hopeless look of the Rebel cause. They think if the President will withdraw his proclamation the South would at once come back to the Union as soon as they could arrange the necessary machinery. Stone said if he did so he would be elected Presdt. by acclamation & Reverdy said if he did not, he was ruined. Blind and childish groping after a fact which has been buried. Puerile babble over a ghost of an institution which is as flagrantly dead was Lazarus.”4
Stone’s politics did not inhibit him from asking occasional favors of the President – especially for his wife’s family in Richmond. He met with President Lincoln on the subject in December 1864 and wrote him on April 11, 1865 – only three days before the President was murdered. President Lincoln had already approved a request by Stone’s wife for the delivery of “Mourning Garments &c” to her sisters in Richmond, but the packages had been held up at Fortress Monroe. Dr. Stone now asked that his “frantic” wife and sister-in-law be given a pass with a male escort to go Richmond. Dr. Stone added: “Your Excellency has been so unwaveringly kind & good to my family, that I cannot bear, to think of this new trespass, on your never ending benevolence; but the anxiety of my wife and Sister, is so great, that I cannot refuse to call upon you...”5
On the evening of April 14, 1865, according to Lincoln scholar Harry Read, Dr. Stone arrived at Peterson House shortly after the assassination at Ford’s Theater. The presiding physician, Dr. Charles A. Leale, “was presented as the doctor who had been in charge since the shooting. Leale showed Dr. Stone the wound and described his treatment. Dr. Stone approved. In his report to Gen. Butler, Leale said he asked Dr. Stone if he would take charge and that Stone said ‘I will.’ (Other sources say Surgeon General [J.K.] Barnes assumed responsibility when he arrived.)”6 It’s not clear that Dr. Stone did much for the patient since the other attending physicians had already probed the head wound with their fingers and the President was clearly dying. Another examination was made by Dr. Barnes with a porcelain probe around 2 A.M. At regular intervals, President Lincoln’s pulse was checked by Dr. Barnes. Apparently, Dr. Stone was given the job of telling Robert Todd Lincoln of his father’s fatal condition. He kept watch from the foot of the president’s bed.7
Stone also watched over the distraught Mary Todd Lincoln although another family friend, Dr. Anson Henry, was in attendance in the weeks after the murder. (Dr. Henry had been the family physician in Springfield before moving his family to Oregon.) Security guard William Crook recalled: “The shock of her husband’s death had brought about a nervous disorder [for Mary Todd Lincoln]. Her physician, Doctor Stone, refused to allow her to be moved [from the White House] until she was somewhat restored.”8 The migraine-prone Mrs. Lincoln was probably more dependent on Dr. Stone’s services than her late husband. In May 1864, President Lincoln wrote the doctor: “Will Dr. Stone please send Mrs. L. prescription for one of her cases of bilious headaches?”9 But historian Michael Burlingame noted that the Stones had an unfavorable opinion of the President’s wife. Dr. Stone “believed that “Mrs Lincoln was a perfect devil,’ and Stone’s wife thought that ‘Mrs. Lincoln was insane on the subject of money.’”10
Dr. Stone had a better opinion of Mr. Lincoln, saying: “Lincoln is the purest-hearted man with whom I ever came in contact.”11 The President himself probably needed Dr. Stone’s services in the last two years of the war when he fell victim to headaches, chills and in November 1863, variloid. An undated note from President Lincoln asks: “Will Dr. Stone please make me a prescription for a ring worm?”12 Dr. Stone’s services must also have been employed by the White House staff since John Hay complained that he “doses me remorsely to keep [the chills] away.”13
Stone apparently had the distinction of treating both the Union president and Confederate President Jefferson Davis before the Civil War. According to historian William J. Cooper: Stone was “a highly regarded ophthalmologist” who “called on Davis at least daily” in the late winter of 1858.