Contributed by Joyce H. Munro, Morris Arboretum Archives Volunteer


Dr. McCloskey with son Tommy, circa 1935
Courtesy of the McCloskey family

On a Saturday evening early in the winter of 1932, a newspaper columnist happened to see Miss Lydia Morris at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia. Usually she appeared hearty and hale—“masterful” the columnist described her—but that evening Lydia looked very ill. During intermission, Lydia told the columnist about arrangements she had made to secure the future of Compton, but then cautioned the columnist not to write or talk about it. Lydia died three weeks later and the columnist told all the following week in the Philadelphia Public Ledger.

Lydia’s doctor at the time was John Francis McCloskey, a University of Pennsylvania medical school graduate of 1901, who, shortly after graduation, co-founded the Chestnut Hill Hospital. Fifteen years into his tenure at the hospital, he went to France during the war; in fact he was deployed three times, serving first as an ambulance driver, then surgeon at evacuation hospitals. He, too, could be called “masterful.” In fact, masterful may not be strong enough to describe a surgeon who gained a reputation for tackling dicey surgeries, including surgery on his brother “Dr. Edward,” also on staff at the hospital. When McCloskey made the newspapers, he was often described as, “a World War veteran and former All-American football star at Penn.”

After mustering out in 1919, McCloskey returned to Chestnut Hill and resumed treating his ever-increasing patient roster. By 1929, he was well aware of Lydia Morris’s failing health. But because Lydia was reluctant to speak of such things to anyone, it’s doubtful “Dr. John” was called to Compton unless she took a serious turn for the worse.

The good doctor was not only interested in her health—he was interested in what would become of her estate, the combined acreage of Compton and Bloomfield farm. Insiders claimed she planned to leave it (with substantial endowment) to the Philadelphia Museum of Art; others thought she had changed her mind and was negotiating with Penn State.

The summer prior to her death, Dr. McCloskey and Maurice Saul, Lydia’s attorney, motored up to Lake Placid, where Lydia was roughing it like a millionaire. They went at the urging of the President of their alma mater, who had taken a personal interest in expanding the university’s botany program and establishing a new landscape design program. All were well aware that the Morris estate would be invaluable and perpetually useful, since the university was in serious need of space for field work. Lydia, McCloskey and Saul found a quiet spot at the Whiteface Inn and spent a couple of days hashing out changes to her will, thus ensuring that the estate would be in the capable hands of—not the art museum or the public university halfway across the state, but the private university in the city—the University of Pennsylvania. When word reached President Thomas S. Gates, he expressed his gratitude to the two alumni for their great helpfulness. It had taken six years, but was well worth the effort.

After Lydia’s death in January of 1932, McCloskey was named to the Advisory Board of Managers of the newly organized Morris Foundation, charged with administering the new arboretum. Also named were Maurice Saul and Lydia’s banker. These three who had attended to Lydia’s health, wealth and legal matters were now attending to her property.

In 1951, with fifty years’ service at Chestnut Hill Hospital to his credit, McCloskey was feted at a reception and dinner. That event would prove to be the final tribute paid him by the medical community. Two days later, he died at his home on Germantown Avenue. But the city paid him a tribute as well—they built a new school on Pickering Street and named it for him—the John F. McCloskey Public School. Pretty soon, they were calling it the Dr. John School.