John Thomas Harrington: Waco Physician, Family Man, and More

By Becca Reynolds, Museum Studies master’s student

IRS documentation for opium orders, Dr. Harrington's Waco medical practice
Dr. Harrington’s papers documenting his early twentieth-century medical practice include paperwork tracking his orders of morphine and other painkillers–we imagine this would look familiar to modern doctors! John T. Harrington papers #728, box 1, folder 9.

If you lived in Waco in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, chances are you would have known Dr. Harrington. A well-known figure in the area, John Thomas Harrington, Jr. was not only a dedicated physician but also lived a very accomplished life. He dabbled in a variety of vocations, including oil, gold, and dairy. He also took part in founding colleges and serving on trustee boards (including the Baylor University board, on which he was one of the longest serving members).

His dedication to his medical career is quite evident in his papers, more than any of his other interests. The majority of the John Thomas Harrington papers are made up of medical practice materials that span his many years in the field.

Born in Mississippi in 1858, Harrington began his medical career with an education at Louisville Medical College. However, one medical school was not enough and he went on to both the Medical School of St. Louis and the New York Polyclinic Medical College.

Prescribed diet from Dr. Harrington's Waco medical practice, undated
Dr. Harrington’s suggestions for a healthy (though not terribly exciting) diet. John T. Harrington papers #728, box 1, folder 9.

After he moved to Texas he began building a reputation for himself as a doctor, serving as president of the board of health at El Paso and the director of the epileptic colony at Abilene.  In 1897 he moved to Waco, where his list of achievements continued to grow. Here, he worked on staff at both hospitals in town, organized the McLennan County Medical Association, co-founded Baylor Medical College, and served as the city physician.

As a physician, Dr. Harrington worked out of a home office where he saw patients regularly. Some of these patients even included Baylor presidents. And if you head down Eighth Street today, you can still see his home (currently owned by Baylor University).

But medicine wasn’t everything to Dr. Harrington; he was also a family man. Harrington married his wife, Genoa Cole, in 1884, and together they had two daughters, Genoa and Jessie. Through journals, academic notebooks, correspondence and notes, we are able to get a small glimpse into the life of the Harrington family.

Waco parking ticket, 1930
Even the good doctor incurred a few tickets in his day–here, we have a parking infraction downtown in 1930. John T. Harrington papers #728, box 1, folder 6.

More of Dr. Harrington’s family and friends may also be seen in the numerous photographs included in this collection. Some of the photos have identifications or captions giving some insight into the individuals in the picture. Others are blank, leaving many unknowns. Despite the blanks left by these unidentified photos, they are still quite fascinating and could be of great research value. (We welcome assistance from researchers who might be able to help identify people in these early Waco/Texas photos!)

These documents and photographs that make up the Harrington papers are a testimony to the impact he made in Waco throughout his lifetime. Through his position as city physician, he made a great contribution to the public, and the greeting cards, invitations, and programs included in his papers illustrate his high level of involvement with the community.

The Texas Collection has the privilege of preserving Dr. Harrington’s documented life, and for all those interested in studying a noteworthy physician of Waco, this collection would be an excellent resource.

Guest blogger Becca Reynolds processed the Harrington papers as a student in Dr. Julie Holcomb’s spring 2014 Archival Collections and Museums class. Reynolds, who holds a B.A. in History from Azusa Pacific University in California, will begin her second year in Baylor’s Museum Studies master’s program in fall 2014. She is currently working as a summer intern for the education department of the Sharlot Hall Museum in Prescott and will continue working as a Graduate Assistant in Education at the Mayborn Museum Complex throughout the fall semester. 



  • Charles Guittard

    July 24, 2014 at 5:26 pm Reply

    Very interesting note especially the part about the work with the epileptic colony in Abilene . Would appreciate some clarification of this distinguished early Waco physician’s life and practice, for example, did he have a degree in medicine, did he have a practice specialty, and did he practice homeopathic medicine. Also did he play any part in the Baylor U at Independence-Waco U merger in 1886? Did he give his home to Baylor? What were his contributions to Baylor at Waco while he was on the board? Could you tell us more about his activities with gold, oil, and dairy?

    • Amanda Norman

      July 25, 2014 at 9:15 am Reply

      Wow, lots of questions–sounds like this post did a good job of provoking your interest in Harrington’s papers for potential research! Several of your questions (about his medical studies and other professional pursuits) are addressed in the biography/profile in the finding aid. Regarding his home, it remained in the Harrington family for many years after his death, but his descendants eventually sold it to Baylor. I do not think he was involved with the move to Independence–he was not yet on the Board at that point. Harrington’s Board of Trustee service ran from 1903-1947, which included stints as vice chair (during the 1920s) and chair (during the 1930s-40s), so it’s safe to say he had his hand in many important decisions at Baylor during those formative years–a search for his name in the Lariat proves quite fruitful! Let us know if you’d like to come and do some digging in Dr. Harrington’s records.

  • Daniel Kirk

    August 18, 2014 at 11:15 am Reply

    As a boy in the 1930s in Waco, I used to walk down the trail just east of Dr.. Harrington’s beautiful old home. Each time, I would hear words shouted by his pet
    parrot and I would shout back at him. But my family members have greater fond memories for this great and kind humanitarian. For as the City Physician, he administered to our health without compensation as he did for so many others suffering from the brutal depression. His gentleness and humility masked his greatness in all the other areas for which he was venerated and excelled. Many years later, as a student at Baylor, I often walked by his home again just to relive the joy I found in doing so and remembering Dr. Harrington. May you rest in peace, oh, great and gentle servant.

    • Amanda Norman

      August 18, 2014 at 1:15 pm Reply

      What a great tribute! Thank you for sharing, Daniel.

  • Michelle Harris

    December 14, 2015 at 1:12 pm Reply

    Dr. Harrington is my Paternal Grandfather’s Great Uncle! Dr. Harrington’s father was a physician, as well. Although I do not have much information about him, his brother Milton, or others, I am grateful that there is so much information about him on this site. I am proud to be related to him. By the way, I am also proud that my daughter, Kristen (Littlefield) Jones, also attended Baylor-Waco and resides in that area with her wonderful husband. I hope to be able to visit her in the coming year. It would be wonderful to have the opportunity to visit the Harrington House and learn more about his life. Thank you for ALL the information shared and the interest in keeping his memory and contributions alive!

    • Amanda Norman

      December 14, 2015 at 2:14 pm Reply

      Hi Michelle, thanks for commenting! We’re glad the post helped you learn more about your family history. If you visit Waco and are interested in seeing some of Dr. Harrington’s papers, we’d be happy to pull them for you–just let us know!

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