Dr. Harvey W. Harkness: Man of Science

Dr. Harvey W. Harkness

Dr. Harvey W. Harkness

Among the bevy of illustrious men that stood at Promontory Point in Utah to mark the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869, there was one whose life story, from his humble roots in western Massachusetts to his rise to prominence as the premier scientist in California, was particularly compelling.  When it came time for Leland Stanford to pound the ceremonial golden spike, it was handed to him by California’s official emissary to the event and the Stanford family’s physician, Dr. Harvey Willson Harkness.  There were, in fact, several different ceremonial “spikes,” but that Harkness was present and part of the event, there can be no doubt.  His family members still possesses a framed compass with the inscription: “Presented at the laying of the last Rail of the C.P.R.R., May 10th 1869”.  It was a highlight in a life filled with honors.

So who was Dr. Harkness and what was his story?  He was born on a farm in Pelham, Massachusetts on 25 May 1821.  Most sources state that he was the seventh child, however the Pelham town historian and records indicate he was the sixth of ten children born to John Harkness, Jr. and his wife, the former Esther Willson.  His parents were poor and Harvey, who early on showed scholarly inclinations, was only able to attend school sporadically, usually during the winter months.  He was motivated in the study of medicine by the prevalence of consumption (tuberculosis) among his family members.  In spite of his poverty, he somehow gained entrance into Berkshire Medical College in Pittsfield where he graduated in 1847 at age 26.  As part of his training, he performed an apprenticeship with Drs. Barrett and Thompson of Northampton, Mass.

To avoid the malady that afflicted his family, he sought a more hospitable climate, and so, traveling with his younger brother, Martin Kingman Harkness, left his home for Chicago in October of 1848.  It was in the Windy City, then a town of 18,500, that the Harkness brothers contracted “gold fever” and joined a party of emigrants to California, going overland from Rock Island, Illinois and arriving in the Golden State in October of 1849.

He first located at Bidwell’s Bar where he set up a practice among the miners and also tried his hand at prospecting.  He quickly saw the possibilities of greater success in Sacramento and relocated there in 1850.

Another brother, Henry Harkness (b. 1833 in Pelham), followed him to California.  It is not clear which brother was indicated in the following item from the Sacramento Union, 5 November 1851:

“Dr. Harkness informs us that a brother of his, who has just come down from the Upper Sacramento, brings intelligence that sickness prevails to a consid­erable extent among the tribes of Indians in the vicinity of the river. He noticed on the road a number of unburied bodies, and in the huts and woods many who were lying prostrate with disease. The ranks of the aborigines are rapidly wasting away before the onward march of the pale face; and very soon, the last son of the forest will have been summoned to the presence of ‘The Great Father.’”

Harvey practiced medicine in Sacramento for nineteen years and also invested wisely in real estate.  He owned a building at 2nd and J Streets that incorporated additions and alterations designed by the city’s premier architect, N. D. Goodell, another western Massachusetts native.  Harkness was chosen in 1853 to be the president of Sacramento’s first board of education and, later, also served on that city’s board of health.   In 1854, he was wed to Miss Amelia Griswold, who died within the first year of their marriage.  He was emotionally shaken by her death and he never remarried.

In 1869, at age 48, Harvey Harkness retired from his medical practice, enabling him to focus on his scholarly pursuits.  That year, he relocated to San Francisco.  In May, he attended the ceremony for the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad as an editor of the Sacramento News. In November, he witnessed the opening of the Suez Canal as an invited guest of the Viceroy of Egypt.  Though he lived in San Francisco for the rest of his life, he traveled widely, making many trips to the eastern U.S. and Europe and two journeys to northern Africa.  An Amherst newspaper carried the following item about one such trip in 1869:

“Dr. Harkness’ Return—Dr. Harkness, whom many of our readers will remember, was in town [Amherst] over the Sabbath. He was a native of Pelham, and some twenty years ago went off to California. He had the honor of delivering the address and presenting the golden spike at the two sections of the Pacific Railroad. He is now on his way to Europe to purchase a State Library for California, expending some $100,000 therefore.”

Dr. Harkness was most closely associated with the California Academy of Sciences, which he joined in 1875.  As a scientist, his field of study was mycology or the study of fungi.  He amassed a collection of over 10,000 species, which he donated to the California Academy of Sciences.  His scholarly papers were published in scientific journals.  He was elected president of the Academy nine times, serving from 1887 to 1896.

Dr. Harvey Willson Harkness passed away on 10 July 1901 at his apartments at the Pacific Union Club with his nephew, F. J. Harkness of Scofield, Utah, at his bedside.  He had recently celebrated his 80th birthday.  In memory of his service to the schools of Sacramento, an elementary school in that city carries his name.

“Academy of Sciences,” San Francisco Bulletin, 22 July 1890.

“Death Comes to Dr. H. W. Harkness,” San Francisco Chronicle, 11 July 1901.

“Death Writes Finis to Four Score Years of Dr. Harkness’ Life of Noble Achievements,” San Francisco Call, 11 July 1901.

“Harvey W. Harkness, MD, 1821-1901,” Sierra Sacramento Valley Medical Society, at their website http://www.ssvms.org/articles.

“Martin K. Harkness, Forty-Niner, Dies Here of Old Age,” Salt Lake Telegram, 15 August 1910.

“Pelham and the California Gold Rush: Selected Sources,” notes prepared for the author by Robert Lord Keyes, 21 July 2008.

“Passing of Dr. Harkness, The Noted Scientist,” San Francisco Call, 10 July 1901.

“Question: Dr. Harvey Harkness’ Compass,” Central Pacific Railroad Discussion Group, 24 August 2005 at http://cprr.org/CPRR_Discussion_Group/2005.

Trafzer, Clifford E. and Joel R. Hyer, ”Exterminate Them”, East Lansing: Michigan State University Press.



11 Responses to “Dr. Harvey W. Harkness: Man of Science”

  1. Martha Karen Buchanan Says:

    Harvey W. Harkness was my great great uncle. You have on your information that his death was with his nephew F.J. Harkness it was with Sumner J. Harkness who was my great grandfather. I remember two matching hand blown vases my great aunt said Uncle Harvey had brought back from Egypt and be careful aroung them as they were very expensive. I think my great uncle Harvey J Harkness gave them to a musuem in Ca. when he died in 2000 at 100 years old. I also have a book on Stanford University signed by the authours, it was published in 1896, also a ivory and brass letter opener with Siam Sam on it.

    • Michael Castellano Says:


      I would very much be interested to visit with you on the phone.
      I am a scientist with the forest service and my expertise is truffles. HW Harkness was the first truffle expert in western North America and published a seminal tome on these important fungi in 1899. I am writing a book on truffles in the west and I am including biographies of the important contributors to this science. HW Harkness leads the list. I am eager to add some additional information about him and potentially some other pictures of him.

      you can contact me at my federal email


      thank you for your consideration.


  2. camcca Says:

    Thank you for your comments and your correction to our text. Your great-great-uncle was an extraordinary character and one we’re proud to claim as a transplanted Pioneer Valley native.

  3. camcca Says:

    Just learned tonight from Barbara Jenkins’ presentation for the Pelham Historical Society that the house that Dr. Harkness was born in still stands at 51 Amherst Rd., Pelham. Small house, not very different from the old days.

    • Dr. Michael A. Castellano Says:

      I wonder where the picture is this article is from. It appears to be from a newspaper or a science pub? maybe from the academy?
      Can you share that info with me with the date of its publication if known. I would like to get a copy for my biographical work I am doing on Harkness, thanks.

  4. camcca Says:

    The image is pretty widely available in old newspapers and on Wikipedia. I took it from: “Death Writes Finis to Four Score Years of Dr. Harkness’ Life of Noble Achievements,” San Francisco Call, 11 July 1901.

  5. Barbara Jenkins Says:

    Are you talking about the image of the houses or another image? The one of the house from 1900 that I used last night is from the Ashfield Historical Society and needs their permission for use. The recently taken ones and the ones from the Massachusetts Inventory would need a different permission.

    Barbara Jenkins

    • camcca Says:

      Hi, Barbara.
      I’m pretty sure Mr. Castellano was referring to the image of Harvey Harkness that I used on the site. Thanks for clarifying about the image of his house that you used…and for reminding us that the Howes Bros. photos can only be used with permission from Ashfield H. S.

  6. Peter G Werner Says:

    Good article!

    I just wanted to note that I also wrote an article some years back about Harkness, with emphasis on his scientific contributions, especially to the field of mycology:


    This article notes some sources I did not come across in my earlier research at San Francisco Public Library and California Academy of Sciences. I did not think to go over old San Francisco newspaper archives.

  7. Lee D. Harkness Says:

    Well this whole thing is kind of different. My name is Lee Harkness and i have been involved in the renovation of the Erie Train Station in Jamestown , NY. We are planning a celebration of National Train Day and a local paper discovered the same name as mine. The Story is in the May 9 edition of the Jamestown Gazette. We are, of course celebrating the driving of the golden spike this Sat–just very interesting.

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