Thursday, August 31, 2023

Dr. Asahel Clapp - New Albany Indiana Paleontologist


Dr. Asahel Clapp was the first medical doctor in New Albany, Indiana USA. He was a noted weather observer, botanist, and mineralogist/paleontologist. I became aware of him after reading Albert Koch's book about his visit to America in 1844-1846. Koch visited Clapp a number of times in 1844 and they collected fossils at the Falls of the Ohio.

2024 UPDATE: Researcher Michael Homoya was kind enough to let me know that the picture I had posted as Dr. Asahel Clapp is really that of Asa Clapp (1762-1848) who was Portland, Maine's wealthiest landowner in the early 1800s. The circa 1825 painting is by Boston artist Thomas Badger (1792-1868). Learn more at Asa Clapp, Portland, ca. 1825 - Maine Memory Network. Michael Homoya wrote the 1991 article for Outdoor Indiana entitled "Indiana's First Resident Botanist: The Contributions of Dr. Asahel Clapp".

Early Life

Asahel Clapp was born in Vermont [a number of sources list it as Hubbardstown, Massachusetts where his parents lived. Vermont state records show he was born there where his mother was from. I speculate she went back to her parents home to give birth.] in October 5, 1792. He trained under Dr. Benjamin Chandler of St. Albans, Vermont and did not graduate from a medical school. 

In 1817, he traveled to New Albany, Indiana and stayed with one of the founding brothers of the town Joel Scribner (1792-1823). A few years later on September 30, 1819, he married Joel's 17 year old daughter, Mary Lucinda Scribner (1894-1821) who died not long after. In 1822, he married the widow of Nathaniel Scribner (?-1818) an Elizabeth Edwards Scribner (1792-1872) who had already had a daughter Lucinda Ann Scribner Shipman (1819-1894). They had the following children: William Augustus Clapp (1822-1900), Theodore Franklin Clapp (1824-1826), John Edmonds Clapp (1825-1836), Franklin Theodore Clapp (1827-1828), Esther Elizabeth Clapp (1829-1830), Asahel Clapp Jr. (1830-1832) and Mary Elizabeth Clapp (1832-1881). Sadly, only two of Dr. Clapp's seven children made it adulthood.

New Albany Years

Dr. Clapp built one of the first brick houses in New Albany and located it on Main Street. The household was in the upper levels while is practice was on the first floor. The first lodge of the fraternity of Free Masons, known as Ziff lodge, No. 8 was organized by Dr. Clapp on September 14, 1818. He was chosen as the first worshipful master. 1820 he was elected president of the Medical Society of Indiana. Also this year he was the first fire chief of the 1st volunteer New Albany Fire Company.

Dr. Asahel Clapp house on 114 East Main Street of New Albany, Indiana taken around 1920. Image by Robert Green of picture at New Albany Historical Preservation Society.

His diary shows accounts of three long trips taken in the years 1831, 1833, and 1835. One of which he visited Professor Benjamin Silliman at Yale University. In 1839, the Louisville Medical Institute conferred upon him an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Medicine.

Diary Entries

His diary was kept continuously from April 1819 till a few days before his death in December of 1862. Each entry is started with a weather report, thermometer & barometer reading. As result the U.S. National Weather Service in Louisville, Kentucky incorporated his weather data into their reference data for the years 1819-1862.

January 1842 wrote letter to Dr. David Dale Owen (1807-1860) & Professor Benjamin Silliman (1779-1864)

September 1842 wrote Dr. James Hall (1811-1898)

October 19, 1842 Visited Falls with Mr. Howe

October 21 1842 Dr. Cobb to Charlestown and next day geologized on Pleasant Run in Charlestown & Sam'l Work's on Ohio river joined by Mr. George Graham collected fossils on Ball Knob and mineral spring.

Nov 6 wrote Dr. Owen

Nov 9 Prof. Henry Rogers (1808-1866) of Philadelphia state geologist spent day and on 11th visited the Falls with him

Nov 26 left box of fossils at Bushnell & Plumer's for Dr. D.D. Owen

Sun Sept 15, 1844 Fair weather, went to the falls and visited Mr. Albert Koch (1804-1862) at Jeffersonville.

Friday Sept 20 - Visited Mr. Koch at Jeffersonville.

Oct 5, 1844 Explored the Falls with Mr. Koch.

 Oct 29, 1844 Went up the falls and visited Mr. Koch.

1849 Visit by Charles Lyell (1797-1875)

Dr. Clapp presented A Synopsis; or Systematic Catalogue of the Medicinal Plants of the United States at American Medical Association in May 1852. Published a book in 222 page form by T.K and P.G. Collins printers of Philadelphia in 1852. In which Dr. Clapp writes on page 7, "In giving the localities of plants, vicinity of New Albany denotes the plants found within twenty miles of this place, and on the north side of the Ohio River; that is, a semicircle of  twenty miles radius. Within the last twenty years, I have collected and determined in this locality upwards of nine hundred species of flowering and filicoid plants, of which three hundred and thirteen have reputed medicinal properties, and are included in this synopsis."


Asahel Clapp died at his home on Main Street in New Albany, Indiana on the morning of December 17, 1862 after a brief illness. He was buried a Fairview Cemetery in New Albany.


His house still stands in New Albany Indiana. The weather data in his diary was used by the National Weather Service for the years he recorded in. His notes in one of his botany books was on display in 2009 at the Lilly Library at Indiana University for an exhibit. Some of his plant specimens might still be at Purdue University and in the Smithsonian. In the 1930s, Indianapolis Star columnist Kate Milner Rabb published parts of his diary letting readers know what early Hoosier life was like in the state of Indiana.

Karl Rominger named a species of coral fossil after him called Michelinia clappi. It is not clear where his mineral or fossil collections ended up.

His son William who he helped train as a doctor, took over his practice and served during the American Civil War with Indiana 38th as a surgeon. He continued to be a doctor for the New Albany area until his death in 1900.


Journalist Kate Milner Rabb (1866-1937) started writing column "The Hoosier Listening Post". The newspaper wrote this about her July 5, 1937 in her death announcement, "In writing and personal contact, she made life brighter and happier with a charm that is deemed typical of Hoosier neighborliness. Mrs. Rabb occupied such a peculiar niche as a reflector of Indiana's past that her place cannot be filled. Her cheery visits to The Star bringing "copy" for the "Listening Post" will be sadly missed by members of the staff who held her in deepest esteem."