Dr. William Davis Gowen
Was a Medical Pioneer
In Middle Tennessee
William Davis Gowen, son of William Gowen, Jr. and “Miss
Burns,” was born in 1788, according to his 1850 census enumeration.
“Miss Burns” was a cousin of the Scotch poet, Robert
Burns, according to a letter written August 26, 1959 by Thomas
Kenneth Gowen, Jr. of Fullerton, California. Her sister, “Anne
Burnes” was married February 14, 1785 to “Isham Going,”
brother to William Gowen, Jr, according to “Marriage Bonds
of Bedford County, Virginia, 1755-1800” by Earle S. Dennis.
William Davis Gowen was orphaned at about age eight when
his father was killed by an axe “in the hands of a crazy man,” in
Bedford County, Virginia, according to an interview by Charles
E. Gowen, a nephew, in 1904 with William Floyd, then in his
84th year. William Floyd was a pioneer of Bedford County,
Tennessee who was married to a niece of William Davis
Gowen. The assailant apparently regarded William Gowen, Jr.
as a Tory and “slew him in the field.” The widow joined the
household of a brother, believed to be Samuel A. Burns, and
William Davis Gowen and his brother, James Burns Gowen
were “bound out” to their uncle.
William Going, Sr. and Anester Going, regarded as their paternal
grandparents, were experiencing financial difficulties at
that time and were unable to help their widowed daughter-inlaw.
Some of their own children were bound out during this
time and additionally they were having trouble in the community.
On June 25, 1798, “Bedford County, Virginia Court
Records,” Book 1, page 273, reveals:
“Armester Going appeared in discharge of her recognizance
and it appears to the court by oath of Catherine Burks that
she is afraid that the sd. Armester Going will injure her
either in her person or property & the said Armester Going
being here present in court, it is ordered that she give
security for her good behavior for the space of one year.
Whereupon the sd. Armester Going acknowledged herself
indebted to his Excellency the Governor in the sum of $20 &
Wm. Going, Sr. & Isham Going, her securities in the sum of
$10 each to be levied.”
On September 23, 1800, “It is ordered that the Overseers of the
Poor bind Christopher Goin, son of Anister Goin, to Enos
Mitchell, according to law,” according to “Bedford County,
Virginia Court Records,” Book 2, page 120.
At that time William Going, Sr. removed to Madison County,
Kentucky. He appeared in the tax records of Madison County
August 12, 1800, according to the research of Christine S. Agee,
a descendant of Richmond, Kentucky, county seat of Madison
County. He was shown as “one male above 21, three horses and
no land.” In the tax list of 1801 he was recorded as “one male
above 21, four horses and no land.”
In 1803 he was exempted from paying tax “because of infirmities
and old age,” according to Madison County Court Order
Book, Volume C. Anester Going appeared as the head of a
household of six in the 1810 census of Madison County.
Samuel A. Burns also elected to remove, going to Tennessee.
William Davis Gowen grew up in Middle Tennessee where he
had several Gowen and Burns cousins.
He was married about 1812 to Elizabeth “Betty” Moore, described
as a “most handsome woman” by descendants of James
Burns Gowen. In that year the groom was 24, and the bride 17.
He became one of the first doctors in Rutherford County,
It is suggested by Linda Sue Kelley O’Niel a descendant of
Lubbock that William Davis Gowen received medical training
at Nashville, perhaps under the tutelage of an older physician.
The vast majority of doctors in the early nineteenth century
were products of the apprentice system. As of 1800, only four
medical schools existed in the United States.
Medical training began to expand rapidly after 1810. In the following
three decades 26 medical schools were founded. In 1824
Nashville, with 4,000 population, was to receive a new president
for Cumberland College. Philip Lindsley, acting president of
Princeton College of Princeton, New Jersey was induced to
move to Tennessee, according to “Philip Lindsley and
Education” by John F. Woolverton.
Lindsley arranged for great educational advances for Tennessee,
although he was not enthusiastic about the state. According to
“Works of Philip Lindsley,” he wrote:
“You find nothing but cotton, tobacco, corn, whiskey and
negroes in Tennessee, and they’re not worth the growing.
Doctors are made by guess, lawyers by magic, parsons by
inspiration, legislators by grog, merchants by mammon,
farmers by necessity and editors and schoolmasters by St.
In his occasional articles in the Nashville newspapers Lindsley
inveighed also, with much humor and a touch of snobbery,
against tobacco chewing, the wearing of hats in church and the
city’s propensity for committee meetings. He took over the
helm of Cumberland College which had been chartered as
Davidson Academy in 1785.
Cumberland College reopened in 1807 and granted its first
degrees in 1813. Poorly funded, it closed in 1816, was a
grammar school in 1819 and reopened in 1820 with “moral
philosophy, rhetoric & languages,” according to a letter written
August 25, 1988 by Carol Kaplan of Nashville Public Library.
Lindsley saw the school renamed the University of Nashville
shortly after his arrival. Under his guidance the university was
expanded to provide a wide academic range, and medical
lectures were added to the curriculum. By the time of his
resignation in 1850 the University of Nashville Medical
College, forerunner of Vanderbilt University, was the fourth
largest in the nation.
Carol Kaplan wrote, “It is possible that Dr. Gowen attended the
University of Nashville, however the list of graduates, 1813-
1848, does not include him.”
“Dr. Gowens” was mentioned in the settlement of the estate of
James Y. Laughlin who was deceased January 12, 1826 in
Rutherford County. He deeded some land in that year to
Richard Vinson, according to Rutherford County deed records.
He bought a geography book from the estate of G. L. Rucker for
$1.50 May 19, 1827, according to Rutherford County probate
Dr. William Davis Gowen was enumerated as the head of a
household of five people in the 1830 census of Rutherford
County. In 1833, he deeded land to Jacob Wright, according to
Rutherford County Deed Book T, page 622.
In 1836, Cannon County was organized from the eastern side of
Rutherford County, and Dr. Gowen found himself in the new
county. In 1838, he deeded land there to Susannah Bell,
according to Cannon County Deed Book A, page 452.
Dr. William Davis Gowen appeared as the head of a household
of six in the 1840 census of Cannon County.
Dr. Gowen “of Cannon County” witnessed the will of Edmund
Taylor at Woodbury, Tennessee May 5, 1847. He deeded a plot
of land to John Hays in 1849, according to Cannon County
Deed Book E, page 237.
On August 27, 1850, he was enumerated as the head of
Household 13-13, Sixth Civil District in Cannon County:
“Gowen, W. E. 62, born in VA, doctor, 1,500 real estate
Elizabeth 55, born in TN
James J. 22, born in TN, student at medicine
Matilda B. 20, born in TN, attending school”
Dr. Isaac M. Gowen, oldest son, does not appear in the
enumeration. He had married and established his own
household in Cannon County by this time. The fifth child, a
daughter listed in the 1840 census, did not reappear in 1850. It
is assumed that she had died during the decade. Alvin Estill
Lowe, an octogenarian of Rutherford County, related in
December 1971 the story of a Gowen daughter who was killed
in a bizarre childhood accident. He stated that many years ago
the youngster was racing down the steep slope of “Gowen Hill”
on Bradyville Pike in east central Rutherford County at
In her uncontrolable descent she collided with a tree. The
resulting impact produced a concussion, and she died shortly
afterward. In 1851, Dr. William Davis Gowen deeded land to
Henry Hays. In the same year, he purchased a house in
Woodbury, the county seat, from Adam Elrod, according to
Cannon County Deed Book 5, page 385.
On June 8, 1852, Dr. William Davis Gowen wrote his will:
“I, William D. Gowen, of the County of Cannon and
State of Tennessee, being weak in body, but of sound
mind and memory, do make and publish this, my last
will and testament, hereby revoking all others by me at
any time made.
Item 1st. I desire that my body after my death be decently
buried and my funeral expenses be paid and also
that all my just debts be paid out of any moneys that I
may die possessed of or that may first come into the hand
of my executors as soon as possible.
Item 2nd. I give and bequeath unto my daughter, Julian
Tilford, wife of N. C. Tilford the yellow negro girl
named Louisa with all her future increase now in the
possession of my said daughter Julian to her and the
heirs of her body forever, and the said negro girl Louisa
is bequeathed to my said daughter Julian Tilford
expressly for her own separate use and maintenance and
the heirs of her body and that she is not to be subject to
or liable for the debts of her said husband, N. C. Tilford.
Item 3rd. I give and bequeath to my daughter, Matilda
B. Barry, wife of John Barry the negro girl Mary now in
her possession and to the heirs of her body and to be for
my said daughter’s own separate use and maintainance
free from all liabilities of her said contracting.
Item 4th. I give and bequeath to my beloved wife Elizabeth
Gowen the house and lote in the town of Woodbury
which I purchased from Adam Elrod and formly
occupied by John —— and upon which I now reside and
all other properties not otherwise disposed of, of which I
may die possessed of boath real and personal including
my nots and accounts to be hers during her natural life
and to be disposed of before or at her death as she may
And lastly, I nominate and appoint Isaac M. Gowen my
executor to this my last will and testament, no bond required.
In testimony whereof I have hereunto set my
hand and seal on this the 8th day of May 1852.
William D. Gowen
Certified by Cannon County Court, August 12, 1852.
William D. Gowen, deceased.”
Elizabeth “Betty” Moore Gowen appeared as the head of a
household in the 1860 census of adjoining Dekalb County,
“Gowen, Elizabeth 65, born in TN, domestic
Barry, Matilda 28, born in TN, domestic
William 6, born in TN
Fannie 4, born in TN”
Elizabeth “Betty” Moore Gowen died May 21, 1867, according
to the research of a descendant, Nancy Ann Kelly Hargesheimer
of Lubbock. Her obituary was published June 12, 1867 in “The
Gospel Advocate,” publication of the Church of Christ:
“Gowen, Sister Elizabeth. On Tuesday, May 21st, 1867
Sister Elizabeth, wife of the late Dr. W. D. Gowen of
Cannon County at the residence of her son, Dr. James
Gowen in Nashville, Tennessee, closed her pilgrimage
on earth, in full hope of a much better state beyond the
grave. In 1830, if we recollect, we had the pleasure of
immersing her into the name of the Father, Son and Holy
Spirit upon a confession of her faith, and for the past
thirty-seven years our departed sister led a quiet and
peaceable life as a member of the family of the Lord; and
when seventy-eight years old, she left her friends without
a murmur, and with a hope, as to the future, unmingled
with doubt or fear. ‘Blessed are the dead that die in the
Lord.’ May her children and grandchildren still lingering
on the shores of mortality, be prepared to meet our
beloved sister in heaven.
Tolbert Fanning, Editor”
Children born to Dr. William Davis Gowen and Elizabeth
“Betty” Moore Gowen include:
Cynthia M. Gowen born about 1814
Isaac M. Gowen born about 1824
Julian Gowen born about 1826
James J. Gowen born in 1828
Matilda B. Gowen born in 1832
[daughter] born about 1835