Dr. James O’Brien of Butte County

So on Saturday my husband and I took our two granddaughters to San Francisco to visit the Museum of the Society of California Pioneers (and the Walt Disney Family Museum) at the Presidio. What a beautiful day! Gorgeous view of the Bay!

The museum display is small, but has a choice selection of artifacts from the Gold Rush era. Some were common items that miners and pioneers would have used, like revolvers, children’s toys, money belts, a tin cup and a battered hat. Another group was made up of items from the high life in San Francisco—gold and ivory-topped canes, an invitation engraved on silver, a gold toothpick.

One item that caught my eye was labeled “Amputation Kit of Dr. James O’Brien, Butte Co. physician, 1849. Gift of Dr. Rafael G. Dufficy.” I couldn’t take a photo of the kit, but here is a similar one. It contained several knives, a tourniquet with a brass turning device, and a large bone saw about the size and shape of a meat cleaver. (Which indeed is what it was.)

Not the kit that I saw, but similar.

Not the kit that I saw, but similar.

Who was Dr. O’Brien? The only record I have found is in Wells & Chambers History of Butte County, which states that he was the first superintendent of the Butte County Hospital, appointed on August 12, 1858. I wonder when he first came to Butte County?

About nancyleek

Nancy is a retired librarian who lives in Chico, California. She is the author of John Bidwell: The Adventurous Life of a California Pioneer.
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5 Responses to Dr. James O’Brien of Butte County

  1. Liz Stewart says:

    We could check the 1850 and 1852 Census. There used to be printed versions on them in the Meriam Library Reference collection (Chico State).

  2. Karen says:

    Thank you for posting this blog. Dr. James O’Brien is my great, great, great grandfather. He and his wife, Eliza, came to California in a covered wagon with they two daughters, born in Dubuque, Iowa, Josephine (about 6) and Edwina (about 4), in the late 1840’s. James was born in Ireland and went to Medical School in Kentucky. It was a tough trip in a covered wagon pulled by oxen. Eliza and James had a son born during the journey through the Sierra Nevada Mountains. They named him Pius Sierra Nevada O’Brien. (All five of them are in the 1850 Census in Sacramento.) James served patients in the foot hills on horseback. His was not a comfortable profession. Many patients were likely miners who had travelled to California in search of gold. Dr. Rafael Dufficy is one of Dr. O’Brien’s great grandchildren, and was Edwina’s grandson. She had 9 children and settled with her husband, Judge M.C. Dufficy, in San Rafael, Marin County. I hope Dr. O’Brien never had to use the amputation kit!

    • nancyleek says:

      Thank you so much for your comment. I’m grateful to know more about Dr. O’Brien and his family. And just imagine being pregnant on the journey and giving birth in the Sierra Nevada Mountains!

      • Karen says:

        Yes, it must have been a challenge! I had heard stories of their journey’s toughness over the years, but did not know about the baby until recently. Good thing Eliza’s husband was a doctor. Happy New Year!

  3. Pingback: The Young Mountaineer | goldfields

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