Charles Hinckley Wetmore was born at Lebanon, Connecticut, on February 8, 1820. He was the son of Augustus Wetmore (1784-1887) and Emily T Hinckley Wetmore (1789-1825.)
By teaching school in the winter and studying in the summer, he attained his medical degree, graduating from the Berkshire Medical Institute in Massachusetts in 1846. After graduation he practiced in Lowell, Mass., continuing to teach in school to supplement his earnings.
Wetmore married Lucy Sheldon Taylor on September 25, 1848; three weeks after their wedding, they were off to Hawaiʻi under the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Mission (ABCFM) as a missionary doctor.
They were not attached to any Missionary Company; the Wetmores sailed from Boston on October 16, 1848 on the Leland and landed in Honolulu on March 11, 1849 (a voyage of 146 days).
The Wetmores were assigned to Hilo on the Island of Hawaiʻi and were at their post by May 18. “This morning Hawaiʻi was in sight. It could be distinctly seen by the bright light of the moon but it remained for the sun to reveal in all its grandeur lofty Mauna Kea.”
“We gazed at it with feelings of deep interest. We know not but this very island is to become our future home. Our prayer is that we may be stationed where we shall do the most good.” (Lucy Wetmore’; The Friend, February 1920)
As missionary doctor, his first duty was to the care of the missionary families, then the natives and after that to the foreigners.
His patients were scattered over the entire island and he travelled by canoe or foot, and on many occasions, his wife accompanied him.
When smallpox broke out in the Islands in 1853, Wetmore was appointed by the King to serve as a Royal Commissioner of Public Health. As the outbreak spread to the neighbor Islands, Wetmore was down with varioloid (a mild form of smallpox affecting people who have already had the disease or have been vaccinated against it.)
The Commissioners decided to build a hospital to deal with the anticipated illness; Wetmore, the doctor from the region, was the first to occupy it. Wetmore recovered and was able to later assist in the efforts. (Greer)
In 1855 he severed relations with the ABCFM and continued in practice upon his own account. He was appointed to be in charge of the American Hospital, where sailors from American ships and ether Americans in need were cared for.
After the hospital was given up, the building was turned over to ‘The First Foreign Church of Hilo.’ A founding member of the church, Wetmore was closely identified with it and gave it great financial assistance and much personal work. (Evening Bulletin, May 18, 1898)
Later (December 2, 1886,) Wetmore purchased and presented to the Library Association the frame building formerly occupied by the First Foreign Church. In making the gift of the building with his ‘Aloha,’ Wetmore “‘hoped it would prove very useful to our Hilo community for many many years to come.’” They moved the building to the library site on Waiānuenue street. (Hilo Tribune, October 25, 1904)
The Protestant Wetmore also had ties with the nearby St Joseph Catholic Church. Wetmore and Father Charles Pouzot developed a lasting friendship. Father Charles was tutoring the Wetmore children and Wetmore gave medical basics of caring for diarrhea, dermatitis, respiratory illness and the like.
At one time, Father Charles shocked Father Damien (now St Damien) by revealing he also learned to treat the wounds and ulcers of leprosy. Damien was much surprised since he didn’t know the infection was present in Hawaiʻi. Father Charles promised to show him a case at the next opportunity. (Hilo Roman Catholic Community)
Dr. Wetmore’s family consisted of one son and three daughters. On February 16, 1850, Wetmore administered ether to his wife, Lucy, as she was giving birth to their first child. Dr Wetmore’s subsequent account of this delivery appears to be the earliest known reference to the use of general anesthesia in the Islands. (Schmitt)
Eldest son, Charlie, was an active boy who assisted in his father’s dispensing pharmacy, the first in Hilo. (Hilo Drug Store was reportedly founded by Wetmore; it was situated on ‘Front Street’ (Kamehameha Avenue.) (Valentine)
Charlie planned to follow his father into the profession of medicine. Their first daughter, Frances (Fannie), also worked and enjoyed learning science in the pharmacy.
When Charlie died suddenly at age 14, 12-year-old Fannie (the eldest daughter) stepped up to announce that she would become the next doctor of the family, taking her brother’s place.
She was sent away to school in Pennsylvania, returning to Hilo after graduation to help her father. She eventually returned to the mainland to get her MD, and was the first woman doctor in Hawaiʻi. Frances then practiced medicine in partnership with her father. (Burke)
In the early days of sugar, Wetmore was engaged with the Hitchcocks in the establishment and management of Papaikou plantation. Wetmore was also interested in Kohala and other sugar plantations. (Pacific Commercial Advertiser, May 19, 1898)
After the death of his wife in 1883, Wetmore, serving as a delegate from the Hawaiian Board, and his daughter, Lucy, spent the entire year of 1885 in the Marshall and Caroline Islands.
Dr. Wetmore died on May 13, 1898. “He was trusted by all. Whatever he said he meant, and his word in business was as good as his bond. He was to the front in every good work, and his gospel was one of action rather than of words.”
“His generosity was proverbial and his services as a physician were constantly given to those who were too poor to pay.” (Evening Bulletin, May 18, 1898)
Several years later, the Lydgate family from Kauaʻi donated a stained glass window at the First Foreign Church in Hilo. The image represents the good Samaritan as he bends solicitously over the almost lifeless body of the man who was the victim of thieves.
“The expression on the good Samaritan’s face is a beautiful one, and the picture is typical of the life of the friend in whose memory it was given.” (Pacific Commercial Advertiser, September 6, 1907)