Robert Smith is a member of Germantown Meeting and a life-long Quaker. He is also a University of Pennsylvania neuroscientist who specializes in the study and mapping of neural circuits in the retina. His research identifies how retinal circuits process visual signals.
When he is not at work, Rob is building a deep and detailed genealogical record of all the Quaker families in his family tree, complete with interesting tidbits about the houses they lived in and the things they accomplished. Sparked by the impact of vitamin deficiencies on vision, he has also written two books on vitamins (one covering vision the other on arthritis).
As his family is all Quaker and Quakers kept excellent records, he can pretty much trace his ancestry all the way back to the first Friends.
Rob, you’ve been researching Quaker families for years now. When did this interest first strike you, and how did you first start to do the research?
When I was a young child, my family attended gatherings of our relatives, for example at the Wyck Historic House (see photo above). I was curious about the history of the house, and how we were all related.
My parents grew up in Germantown, and I was curious about why my grandparents chose to live there. I learned that many members of our Monthly Meeting (Germantown) were related, but I didn’t know how or what these relationships meant for us all. As I was growing up, I heard more about my ancestry, for example, the Gilpins who lived in Chadds Ford (my middle name is Gilpin). I realized that I had many distant cousins living in southeast Pennsylvania, but I didn’t know them well nor exactly how we were related.
The historic houses especially interested me, as houses generally have longer lives than their inhabitants. My parents’ houses and many of my ancestors’ homes are still standing. I wanted to know more about my ancestors’ lives. My mother compiled a nearly complete ancestry to 8 generations for herself and my father. But it only included a few other living relatives. So, I resolved to trace from my ancestors through their descendants to some of my living relatives.
When we’re young, growing up seems to go slowly, as we are in a hurry, but we have many questions unanswered. As we grow older, time seems to pass much more quickly, and we realize that our life is not going to last much longer. There came a time when I realized that much of my upbringing was related to my parents’ lives, and to their parents’ lives. What choices did they make growing up, and how did their lives go?
Nearing retirement, I wanted to learn more about how I was related to my distant relatives — and imagined they would be interested also. I realized that I could extend my ancestry family tree by adding ancestors and at least some of their descendants.
Looking on the Internet, I found many free or inexpensive resources. For example, I found that simply searching for a person’s name, or the names of husband and wife (inside double quotes), will often produce a variety of interesting information about them. I became a member of several genealogical websites. I looked for a way to compile information about ancestors and relatives that would be relevant to my close family but also to distant living relatives — so the information would be relevant and interesting to the next generation.
Thinking about what would interest the younger generation(s) today, I resolved to make a database that would show family relationships but could also hold images, pdf files, and books — similar to the many online genealogy websites. But it would have to be very easy to use and not require a membership in a website or any special software.
I worked out a way on the computer to make a “folder” (sub-directory) for each person and to include their parents and/or children as “soft links” (i.e. “shortcuts”). Then I wrote a simple computer program (“app”) that could parse through all the folders and relationships and generate ancestry and descendant trees. This sort of “family tree” of course is available on genealogical websites — but viewing it requires the special software that runs on the website.
I resolved to make a system that would not require special software to view. The family tree I’ve developed can be viewed with the internet browser on any computer, and each person’s folder can hold any type of information. The family tree can be viewed on a website or can be permanently stored on an archival DVD.
What are some of the most interesting things you have learned about particular ancestors? How do you feel these stories are relevant to our lives now?
I’ve been interested to learn about some of my ancestors who emigrated before Penn to the Burlington, NJ area. One of them, Mary Murfin, was only four years old when she arrived, and talking to the friendly local indigenous people who lived in the woods near her house, learned to speak their language as well as English. She grew up to marry Daniel Smith and served as an interpreter for the indigenous language at conferences.
In 1695 Joseph Gilpin and his wife Hannah disembarked at New Castle, Delaware, and walked the 18 miles to the plot of land where they would live. As night came, they asked to stay the night at a local house but were refused.
However, they were received by some local indigenous people and stayed in their wigwams overnight. The next day they found their land and Joseph found a cave to live in — where they lived for several years and two of their children were born. Gilpin built a house nearby which still stands near Rt 1 in the Brandywine Battlefield State Park.
Thones Kunders (anglicized to “Dennis Conrad”) was one of the original 13 settlers of Germantown, PA. He and his fellow settlers from Krefeld were weavers, and eventually, Germantown became the major supplier of cloth to all the colonies. They didn’t agree with the custom of English settlers to have slaves, so they wrote the “1688 Protest against Slavery”.
The 1688 protest was written in Thones Kunders’ house located on Main St. (now Germantown Avenue). The protest letter was sent to the local Monthly Meeting at Dublin (Abington) where it was considered “too weighty” for a decision and was passed on to the Philadelphia Quarterly Meeting where it was again considered too weighty for a decision.
The clerk of the Quarterly Meeting was my ancestor Anthony Morris (1654-1721), who likely owned slaves. Although no action was taken by the Yearly Meeting (in Burlington, NJ), the 1688 Petition helped to start a movement among Friends to move against slavery. It was the first written document in North America that made a plea for equal rights for everyone.
Do you plan to publish some of your genealogy research?
I’ve made copies of the family tree on archival DVDs that I have been sending to relatives. The DVDs are “archival”, i.e. they are supposed to last more than 100 years (if computers then have DVD drives), but can be copied to other digital media. I hope that this will help the next generation(s) become interested in their relatives and their family history.
Tell us about one of your ancestor’s lives. Is there a story you’ve uncovered that’s particularly meaningful to you?
Daniel Burlington Smith was an important Philadelphia Friend in the 19th century.
He was an apothecary and was one of the founders of the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science (PCPS: the first college of pharmacy in the country, now University of the Sciences in West Philadelphia), and the American Pharmaceutical Association, which is the national professional society of pharmacists. He served as the second president of PCPS.
He was a professor of Chemistry, English, and “Moral Philosophy” at Haverford School (before it became Haverford College), and served as the first Superintendent (president).
His book, “The Principles of Chemistry” (1842) served as a textbook for college chemistry for many years and is still available as a reprint on amazon.com. However, he was not as able with financial matters, and during his tenure as president, the college went bankrupt and had to close for several years.
Smith resigned and continued with his other interests — he was a founding member of the Franklin Institute, the Pennsylvania Historical Society, and the Philadelphia Saving Fund Society. He also served as the clerk of Phila Quarterly Meeting.
He also was a member of the American Philosophical Society and the Museum of Natural History and had an interest in collecting artifacts including arrowheads made by indigenous peoples. I can imagine him driving a horse-drawn wagon from his drug store in downtown Philadelphia, to PCPS in West Philadelphia, and on to Haverford College. In his later years, Daniel lived in Germantown on “Cottage Row”.
As a Quaker and a scientist you wrote this fascinating piece about God and the brain:
For each one of us, the world is large, complex, and mysterious, but for our ancestors, God was larger, because the world’s mysteries were explained by their faith. This placed many of the world’s mysteries in perspective. Christians who believe in the story of Jesus sense his presence and words in their daily lives. Other religions have a similar sense of spirit. Modern knowledge allows us to redefine this relationship. Our ancestors’ God still exists for us in nearly the same form, because our inner lives are very much like theirs. But in addition, we now understand that God is a capacity of our brains, and is part of our mind.
Have your ideas about this changed at all?
This essay is a “continuing revelation” that I first wrote ~25 years ago, and I have continued to revise it.
I have found that most Friends don’t understand enough about the field of neuroscience to be able to make the connection in their minds between science and spirituality that the essay attempts to describe. And my colleagues in neuroscience mostly seem not to be interested. So, I’ve tried to clarify and add details to make the essay more accessible to ‘non-experts’ in spirituality and in neuroscience.
My basic idea is that memories—and we all have of our parents giving us loving care as infants—are remembered in later years as an all-powerful spirit. This is generalized to a God as we grow up. This helps us to find the same caring spirit in other people, which helps our communities develop trust.
We are experiencing a terrible spike in Covid, you study the impact of vitamins on health. Do you have any advice for Friends who want to stay healthy?
You can lower the risk of viral infection, including Covid-19, by eating an excellent diet and taking vitamin and mineral supplements. Vitamins C and D, magnesium, and zinc are powerful enhancers of the immune system and most people are deficient. The recommended doses for vitamin C and D are higher than the recommended daily allowance, but they are safe and have been found in recent studies to be effective. The protocol taken at appropriate doses can lower the risk of infection by 95%. This is not a personal medical recommendation — it is a scientific evaluation of the evidence from studies.)
There is some more detailed information about this is in Germantown Meeting pdf I recently helped to create: http://germantownmeeting.org/psa_gmm_rgs.pdf
If Friends are doing similar historical work and want to be in touch with you about your own genealogical research, how should they reach out to you?
My email is firstname.lastname@example.org