Needham History Center & Museum

Two Local Boys Make Good

In the early 19th century, most Needham farm boys stayed on the farm – and the Fisher farm had been pretty good for more than a century. But brothers Alvan and John Dix Fisher wanted more.

As you travel south along Central Avenue into Dover, you pass a small street called Fisher Street, and then cross over an ancient (and narrow!) bridge whose official name is Fisher’s Bridge.  Given the logic of place-names in old colonial towns, you can be sure that you are crossing land that once belonged to the Fisher family.

The Fishers first came to Dedham from Syleham, in Suffolk, England sometime in the 1630s or 40s.  The family owned land on the Dedham North Parish (Needham) side of the Charles River as early as 1650, if not before.  John Fisher was the Captain of the first militia formed in the new town of Needham, and is buried in the old Cemetery.  His son, also John, purchased the former Wheaton farm of 50 acres along what is now Central Avenue, Fisher Street, and the Charles River.  Both John Fishers, father and son, were signers of the Dedham Farmers’ Petition of 1711 that separated Needham from Dedham. Numerous Fisher descendants served the town well in many capacities, from Selectmen to Sealers of Weights and Measures, and everything in between.

Although the family overall is famous in Needham, two of its members are famous world-wide – artist Alvan Fisher and his brother Dr. John Dix Fisher.

Alvan Fisher (1792-1863) was the fourth of the six sons of Aaron and Lucy Fisher.  He was born and raised on the Fisher Street property.  When Fisher was around 15 years old, his parents moved the family to Dedham, so Dedham claims him as a native son – but we know the truth.

Alvan Fisher's painting "Fisherman by a Waterfall" (circa 1830)
Alvan Fisher, “Fisherman by a Waterfall” (circa 1830) in the collections of the Needham History Center.

At the age of 18, Fisher moved to Boston to apprentice with the painter John Ritto Penniman, an apprentice of Gilbert Stuart and an important artist in the Boston establishment.  With Penniman, he pursued a wide range of projects, from formal portraits to carriage painting and commercial signs. At the age of twenty, he opened his own studio in Boston.  From his studio he painted portraits, animal portraits, decorative panels, and was a pioneer in American landscape painting. Several works were also turned into engravings and received wide sale, including his series on Harvard Yard; and his views of Lafayette’s Paris estate Chateau La Grange, which was produced to coincide with Lafayette’s American tour in 1824 and were popular souvenirs of the visit. 

Fisher and his family returned to Dedham in 1850, to the family house on School Street, and established a new studio.  There his work focused on landscapes, primarily of New England and New York state.  The American middle class was rising, and there was an increasing demand for paintings, especially landscapes, as a sign of a family’s prosperity.  Fisher’s use of light and his preference for scenes of wild nature mark him as one of the earliest painters of what became known as the Hudson River School.  He died in Dedham in 1863 and is buried in the old cemetery.  The Needham History Center owns one of his landscapes, Fisherman by a Waterfall (circa 1830), as well as a set of the La Grange lithographs.

Alvan Fisher’s youngest brother, Dr. John Dix Fisher (1797-1850), chose another, equally successful path.  He graduated from Brown University in 1820, and with the help of his brothers, completed his MD in 1825 from Harvard Medical School.  Upon graduation, he accompanied brother Alvan to Paris.  While Alvan was sketching La Grange, John studied with French physicians, focusing on the progress and treatment of smallpox, which was epidemic in Paris in 1825 and 1826.  He also visited the first school for blind children and observed their methods for teaching, including the use of raised type.

Returning to America, Fisher began raising funds to open a similar school for blind children in the Boston area.  With support from friends and family, and a grant from the MA Legislature, he was able to convince his friend Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe to join him in founding New England Asylum for the Blind, now the Perkins School for the Blind.  Howe acted as director, with Fisher as vice president and school doctor.

Throughout his career, John Dix Fisher was an advocate for medical reform, introducing many of the French discoveries to American medicine, including the stethoscope and the endoscope as diagnostic tools.  He was a firm believer in the necessity for gathering statistical data as a means of identifying trends in disease and treatment, and was one of the founders of the American Statistical Association.  The subsequent systematic collection of health information and vital statistics made possible major advances in public health and preventative medicine in the mid-1800s.

Not bad for two farmboys.

Gloria Polizzotti Greis, Executive Director, Needham History Center & Museum