The building that houses the museum, archival storage, and shop for the St. Augustine Historical Society is properly called the Webb Memorial Building. Built in 1923-1924 as the oldest purpose-built museum in Florida, it is named for DeWitt Webb, the first president of the society. He led the organization for 34 years.
Born on December 19, 1840 in Clinton, New York, DeWitt Webb was the son of John Webb and Elizabeth Ann Teilleneiss, both of whom were born in England. DeWitt received his secondary education at the Dutchess Academy in Poughkeepsie, NY, and his medical training at the College of Physicians & Surgeons in New York City. There, he was a classmate of Dr. Andrew Anderson of St. Augustine. In 1865 he married Adele du Bois. He began practicing medicine in the hamlet of Salt Point, Dutchess County, NY, where he was elected to the New York State Assembly for the 1876-1877 term.
He and Adele moved to St. Augustine in 1880 where he became active in civic affairs. In 1883, he became the first president of what was then called the St. Augustine Institute of Science and Historical Society, and continued in that role until his death. He was an active member of the Memorial Presbyterian Church where he served as an elder and supervised the Sunday School. The Florida School for the Deaf and Blind employed him as their physician on call. He was on the Board of the St. Augustine Free Library Association for many years. Also, he first joined the Masonic fraternity while still living in New York and was a long-time member of the Ashlar Lodge, Free and Accepted Masons here.
In addition to presenting an occasional paper at the monthly meetings of the historical society, some of his research was published in prestigious journals. In the 1893 volume of the Proceedings of the United States National Museum (the Smithsonian), is found his article on Indian mounds, “The Shell Heaps of the East Coast of Florida.” Volume One, Number 3 of the Florida Historical Quarterly contains his nostalgic account of sailing on the Matanzas River many years before: “Old St. Augustine: Her Harbor Come Back To It’s Own.”
In 1887, the U. S. Army appointed him Acting Assistant Surgeon and Medical Officer for the Apache POWs held at Fort Marion (now the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument). He gained the friendship and respect of the prisoners and delivered a paper that year at the Annual Convention of the Florida State Medical Association: “The Indian Under Medical Observation.” Later, the U. S. Government called on him to investigate the conditions of the Seminole Tribe in the Everglades. After Alicia Hospital (now Flagler Hospital) was established in 1889, Dr. Webb was the president of the staff of physicians.
In 1896, Dr. Webb made national news when a huge blob of flesh washed ashore on Anastasia Island. Webb sent photos of the 18-foot-long oddity to Yale University, which identified it as the remnants of a giant octopus. Dr. Webb saved a tissue sample which has since proven Yale’s identification in error. DNA confirms it was part of a whale.
In addition to his brief tenure in the New York Assembly at age 36, Dr. Webb was elected as a Democrat to the Florida Legislature in 1903. Furthermore, he was elected in June of 1911 to a one-year term as Mayor of St. Augustine.
Dr. Webb guided the historical society through its darkest hour: the Great Fire of 1914 which destroyed the society’s building and museum collections. At this time, the book and map collections of the historical society were not destroyed due to being housed at the St. Augustine Free Public Library, where the Research Library is today. The following year, under his leadership the historical society acquired a lease on Fort Marion (aka Castillo de San Marcos). This gave the society space to rebuild its museum collections and an income stream.
Dr. DeWitt Webb died of Pulmonary Tuberculosis on April 12, 1917. He was survived by his wife Adele and their adopted daughter Elsie Tilghman Webb. In the final months of his life, the Executive Committee of the Historical Society met at Dr. Webb’s hospital room. This culminated on April 9, 1917 when the Executive Committee found Dr. Webb “entirely too weak.” The Historical Society had paid for Dr. Webb’s care at Flagler Hospital due to “the unfortunate financial condition of Dr. Webb’s affairs” as noted in the minutes by the Rev. Dr. Barton Bigler. His funeral at Memorial Presbyterian Church was officiated by Dr. Bigler. A special choir of blind students from the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind sang his favorite hymns and Mrs. J. Clifford Foster sang “Abide with Me.” Interment followed at Evergreen Cemetery with full Masonic rites. The Historical Society paid for all the funeral expenses including the headstone.
Written by Charles Tingley
“Death Call Comes to Dr. Webb, A Distinguished Citizen,” St. Augustine Evening Record, April 13, 1917, 1.
“Funeral of the late Dr. DeWitt Webb held Saturday,” St. Augustine Evening Record, April 16, 1917, 4.
Wiles, Doris, “Dr. DeWitt Webb: 1840-1917,” El Escribano, October 1966,14.
St. Augustine Institute of Science and Historical Society Minute Books 1911-1922.
 This is Clinton Township in Dutchess County. Not to be confused with the Village of Clinton in Oneida County.
 For more information on the St. Augustine Sea Monster see: https://staughs.com/st-augustine-sea-monster/