Unless the thousands of patrons that stream through the doors of the Central Library in downtown Kalamazoo make their way to the third floor, they are unlikely to know of Dr. Edwin and Mrs. Cynthia Van Deusen. Even if they use the auditorium named in honor of the couple, they might easily pass by the oil portraits of the elegant pair that hang on the wall just outside without reading the accompanying plaque and might never realize that the two were responsible for the public library building being on this site since 1893. And that’s just how Dr. and Mrs. Van Deusen would have liked it. Their philanthropic contributions to Kalamazoo were always made with an eye to avoiding the limelight and quietly improving the quality of the community in which they lived.
Dr. Van Deusen was born in Livingston, New York in 1828. At the age of 20, he enrolled in the College of Physicians and Surgeons at New York and graduated two years later. His medical specialty turned to the diagnosis and treatment of the mentally ill when he was appointed as the first assistant physician at the New York State Lunatic Asylum in Utica in 1855. He held this position for three years.
In July of 1858, he married Cynthia A. Wendover, a marriage that formed a partnership that would last for fifty years.
A Career in Mental Health
After the State of Michigan had enacted legislation to establish the Michigan Asylum for the Insane in Kalamazoo, Dr. Van Deusen made several trips to the city to superintend the erection of the Kalamazoo Asylum and to form public opinion favorable to the institution. He was appointed superintendent of the asylum and moved here with his wife in the fall of 1858. Even though legislation had been passed to establish the facility, financial appropriation in sufficient amount to run the institution had not followed. Dr. Van Deusen helped secure $100,000 to do so. Building expansion quickly followed, as well as new techniques for the treatment of its patients. As was later said of his tenure, Dr. Van Deusen’s studies in neurasthenia paved the way for the establishment of preventive medicine that would leave practitioners of diagnosis and treatment of the insane forever in his debt.
During his years in Kalamazoo, Dr. Van Deusen also served on commissions that oversaw the site locations and construction of the Eastern Michigan Asylum for the Insane at Pontiac and the Northern Michigan Asylum for the Insane at Traverse City.
After 20 years in his post of superintendent, Dr. Van Deusen retired in 1878 because of ill health. His retirement, however, proved an impetus for continued philanthropic contributions to the city by him and his wife until their deaths, his in 1909 and his wife’s in 1914. For 36 years the Van Deusens shared their substantial means in quiet acts of community improvement.
The Public Library
Probably their biggest gift to the community was the public library building erected in 1893 on the southeast corner of Rose and South Streets. For years the library, under the governance of the public school board, had problems finding a permanent home. For a time, it was located in the old Corporation Hall on South Burdick Street, and that was the breaking point for Dr. and Mrs. Van Deusen. The thought of school children and library patrons using the same stairway as criminals led them to make an offer of $50,000 for a new library building if the board would furnish the land. The money was for construction, and only two stipulations accompanied the offer.
One was that a suitable room be arranged for the Academy of Medicine. Dr. Van Deusen felt the library could better afford to buy medical books than many doctors could for their own medical libraries.
The second stipulation was that reading rooms be open to the public on Sunday in order that workers who toiled throughout the week could have a day to enjoy the library.