Delaware County NY Genealogy and History Site

Centennial History of Delaware County, New York : 1797-1897
edited by David Murray, LL.D.

Transcribed by Tamara Sanford


IT is a puzzle to any one to understand how the early settlers in this and other counties got on so well without doctors or with such very poor doctors. In the early, history of the colonies there was no cessation ill the birth of children or in the sickness and death of both old and young. Even more than the usual amount of accidents must have occurred, calling for the aid which only a doctor can afford. It helps to explain this difficulty, when we remember that the pioneers who migrated into the new settlements of America were mostly young and well and strong. The old and feeble would not undertaken so perilous an enterprise. And though nothing could prevent the well from becoming sick, and the sick from dying, the danger from such sickness and death would be much less than in the old communities from which they came.

It must, however, be taken for granted that nature performed most of the cures in those early days as indeed she probably does still. Doctors stood by then as now and administered what they deemed very important remedies, but which after all had but little to do with the cures which nature wrought out by her own medicaments. In the 17th and 18th centuries, when most of the colonizing in America took place, medical science was in a most defective condition even in progressive nations like England and Holland. The medical theories which then prevailed have long since been abandoned, and most of the remedies which were then relied on have given place to others. Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes in an address delivered in 1860 makes some trenchant remarks concerning the remedies which even then were in use. He says: Throw out opium which the Creator himself seems to prescribe; throw out a few of the specifics* which our art did not discover and is hardly needed to apply; throw out wine which is a food, and the vapors which produce the miracle of anaesthesia, and I firmly believe that if the whole materia medica, as now used, could be sunk to the bottom of the sea, it would be all the better for mankind, and all the worse for the fishes." ** (*He names among these specifies: Cinchona, Mercury, Arsenic, Colchicum, Sulphur and Iron). (** Carrents and Counter-currents, pp. 38, 39).

The chief resource of the pioneer families in all that pertained to sickness and wounds was the skill of the mother. She had inherited from her ancestors a knowledge of all the common diseases which were liable to attack her children, and she kept on hand a supply of the medicines which were thought to be the specific remedies for them. If there were cuts or bruises or burns within her domain, she knew how to stop the bleeding, soothe the pain and care for the wounds until they were healed. There were occasions, which were beyond or apparently beyond, the resources, of such homely skill. And there is no doubt that in some such cases death or deformity were the results, which a more trained skill and a more penetrating diagnosis might have warded off.

Besides the mother's skill there was in almost every settlement some man or woman of more than common reputation for curing diseases or healing obstinate wounds and sores. It was commonly believed that there was for every malady, whether it was a bite or sting or bruise or pain or fever, some curative plant which nature had provided. Animals in their natural state knew these cures by instinct. A sick dog ate grass. A cat found its cure for almost every ailment in catnip; and all animals of the cat family, such as the tiger, the panther and the lion have the same almost insane liking for this plant. Many animals, it was believed, had an instinctive knowledge of the plants which would be an antidote to the bites of poisonous snakes. And it was inferred that men who came nearest in their modes of life to wild animals, would in manner approach them in their knowledge of curative herbs. Thus some old solitary Indian who had become disconnected from his tribe, or some half-crazed old man or woman, was sure to be believed to have miraculous medical powers, and often spent his time in searching for herbs out of which to extract specifies for human ailments.

But physicians were not far behind the pioneers in our American settlements. Dr. Le Baron came with the Mayflower, and Dr. La Montagne came over in 1629 with a colony of Walloons to New Amsterdam.* The French and Indian war (1754-63) brought into the country a considerable number of doctors of a more skilful sort. They came as surgeons of the British troops which were sent over. Many American practitioners and nurses were associated with these military surgeons as so-called "Surgeons' Mates," from whom they learned much of their skill in surgery, and a better knowledge of diseases and of the remedies applicable to them. Some of these English surgeons remained in the country after the war was over, and composed an appreciable element in the causes which served to advance the medical profession in the American Colonies. (*It was the custom in the early times as well as more recent, to deride the physicians of the day. Dr. Douglass, a noted and sarcastic doctor of Boston in the 18th century, mercilessly abuses the practitioners of his day. He quotes against them the declaration of the Apocrapha: "He that sinneth against his Maker, let him fall into the hands of the physicians").

It is worth mentioning also that very many of the clergy in the early times were more or less skilled in medicine. The wants of the sick came naturally under their notice, and for this reason not a few of them were educated in both professions, as missionaries of the present day are trained, in order that they might be prepared for the circumstances of the pioneer settlements. Rev. Jonathan Dickinson of Elizabethtown, whose chief fame was as a theologian and as the first president of the College of Now Jersey, had a high reputation as a physician. A notable description by him of the terrible disease called throat distemper in his day, but which is now known as diphtheria, shows him to have been a physician as well as a theologian.

The chief difficulty lay in the want of some legal requirement for licensing medical practitioners. In the first years of the present century there was nothing to prevent any ignorant pretender from assuming the standing of a doctor, and practicing among an unsuspecting community. The establishment of the State Medical Society in 1806 was the first step taken by reputable practitioners to protect the communities from such mischiefs. The same law which provided for the formation of the State society, provided also for the organization of county medical societies, and gave them authority, through censors to be chosen by them, to determine who were fitted to enter the profession. Within a few years medical societies were formed in almost all the counties of the State, and the medical profession was organized into a compact and homogeneous body. The physicians of Delaware county met to form such an organization July 1, 1806. Dr. J. H. Brett of Harpersfield was chosen president; and a board of four censors was named which was authorized to examine and license those who should make application to thorn. This venerable county society still exists and prospers, and to it the satisfactory condition of the medical profession must in a large measure be attributed.

The Dr. J. H. Brett mentioned above is closely connected with the organization of the county. He was a resident of Harpersfield when that township was a part of Otsego county. And he was a member of the State Legislature when the act organizing the new county of Delaware was passed. He gave up in great part the practice of his profession and was appointed County Judge. He held this position from 1797 to 1810. It was during this period when he was both doctor and judge that he became the first president of the newly organized county medical society. Another of the first physicians of the county was Dr. Platt Townsend who was one of the pioneers of Walton. In 1784 he purchased from Mr. Walton who had come into possession of a large patent of lands along the west branch of the Delaware river, a tract of 5,000 acres. He was a resident of Dutchess county, but a native of Connecticut. In 1785 he removed to Delaware county with a colony of twenty persons, and there established the settlement now known as Walton. He was known as a large landed proprietor, but still better as a skilful and sympathizing physician.

The names of a few other physicians have come down to us in connection with the history of the county. Thus we have, Dr. Asahel E. Paine of Kortright, who was the father of General Anthony M. Paine the founder of the Delaware Gazette; he was president of the County Medical Society in 1816; Dr. Thomas Fitch of Delhi, who immigrated from Connecticut in 1803, and, lived about four miles up the river where the familiar name of Fitch's bridge still recalls him; he was present at the formation of the County Medical Society in 1806; Dr. Ebenezer Steele, who was born in Walton in 1793, and joined the County Society in 1821; Steele's brook is a perpetual reminder of him. To these familiar names we may add Dr. Almiron Fitch born 1801, and Dr. Ferris Jacobs born in 1802, both of whom were eminent practitioners within the memory of men still living.

It may be of interest to add some reminiscences of the doctors whom the writer knew in his boyhood. This will show better than anything that I can write the relations of the profession to the community. The first of these country doctors was a Scotchman, named Walter Scott. He had migrated from Scotland some years before I had much occasion for his medical skill. It was usually said that he never had been educated as a regular physician or had taken a medical degree. But he had been a student at the University of Edinburgh and he showed in all his character land life the culture of a scholar. He had for a time served as a gardener to a practicing physician; and in this position he employed his leisure in reading his master's professional books, and in picking up the odds and ends of his practice. He was a natural physician; and when he settled in the little Scotch neighborhood he quickly came into notice as a most useful and skilful man. In this neighborhood the ailments were chiefly a few bruises and cuts, now and then a case of colic from eating green apples, and as a more serious event a broken bone which had to be set and bandaged. In all these contingencies the Doctor, as he was universally called, soon attained a very notable reputation and won the confidence of all the families whom he served. He was a most kind and amiable man, and an entertaining friend and companion. His figure was spare and tall and slightly stooping. His face was thin and tanned with the sun. He took snuff in the old-fashioned abundant way; and our first warning of his approach to the house was generally the trumpet like call with which he prepared himself for a new charge of his favorite ammunition. His eyes had a pleasant twinkle, and his conversation was varied and musical and thoroughly Scotch.

Such was the man who was called to attend me in a serious accident, the results of which kept me in bed for almost two years. He had infinite pity for the poor little invalid, and I can still see the kind old face as he bent over me. When I began to mend he brought me one day a little book, entitled the Life of George Washington. It was a tiny little book, bound in boards and was a fair sample of what was written for children in those days. I had not yet learned to read, and he told me that when I could read the first page, * the book should be mine. So I struggled bravely for many weeks and perhaps months, until at last I earned its possession. In some unexplainable way I have preserved this quaint little volume, and as I write these lines it is lying before me with my name written in it many times in every possible fashion of boyish hand-writing. (* This is the first page: "In the history of man, we contemplate with particular satisfaction those legislators, heroes and philosophers, whose wisdom, valor and virtue have contributed to the happiness of the human species. We trace the luminous progress of those excellent beings with sweet complacency. Our emulation is roused, while we behold them steadily, pursue the path of rectitude in defiance of every obstruction. We rejoice that we are of the same species, and thus self-love becomes the handmaid of virtue").

The good old doctor at last became infirm and unable to visit the families who needed his assistance. It was a common saying among the circle of his practice that: "There's nae guid a bein sick noo, sin Doctor Scott canna come tae see us". At last he died amidst the universal sorrow of the little Scotch neighborhood which he had so faithfully served, a sorrow which could only be compared to that which pervaded the parish of Drumtochty when Dr. McClure died and was buried, as Ian Maclaren has described it in the Bonny Briar Bush.

Fortunately a young man had been in course of training to take Dr. Scott's place. He was a son of one of the original Scotch settlers of the neighborhood. He had studied medicine with Dr. Almiron Fitch in Delhi and had been graduated by the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York. He established himself in the practice of medicine about the time that Dr. Scott's disability made it necessary for him to retire. And although the proverb about a prophet being without honor in his own country was often quoted against him, he gradually won the confidence of the families who had trusted in his predecessor, and of many families far beyond the precincts of his neighborhood.

The equipment of the office of a country doctor of that day was not specially elaborate. There was in this one a human skeleton, which was hung in a closet and was the terror of the small boys who had the run of the office. The medicines consisted of such common remedies as: Ipecac, opium, rhubarb, castor-oil, calomel, jalap, Spanish-flies, valerian, belladonna, Peruvian bark, gentian, etc.* Many of the medicines were made into pills in the doctor's own office. A mortar and pestle were a very necessary implement, and the energy of the office boy and often of the doctor himself were employed in compounding the pills that might be needed. (* Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes pictures the physician of his early days as he "would look at the tongue, feel the pulse, and shake from his vials a horrible mound of ipecac, or a revolting mass of rhubarb-good stirring remedies that meant business, but left a flavor behind them that embitters the recollections of childhood").

Besides the standard medicines there was always in the office of a country doctor a supply of the surgical instruments which might, be wanted. A country doctor is a poor stick unless he can perform the ordinary operations which the exigencies of his practice call for. He must be ready to undertake them without delay and with a firm confidence in his own ability. Broken bones must be set. Bleeding wounds must be stanched and stitched together and put in the way of healing. Crushed limbs must be amputated, and the doctor must do it or the man will die.

There was an old-fashioned implement called a turnkey which some will remember as being in use for the extraction of teeth. If the patient was young the doctor put him on a low stool and took his head between his knees. Then he cut the gums away with a scalpel, and applied the fangs of the turnkey to the outside of the tooth. May the Good Lord direct him to the right tooth! When all was ready he gave the instrument an infernal twist, which, seemed to the miserable and helpless patient to be unsettling the foundations of the universe. But the paroxysm was of short duration. He was soon released from his confinement, his mouth washed out, and a wad of cotton sopped in creosote inserted in the toothless cavity. Then he was dismissed from the office feeling himself a very much humiliated and demoralized individual, if indeed he was an individual at all.

Bleeding in the early part of the century was regarded as the universal resort in every kind of fever and inflammation. It was a common belief that horses ought to be bled in the spring to prevent a so-called spring fever which otherwise was sure to affect, them. It was the theory then held, that a fever was a congestion of blood, and therefore the appropriate remedy was to draw from the sufferer some of the troublesome surplus. A case of inflammation, as of the lungs, the bowels or the throat, was to be treated in the same way. I have seen a man suffering from severe, colic bled profusely until he grew faint and the pain abated. The lancet was the universal companion of the doctor. He carried it with him on every occasion, and was ready at a moment's warning to whip it out, and draw off a bowlful of surplus blood. It is remarkable how completely this remedy has been superseded. The practitioner ok the present day never thinks of drawing off the blood of his fevered patient. His effort is to supply foods and drinks which will make for him more blood, instead of taking away his already impoverished supply.

When I was preparing for college at a preparatory school I lived for a time with a country doctor, who enjoyed a large country practice. I remember well when he came home from a meeting of the County Medical Society, bringing with him a bottle of chloroform, with the wonderful story that it would render patients insensible to pain during the severest operations. That was the first time I had ever heard of anaesthetics. And we tried it. One of the boys breathed the vapor until he became apparently insensible; and the rest of us pinched him, stuck pins in him, pulled his hair and tweaked his nose, until we had assured ourselves that anaesthesia was no delusion. Thus one of the miracles of modern surgery had been wrought before our eyes.

The most serious medical experience that I remember was encountered when I was living with this same doctor. A child had been born with a harelip in one of the families within his practice. After the child had grown sufficiently, the doctor wished to perform the usual operation to close up the opening. He asked me to go with him to aid him. I did not in the least understand what the operation was like; or I certainly would have refused. And although chloroform was known to him, he did not venture to use it in the case of this child. It turned out to be my duty to hold the screaming baby firmly in my arms, while the doctor clipped off the edges of the opening and stitched them together. I think that experience has served me for a lifetime; and I cannot to this day witness severe surgical operations, even when performed under the influence of anaesthetics, without feeling an uncontrollable repugnance.

The usual method of traveling over the rough country roads by the doctor was on horseback. Sometimes, however, he used a buggy when the roads were such as to permit that kind of locomotion. When he went on horseback he carried a pair of saddlebags swung across his saddle. This consisted of two leather-covered boxes containing in separate compartments little bottles of pills, powders and liquid medicines; and also a few surgical instruments which were most frequently called for.

I close this chapter with a tragical occurrence such as sometimes takes place in the experience of a country doctor, whose practice, however, is mainly simple and uneventful. About four o'clock in the afternoon a boy was seen galloping up the street of the little village, his horse covered with lather, and his face almost .as white as the foam which flecked the flanks of his horse. He drew up in front of the doctor's office, sprang to the ground and holding the bridle in one hand opened the door, and called in with a trembling voice:, "Doctor, a tree has fallen across my father when he was chopping; one of his legs is broken and the other is terribly crushed." In five minutes the doctor gathered together the instruments be might need, including those for amputating a limb, and not forgetting a bottle of brandy. In five minutes more he was mounted on his fleet footed little mare and was galloping back with the frightened boy. The farm was five miles off, up a steep road and then along a difficult piece of crossroad. But the horses took it without pause or falter.

Early next morning you might have seen the weary doctor riding slowly back. He had done, for the poor man all that his skill enabled him to do. But he knew too well the terrible chances which menaced him, and his head hung sadly on his breast and his heart sank with apprehension.

Next Sabbath morning a notice was read in Scotch church, announcing the funeral of Donald Knox who had been crushed by a falling tree and had died from his injuries.

Index to Centennial History of Delaware County

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