Sunday, March 7, 2010

The World of a 19th Century Country Doctor

19th century medical practices fascinate me. One doctor in particular really piqued my interest - the office of Dr. Alonson Howard, of Tekonsha, Michigan, not far from the Jackson area.
I should like to present here a bit about this amazing man and his practice.
I think you will enjoy it:

This simple Greek Revival structure began as a one-room schoolhouse, built in 1839 in the rural town of Tekonsha, Michigan. It was warmer than most as it was built with 'nogging' - that is, rough bricks placed between the interior and exterior wooden walls to provide insulation, as well as protection against fire and infestation from rodents.

In 1840, the Howard family, including 17 year old Alonson, migrated to Tekonsha from upstate New York and established a farm they called Windfall that was located just behind the schoolhouse, hence the original name of the school - Windfall School. Folks that remembered Howard recalled a gruff, outspoken individual who got into medical practice because of his friendship with the Pottawatomies of the nearby Indian reservation. They taught him the use of herbs and roots in treating illnesses, and he learned to concoct many of the remedies himself. After he had practiced "doctorin'" in this fashion for several years, he earned money to to go school to study medicine. In this manner, Dr. Alonson B. Howard, in 1851, was one of the first to attend and receive his medical degree from the new medical school at the University of Michigan. As a practicing physician, he enjoyed the high respect of the patients he served. But, this medical degree did not divorce this pioneer physician from the Indian cures for illness; he combined everything he knew to treat his patients.

From those that remembered him, a physical description of the man comes to light: he was large yet not fat, his hair was sandy and he had blue eyes. He was almost never seen without his clay pipe, even on one of the very few occasions he sat for a tintype, where it remained in his pocket. His young neice, Rita, loved to watch him mix his powders and medicines and said that his hands would just fly. For such a ponderous man, he was amazingly quick in movement.

It was in 1855, when Tekonsha built a new school, that Dr. Howard, who already owned the farm, bought this particular building - the old schoolhouse - as well.

He remodeled it and created a reception room, a laboratory, and a personal office. While most doctors of the 19th century worked out of their homes, Dr. Howard had his own doctor's office.

Known as "Doc" Howard, he became a very respected doctor in Tekonsha and the surrounding communities. Besides seeing patients in his office, Doc Howard made housecalls on horseback on his white horse he called 'Mel,' short for Melchizedek. He could be seen throughout much of south central Michigan, riding atop Mel, saddlebags bouncing off the sides of the horse. Doc Howard would also ride the train circuit, treating patients between Marshall, Battle Creek, Kalamazoo, and Coldwater, as well as other towns north and south of Tekonsha, and even Jackson to the east.
By arrangement, the engineer of the Michigan Central Railroad would begin blowing his whistle after leaving the Burlington Station three miles away and then watch the country road where the tracks crossed a quarter mile south of the doctor's home. If the engineer saw a white horse racing toward the crossing, he pulled the train to a stop. Doc Howard would jump from the horse, his bag in hand, give the animal a resounding slap on the rear and yell, "Go home, Mel, go home!" As the physician climbed aboard the train the horse would turn around and trot off toward home.
The doctor eventually built a hitching post a quarter mile long along his property and it was not unusual to see horse-drawn vehicles hitched along its entire length while patients waited to see him.

"Patients" waiting to see Doc Howard

Howard treated everything from a toothache to consumption and all ailments in between, and would perform surgery if needed. He charged a standard twenty five cents for a normal housecall, but staying the night with a patient would cost two dollars. He also accepted grain or tallow, or even labor on his farm for pay. The cost of medicine was included in the fee. There are numerous entries of financial transactions: 12 cents for pulling a tooth, 25 cents for filling a tooth, $2 for sitting all night with a patient, which he did frequently. One night, in November of 1853, he saw to a woman about to give birth. He drank black coffee, catnapped, ate heartily at meal time, and played checkers with the father-to-be while he waited for the moment to arrive. After 44 hours, a baby son was born to Sylvia and Jake Newton. Mr. Newton was charged $5 for the delivery, ultimately paying the bill with a slab of pork and a dozen fat hens.
Rural medicine in Michigan during the mid-19th century!

Sometimes his patient approach was such that it would surely shock a psychiatrist of today. Stories are numerous from the old-timers who remember Doc Howard and his bluntness with his patients. For instance, his neice, little Rita, recalled being in his office one afternoon with him when he got his first look at a patient coming into his inner office. He said very positively, "God-dee Almighty, lady! You're on your way to Glory!"

Another time, while examining a patient he knew when she was a young girl, he asked her, "Fanny, are you married?" As she replied in the negative he popped, "Well, you oughta be! There's nothing the matter with you. Go find a good man and marry him!"

As gruff as he was with adults, he was quite the opposite with children. He had such a way with the little ones that they liked and remembered him fondly, with much affection and respect.

It is unfortunate that his life ended sadly. He had been a very active and energetic man all his life. When he was 61, he was attacked by the same disease that killed his parents, known in those days as "softening of the brain." Today, that disease is known as hardening of the artieries. He knew there was no hope and accepted his fate.
Shortly after his death in 1883, his wife, Cynthia, sent the medical instruments to their son in Arkansas, who was also a physician. Mrs. Howard promptly padlocked the building, which her husband had used as his office for 28 years, and it remained untouched and exactly as Doctor Howard left it until 1956 when their great grandson donated it and its contents to Greenfield Village.

The original furnishings, financial records, equipment, patent medicines, and medicinal formula books are still contained within the building inside of Greenfield Village. Wooden kegs, which he himself painted and labeled for his herbal remedies and most extracts, still remain and stock the homeopathic laboratory.
The photographs herein show the office not only as it looks in its restored condition today, but pretty much as it looked in the 19th century.

It is a living testament to Dr. Howard and all 19th century physicians.

Another chapter to help bring the past to life for those of us who enjoy studying history.
I hope you enjoyed it.



Chandra said...

Wow, just wow. I love the time capsule aspect to this story, how it was locked up form the 1880s to the 1950s when it was donated. I wish the house I worked in still had the original furnishings and soft textiles. It would make it so much more real for me to see exactly what the family saw when they lived there.

Mrs. G said...

Absolutely fascinating Ken! Just think of the building sealed with the contents and then sold intact and opened for visitors, that is just amazing! I love how he combined traditional medicine with "modern" medicine, just using whatever works. Thanks for sharing this.

Patty said...

wow what a great piece of history. Thanks for sharing it. Stop by my blog is you have time. I have some photos from a recent reenactment in my area on there.

ZipZipInkspot said...

Very much enjoyed the post; got drawn right in. What a character Mr. Howard must have been: if such a big man had boomed - was on my way to Glory, I might have fainted and gone right there on the spot.
Have been enjoying your blog o ver six months now -- a real treat.

Very best,
Natalie in KY

Historical Ken said...

Thank you all for the kind comments. I had a blast finding this wonderful information about Doc Howard. I will have a totally different experience now when I step into his office!
Nice to meet you both, Patty and Natalie. I have visited both of your blogs and enjoy them as well. Even if blogs are geared toward women, I still find enough interesting historical information.

John Coffman said...

I am trying to find the title of a film I saw some thirty years ago about a country doctor's wife who must collect unpaid accounts after her husband has died. Can't remember just who the actors were. The point of the story was the wife discovering things about her husband she didn't know...and why they were always just getting by financially. It was a wonderful story. Has anyone read or seen a story like this?