Sunday, March 7, 2010

The World of a 19th Century Country Doctor

19th century medical practices fascinate me, and I've always had an interest in the subject. In fact, as a youngster, the doctor on "Little House on the Prairie" (Doc Baker) was my favorite character on the TV show. But there is one real-life doctor from the past who really piqued my interest: Dr. Alonson Howard of Tekonsha, Michigan (not far from the Jackson area).
We had our own version of Doc Baker right here in Michigan! And what a fascinating character he was - a true Victorian doctor in every sense of the word.
The posting you are about to read is not only about Dr. Howard, but it is also about the office he practiced out of, which guests can now visit inside Greenfield Village.
I should like to present here a bit about this amazing man and his practice.
I think you will enjoy it:

Dr. Howard's Office

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

Dr. Alonson Howard
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 Pottawatomie tribe 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. Though "quaint" by today's standards, the medicine he practiced was modern and scientific for his time.
Entering the front door
of Dr. Howard's office

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 niece, 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 farmland in which the old school house sat upon, bought the building 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.
The waiting area
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.
Doc Howard's office in its original location - - see it there? Yep, right there on the bottom left.
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.
Sickly 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. In other words, he combined the attributes of a chemist, apothecary, dentist, physician, and surgeon. 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.

The sick bed in the waiting area of Dr. Howard's office
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!"
Looking toward the front entrance in the waiting area
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!"

Doc Howard medicine
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.
But there is a story from a magazine I found in the Benson Ford Research Center collection of the Henry Ford, written by Rae S. Corliss in 1955 that I would like to share here:
Mal, the white stallion, raced through the blackness of the stormy night, jolting the doctor's buggy over rutted mud roads toward the home of Jake Newton.
After the office was moved into Greenfield Village, a white horse and doctor's carriage was used to accent the appearance of the building.
Jake, who had driven to the Doctor's home with word the new baby was coming, had been left far behind in his own carriage.
"Git up, you blasted white imp, " Dr. Alanson B. Howard had shouted into the cold dripping atmosphere so many times he was becoming hoarse. At long last, he abandoned Mal in the Newton drive and stamped in through the side door of the farm house.
"Well, how's the patient?" he roared as he slammed the door, pulled off an old felt hat and in the act dumped a pint of water on the dining room floor. "Speak up, child, speak up---how's your ma?" he demanded of ten-year-old Lizzie Newton, who had come into the room at the sound of his footsteps on the porch.
"She's feelin' a mite better, Doctor Howard," answered the child, and then as the physician threw his soaked great coat over a chair and started for the bedroom, came the voice of her mother, exhausted from the long wait: "Guess Jake brung you on a wide goose's chase, Doc. I don't feel no mite of pain now. The wee stranger must've dozed off for a spell."
Doc Howard dropped his huge frame into the biggest chair in the room, wiped the rain from his face with a red checkered handkerchief and began to fumble in his saddlebag. He was on the case, and here he would remain until the baby arrived. It was an old story---ever new---and he loved the life of a country doctor.
"Put a pot of coffee on the stove, Lizzie. " he called out into the kitchen, and then added gruffly, I don't want none of that warmed up brew left from supper."
It was 18 minutes before midnight on the night of November 2, 1853, that Doctor Howard reached the Newton home. He drank black coffee, catnapped, ate heartily at meal time, and played checkers with Jake in the interim before a baby son was born to Sylvia Newton at 10 pm., November 4. He had been on the case for a total of 44 hours. Jake Newton was charged $5 for the delivery---ultimately paying the billwith a slab of pork and a dozen fat hens for the doctir's table.
This embellished but true story was rural medicine over a century and a half ago.
Looking toward the medicine room
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 mostly untouched as Doctor Howard left it until 1956 when their great grandson donated it and its contents to Greenfield Village.

Any doctor who keeps medicine in wooden barrels is all right by me!
According to the great grandson, "For weeks I worked (in the office) at times I could spare. I used an old tub to put things in and for taking into the house for drying (there was a leaky roof), reading and sorting. I had reached the last tub full when I decided there was nothing of importance in that load and dumped it in the driveway for burning. Late that night I thought 'you have been careful up to this point, why be impatient now?' The next morning I went out and gathered it all up from the driveway. That tub load was the one that produced (among other things) the first account book of Dr. Howard's. The book included an itemization of expenses while at the University of Michigan."
The family tried placing the office with a historical group that would preserve it, to no avail.
"I tried Greenfield Village, but with no success. Henry Ford had died and they were very slow about additions." After numerous tried elsewhere, "Mother made a stop-over visit in Dearborn and she started things in the right direction. They (Greenfield Village) finally got the idea that we were interested in giving, not selling, and from then on things moved.  It was accepted by the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village in 1956, which probably puts our family in the group of the very few that have given something to the Fords' in recent years."
Dr. Howard's Office was open to the public in 1962.
This is not your CVS or Rite Aid pharmacy.
But that is an original sign of the good doctor's...
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. And some of what he used was skunk cabbage, bloodroot, butternut bark, white snake root, spotted lung wart, juniper, witch hazel, dandelion roots, and numerous others.
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.
I've always felt that to know more of the background story of any historic structure and of those who once used or lived in it can add greatly to a visitor's experience. Otherwise it's just another old building in a museum.
This building - Doc Howard's Office -  is a living testament to not only this Michigan physician, but to all 19th century practitioners.

I like to think of this posting as another chapter to help bring the past to life for those of us who enjoy studying history. And Greenfield Village has more of the past than practically any place I know.
I hope you enjoyed it.

Black and white photographs courtesy of The Henry Ford Collection



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.

ZipZip 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.

Unknown 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?