Minnesota County Histories
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The History of Renville County, Volume 2
Compiled by Franklyn Curtiss-Wedge
Chapter XXX
p. 723-728

"Men most nearly resemble the gods when they afford health to their fellow-men."

In an age when, in the combat of man against man, heroes are worhiped according to the number they slay in battle, it is inspiring and elevating to be permitted to pay tribute to the men who won glory in fighting disease and through whose devotion and skill thousands of useful lives have been saved and been made happy.

"For every man slain by Caesar, Napoleon and Grant in all their bloody campaigns, Jenner, Pasteur and Lister have saved alive a thousand." The first anaesthetic has done more for the real happiness of mankind than all the philosophers from Socrates to Mills. Society laurels the soldier and the philosopher, and practically ignores the physician except in the hour when it needs him to minister to its physical ills. Few remember his labors, for what Sir Thomas Browne said three hundred years ago is surely true: "The iniquity of oblivion blindly scattereth her poppy and deals with the memory of men without distinction to merit to perpetuity."

"Medicine is the most cosmopolitan of the three great 'learned' professions. Medicine never built a prison or lit a fagot, never incited men to battle or crudified anyone. Saint and sinner, white, black, rich and poor, are equal and alike when they cross the sacred portals of the temple of Æsculapius." No other secular profession has ever reached such a consciousness of duties which it corporately owes to the rest of the world. What are the principles which a profession, more profuse in its disinterested charities than any other profession in the world, has established for its guidance?

It was about 2,300 years ago that the practitioners of the art of healing began to take the oath, emphasizing the responsibilities which the nobility and holiness of the art imposed upon them. Hippocrates, forever to be revered, gave the oath to his name. When the Greek physician took the Hippocratic oath, and a graduate of the modern medical school takes it, the act is one not only of obligation for himself, but of recognition of a great benefactor of mankind. The Hippocratic oath assumes that when a man has learned the art of restoring the sick to health he has passed into a realm in which the rules of personal selfishness are immediately abridged, if not expunged; and he is received in a system of principles and rules governing all licensed physicians, and enforced and respected by high-minded and cultured gentlemen - a standard of professional honor so sacred and inviolate that no graduate or regular practitioner will ever presume or dare to violate it.

Robert Louis Stevenson, seeing the life of the medical man only from without, was not far wrong when he spoke of the modern scientific medical man as probably the noblest figure of the age. The noble and exalted character of the ancient profession of medicine is surpassed by no sister science in the magnificence of its gifts. Reflecting upon its purity, beneficence and grandeur, it must be accorded to be the noblest of professions. Though the noblest of professions, it is the meanest of trades. The true physician will make his profession no trade, but will be accurate in diagnosis and painstaking in prescribing. He will allow no prejudice nor theory to interfere with the relief of human suffering and the saving of human life; and will lay under contribution every source of information, be it humble or exalted, that can be made useful in the cure of disease. He will be kind to the poor, sympathetic with the sick, ethical toward medical colleagues, and courteous toward all men.

The true physician is he who has a proper conception and estimation of the real character of his profession; whose intellectual and moral fitness gives weight, standing and character in the consideration and estimation of society and the public at large. His privileges and powers for good or for evil are great; in fact, no other profession, calling or vocation in this life occupies such a delicate relation to the human family.

There is a tremendous developing and educating power in medical work. The medical man is almost the only member of the community who does not make money out of his important discoveries. It is a point of honor with him to allow the whole world to profit by his researches when he finds a new remedy for disease. The greatest and best medical and surgical discoveries and inventions have been free gifts to suffering humanity the moment their value was demonstrated. The reward of the physician is in the benefit which the sick and helpless receive, and in the gratitude, which should not be stinted, of the community at large. Medical men are not angels; they are, in fact, very human creatures with hard work to do, and often many mouths to feed; but there is a strain of benevolence in all their work. From the beginning they are taught a doctrine of helpfulness to others, and are made to think that their life-work should not be one in which every service must receive its pecuniary reward. The physician is a host in himself, a natural leader among his fellow-men, a center of influence for the most practical good, an efficient helper in times of direst need, a trusted and honest citizen. What more can any prophet ask than honor in his own country and a daily welcome among his own friends?

It does not take long for the waves of oblivion to close over those who have taken a most prominent and active part in the affairs of the day. The life of the pioneer doctor is no exception to this law, for, as Dr. John Browne tells us, "It is the lot of the successful medical practitioner to be invaluable when alive, and to be forgotten soon after he is dead; and this is not altogether or chiefly from any special ingratitude or injustice on the part of mankind, but from the very nature of the case." However, the pioneer physician still lives in the memory of many of us, though he is now more rare as an individual than in the years gone by, and is gradually passing out of existence.

The history, written and unwritten, of the pioneer physician in Renville county, as elsewhere, presents him to view as working out the destiny of the wilderness, hand in hand with the other forces of civilization for the common good. He was an integral part of the primitive social fabric. As such he shared the manners, the customs, and the ambitions of his companions, and he, with them, was controlled by the forces which determine the common destiny. The chief concern of himself and companions was materially engaged with the serious problem of existence. The struggle to survive was, at its best, a competition with nature. Hard winters, poor roads were the chief impediments. Only rough outlines remain of the heroic and adventurous side of the pioneer physician's long, active and honored life. The imagination cannot, unaided by the facts, picture the primitive conditions he had to contend with. Long and dreary rides, by day and night, in summer's heat and winter's cold, through snow, and mud and rain, was his common lot. He trusted himself to the mercy of the elements, crossed unbridged streams, made his way through uncut forests, and traveled the roadless wilderness. He spent one-fifth of his life in his conveyance, and in some cases traveled as many as two hundred thousand miles in the same.

Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes has graphically described the old doctor's daily routine: "Half a dollar a visit - drive, drive, drive all day; get up in the night and harness your own horse - drive again ten miles in a snowstorm; shake powders out of a vial - drive back again, if you don't happen to be stuck in a drift; no home, no peace, no continuous meals, no unbroken sleep, no Sunday, no holiday, no social intercourse, but eternal jog, jog, jog in a sulky."

He always responded to the call of the poor, and gave freely his services to those who could not pay without hardship. Who can narrate the past events in the life of such a man? His deeds were "written upon the tablets of loving and grateful hearts, and the hearts are now dust. The long and exhausting rides through storm, or mud, or snow; the exposure to contagions; the patient vigils by the bedside of pain; the kindly deeds of charity; the reassuring messages to the despondent; the shielding of the innocent; the guarding of secrets; the numberless self-abnegations that cannot be tabulated, and are soon forgotten, like the roses of yesterday." Wealth did not flow into the old practitioner's coffers; in fact, he needed no coffers. He was a poor collector, and with all his efforts he obtained but little, and never what was his due. As an offset to the generally acknowledged abilities of the old doctor in every other line of his work, it must also be admitted that he was greatly deficient in business tact. Often content with the sentiment of apparent appreciation of services rendered to his patrons, of lives saved, of sufferings assuaged, and of health restored, he was too easily satisfied with the reflection that he had a very noble profession, but a very poor trade.

Though poor in purse, he was rich in heart, in head, and in public esteem. He made at least a very measurable success of life, if success consists in being of some small use to the community or country in which one lives; if it consists in having an intelligent, sympathetic outlook for human needs; if it is success to love one's work; if it is success to have friends and be a friend, then the old doctor has made a success of life.

He was a lonely worker, and relied largely on his own unaided observation for his knowledge. Isolated by conditions of his life, he did not know the educating influences of society work. He was a busy man, with little leisure for the indulgence of literary or other tastes. He possessed, however, what no books or laboratories can furnish, and that is: a capacity for work, willingness to be helpful, broad sympathies, honesty, and a great deal of common sense. His greatest fame was the fealty of a few friends; his recompense a final peace at life's twilight hour. He was a hard-working man, beloved and revered by all. He was discreet and silent, and held his counsel when he entered the sick-room. In every family he was indispensable, important, and oftentimes a dignified personage. He was the adviser of the family in matters not always purely medical. As time passed, the circle of his friends enlarged, his brain expanded, and his heart steadily grew mellower. Could all the pleasant, touching, heroic incidents be told in connection with the old doctor, it would be a revelation to the young physician of today; but he can never know the admiration and love in which the old doctor was held. "How like an angel light was his coming in the stormy midnight to the lonely cabin miles away from the nearest neighbor. Earnest, cheery, confident, his presence lightened the burden, took away the responsibility, dispelled the gloom. The old doctor, with his two-wheeled gig and saddlebags, his setons, crude herbs, and venesections, resourceful, brave and true; busy, blunt and honest loyally doing his best - who was physician surgeon, obstetrician, oculist, aurist, guide, philosopher and friend - is sleeping under the sod of the pioneer region he loved so well."

"We shall ne'er see his like again;
Not a better man was found
By the Crier on his round
Through the town."

Several of the pioneer farmers of Renville county had received more or less medical education and practice to a certain extent among their neighbors. Before the massacre the early settlers had the advantage of medical service from the Upper and Lower Agencies from Ft. Ridgely and from New Ulm. After the massacre, many of the settlers continued to avail themselves of the services of the surgeon of Ft. Ridgely and of the physicians at New Ulm.

Two of the old-time physicians of Renville county did not live in this county, but across the river in Redwood Falls, from which place they attended a large practice in Renville county.

R. L. Hitchcock came to Redwood Falls in 1865 and started practice. He was a gifted public speaker and was often called on to address audiences at Beaver Falls on various subjects.

W. D. Flinn also came to Redwood Falls at an early date, and practiced extensively in Renville county. Both of these pioneer physicians lived to a good old age.

J. B. Welcome, of Sleepy Eye, also had a few patients in Renville county in the seventies.

Dr. T. H. Sherwin practiced in Beaver Falls for some years, and was probably the first practitioner to be regularly located here. He was not, however, a regular physician, and had no medical education except what he had picked up as a hospital steward during the Civil war in 1861-65.

Two of the early and prominent farmer-physicians of Renville county were Dr. H. Schoregge, who came to Henryville in 1870; and Dr. C. S. Knapp, who came to Cairo in 1871.

Dr. Willis Clay, Dr. Wesley Smalley and Dr. F. L. Puffer had many thrilling experiences as pioneer physicians in Renville county. One incident told by Dr. Puffer illustrates some of the hardships they had to endure in their work of relieving the distressed.

On the evening of Friday, Oct. 15, 1880, Dr. Puffer was called to give medical attention in a farm house seventeen miles from his home. He hitched up, and after a long ride over the dismal prairies reached his destination. When he arose in the morning he found that all travel was completely blocked by a great storm, nearly two feet of snow falling between Friday evening and Saturday night. He was thus snowbound at the home of his patient and it was a week before he could get back home. Traffic was blocked on the H. & D. for over five days. In February and March, 1881, the railroad was blockaded for forty days. The doctors found it impossible to get their horses through the snow, and often they walked long distances to visit their patients. Dr. Puffer sometimes trudged through the snow and drifts for eight or ten miles to attend to cases, and Dr. Clay and Dr. Smalley did the same.

What a picture of devotion to duty is brought before the mind as we see the solitary figure making its way across the bleak prairie. Snow lies everywhere, often there is no track of any kind, sometimes the thermometer is below zero, yet we see the self-sacrificing doctor keeping on his way, his little case in his hand, suffering the greatest of bodily and mental discomforts himself in order that illness might be alleviated, anguish soothed and lives saved.

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