EARLY SOUTHEAST TEXAS "DOCS" WERE MEDICAL MEN OF IRON
By W. T. Block
Reprinted from Beaumont ENTERPRISE-JOURNAL, November 9, 1980
No stretch of the Lone Star State bears a history more exciting or romantic than does that region of about ten counties comprising extreme Southeast Texas. Yet the story of its frontier saddlebag physicians remains largely unrecorded and unheralded to the present day. Only recently, the writer learned from the office of the Jefferson County Medical Society that that association maintains no biographical sketches of its deceased former members.
Although many frontier doctors were armed with the best medical knowledge that was available in their day and age, their medical practices were extremely limited by the sparseness of population, primitive and slow transportation, and a frontier overproductive of epidemics and violence. Hence, it is no wonder that the time required to visit a rural patient and return might consume 24 hours. Too, medicine alone would rarely support a physician in that frontier era, and most of them had to combine medical practice with merchandising, land speculation, or some other resource, usually farming, in order to survive, and some even gave up medicine entirely.
The earliest saddlebag 'doc' was John A. Veatch of Jasper County, who held two Mexican land grants, one at Sour Lake and another at Spindletop. He had just completed the survey of the McGaffey league at Sabine Pass when the Texas Revolution broke out, and in November, 1835, he hurried to San Antonio de Bexar to fight in the retaking of that city by Col. Ben Milam.
Chemist, surveyor, botanist, and teacher, Dr. Veatch went to California during the gold rush of 1849, later discovering the massive borax deposits there in the Mojave Desert. In 1870, he was appointed to occupy the chair of chemistry at Williamette University in Oregon, where he also died.
Dr. S. H. Everett of Jasper County was a medical graduate from New York City, but he later abandoned his profession in Texas. He signed the Texas Declaration of Independence and served two terms as president pro tempore of the Texas Senate. Otherwise, he was a land speculator, mail contractor, and cotton exporter at Sabine Pass until his death of yellow fever at New Orleans in 1845.
Beaumont's earliest resident physician was Dr. D. J. O. Millard, a brother of the town's founder. From 1839 until his death in 1854, he combined merchandising with his drug store and medical practice, operating Beaumont's first store in partnership with another of the town's founders and also a druggist, Joseph P. Pulsifer. Millard also served as Jefferson County's third chief justice (county judge) and as county treasurer.
Another early Beaumonter, Dr. F. W. Ogden was college-trained in both medicine and law, but he practiced only the legal profession after his arrival in Beaumont in 1839. He was the first district attorney for the Fifth Judicial District, served in the 7th and 8th Congresses of the Texas Republic, and died at Beaumont in 1859.
Dr. Niles F. Smith, the first practitioner of the healing art in Sabine Pass, arrived there in 1839. A lifelong friend of Gen. Sam Houston, he served as an engineer in the Texas army, and in Dec., 1836, was appointed by Houston as the first bank examiner for the republic.
Educated in New York, Smith practiced medicine at Sabine Pass until his death there in 1858, but his principal support came from land speculation, cotton-exporting, and merchandising. He was also a founding proprietor of Sam Houston's Sabine City Company, serving until his death as its local agent. In 1847 he became a partner for a short time with John H.Hutchings and John Sealy, later of Galveston, in a cotton export firm at Sabine Pass.
In the 1850 census, Dr. Joseph C. Danforth is listed as Beaumont's only physician, Dr. Millard always styling himself in the census as a druggist. Danforth seems to have earned his livelihood principally from his practice, having styled himself in the census as a physician, but he was also extensively engaged in agriculture on his 225-acre farm near Beaumont. He lived there about ten years, but his ultimate place of residence, death, or fate as a physician are unknown.
Educated in Vermont, Dr. George W. Hawley was another who combined practice with real estate, cotton-shipping, and merchandising, and became wealthy in the process. In 1847, he and his family left Galveston, where they owned considerable property, and resettled at Sabine Pass, where he soon bought out Dr. Smith's "grocery and ten pin alley." In 1854, he bought 150 lots in the Beaumont Townsite Company and began practice there. By 1860, his and his wife's assets amounted to $86,500, the third largest in Jefferson County. In the 1860 census, Mrs. Hawley was living with her children in Sabine Pass, apparently to manage their interests there and in Galveston.
True to his Hippocratic oath, he and his wife died of yellow fever while nursing patients during Beaumont's yellow fever epidemic of October, 1862, and both were buried in a cemetery that once stood on the site of the now demolished First Methodist Church on Pearl Street.
According to an old account, Dr. and Mrs. Sylvester Mansfield were two others who selflessly gave their lives while nursing patients there at the same time. but a descendent of them later informed the writer that only the wife died in Beaumont, the physician and his young children later returning to their former home in Mississippi. Mansfield arrived in Beaumont in 1857, and soon acquired a half-interest in the "Stephen R. Marble," which was the first steamboat ever built at Beaumont. Mrs. Mansfield was also buried in the old cemetery on Pearl Street. She was a sister to Mrs. Luanza Calder, one of the pioneer residents of the city.
The 1860 census listed six doctors at Beaumont, although the period of residences of three were temporary, one soon died, and a fifth moved away. Drs. Charles and William H. Baldwin, respectively, father and son, were educated in Virginia, but neither remained in Beaumont for long. Baldwin, Sr., was the father of two of Beaumont's early matrons, Mrs. Jeff Chaison and Mrs. J. R. Alexander, and after the Civil War, he returned to Virginia.
Dr. W. H. Baldwin bought out Dr. P. H. Glaze's drug store in 1862, and except for a period of service in the Confederate army, remained in Beaumont until after 1870, when he moved to Dallas and founded a wholesale drug company which is still in business there.
Still a third Dr. Baldwin was in practice in Beaumont in 1880, but his period of residence there was apparently short, and apparently no connection existed between him and the other Baldwins. According to the 1880 census, Dr. Fred H. Baldwin was a 59-year-old native of New York, but nothing else is known about him.
Dr. David Scott was the company physician of the Texas and New Orleans Railroad at Beaumont in 1859, and kept his office on the company-owned steamboat, the 220-foot, 2,500 bale "Florilda." The sternwheeler, however, never engaged in cotton-carrying in Texas and later sank at Orange during the hurricane of Sept. 13, 1865. Scott left Beaumont at the outbreak of the Civil War.
The length of stay of Beaumont's other Civil War era doctors was equally short, perhaps because of the exigencies of war. The sixth, Dr. N. G. Haltom, married Nora Lee Pipkin, Beaumont's postmistress of 1865, and he soon entered the saw and shingle mill business with his father-in-law, the Rev.John F. Pipkin. Haltom died young, and since he is not listed in Beaumont's 1870 census, he was apparently already dead or moved away. The Pipkin and Haltom sawmill burned in 1873.
The stories of Jefferson County's Confederate physicians, Drs. George H. Bailey, J. D. Murray, E. A. Pye, and -- Gordon, would fill a book, and to conserve space, the writer must be more concise than he would prefer to be. Only Dr. Murray was in private practice in Sabine Pass. For the first years after Dr. Smith's death, the seaport city had no resident physician until the young Scotsman, Murray, arrived in 1859. His was a most unusual practice for after joining artillery Co. B of Spaight's Battalion, he maintained his civilian responsibilities in addition to his military duties as a Confederate assistant surgeon.
It being his first experience with yellow fever, Dr. Murray failed to diagnose the 1862 epidemic correctly when it arrived, but otherwise his performance, while afflicted with the disease himself (among 200 patients, 100 of whom died), was nothing short of angelic.
In April, 1863, following the skirmish at Sabine Lighthouse, Murray struggled for 12 hours to save the life of Union Comm. A. H. McDermot, one of the blockade captains, but failed. On the date of the battle of Sabine Pass, Sept. 8, 1863, Dr. Murray, who was already discharged from the Confederate army, rode through Union shellfire while tending an ambulatory patient in Fort Griffin. In order to protect his life, Murray put his patient behind him on his horse and carried him to the Confederate hospital in Sabine. After the war, Murray remained in Sabine as physician and druggist until his death in 1874. Murray had succored the wounded of four battles at Sabine Pass, and at the time of his death, left little to show for his life's work except a $1,000 inventory of drugs and that perpetual enigma of physicians, a drawer filled with uncollected medical bills.
Dr. Bailey, although nominally the surgeon of Sabine's Confederate hospital, volunteered and commanded two of Lt. Dick Dowling's six cannons at the Battle of Sabine Pass. Afterward, he and Murray labored 72 hours, reputedly without sleep, to succor the wounds that Dr. Bailey had helped to inflict. He too dressed the wounds of four Sabine battles (including 11 capital operations after the Battle of Calcasieu Pass, La., on May 6, 1864), and he was the last survivor of Fort Griffin's immortalized defenders when he died in California in 1907.
The wartime life of Surgeon E. A. Pye, commandant of Beaumont's Confederate Hospital in the courthouse, was less exciting, but his surviving letters, published in "Southwestern Historical Quarterly," are virtually the only source of Beaumont's history for the years 1864-1865. Like Dr. and Mrs. Hawley, Pye and his wife bravely sacrificed their lives nursing victims of the great yellow fever epidemic at Calvert, Texas, in 1873. Dr. Pye was then living in Brenham, but in response to a plea for aid, they labored at Calvert until both were too afflicted with yellow fever to stand up. Indeed, "greater love hath no man etc." applies to that courageous couple as well.
Educated in Philadelphia, Dr. William Hewson became Orange's first physician upon his arrival there in 1850. He maintained a store as well as his medical practice until his death in 1867. His wife Mary became Orange's first public school teacher in 1851. For 15 years, until his last illness, Dr. Hewson taught a Sunday School class of 75 scholars long before any regular church services, church buildings, or congregations existed at Orange. His son, Dr. David C. Hewson, continued the family medical practice and drug store in Orange until his own death in 1894.
Another early Sabine physician was Dr. W. W. Bennett, who was in practice with Murray in 1874, but nothing else is known about him. Dr. A. B. Chamberlain, a medical graduate of the University of Tennessee, began practice in Sabine in 1872 and continued as public health and immigration officer until 1882, when he moved to Galveston. He was quarantine officer for six years, and between 1893 and 1908, he served continuously as either grand inspector general or secretary general of the Supreme Council of Scottish Rite Masonry of Texas.
A graduate of the School of Medicine of New Orleans, Dr. A. N. Perkins, the grandfather of Lamar University's longtime (now deceased) librarian Julia Plummer, was another of Sabine's early doctors, whose practice in East Texas spanned 50 years. He began at Jasper in 1851, moved to Sabine in 1872, to Beaumont in 1880, and back to Sabine in 1883, where he was quarantine officer for the next ten years. His private practice there continued until after 1900.
Also a New Orleans graduate, Dr. J. P. Haynes was another East Texan whose practice spanned more than a half century. He began as a partner of Dr. Perkins in Jasper and spent most of his early years there. He acquired a sizeable estate of real property in Jasper and Sabine Pass. He practiced a few years in Sabine Pass, and in 1900 he was still in private practice in Beaumont. The writer does not know the year of his retirement or death.
A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, Dr. Silas B. Turner settled in Hardin County in 1860. He served four years in the Confederate Army, and except for two years in private practice in Beaumont, 1870-1872, lived out his life at Hardin, Hardin County, until 1881 and thereafter at Kountze until his death in 1892. At the time of his death, he was a partner in the Turner and Hooks sawmill at Sharon, Hardin County. Another pioneer Kountze physician, Dr. John W. Cruse, received his degree from the Vanderbilt School of Medicine.
Dr. W. T. Simmons began his medical career in Beaumont in 1866, and court house records verify that he also practiced at Sabine Pass. In March, 1873, he married Mary Long, the daughter of pioneer sawmiller, Davis Long. Apparently both of them died quite young, and both are buried in the now extinct Jirou Cemetery at the Oakland-Gladys Street area of Beaumont.
Dr. Obadiah M. Kyle was another young Beaumonter whose promising medical career was interrupted by death in April, 1879. A graduate of New Orleans Medical College, he arrived in the "sawdust city" in 1871, where in Nov., 1872, he married Helen Herring, the daughter of a prominent local family. In 1872, he became a partner in the firm of Vaughan and Kyle, a cotton-shipping brokerage at Sabine Pass. During the 1870s, in conjunction with William and W. P. H. McFaddin, and William and Valentine Wiess, he organized the Beaumont Pasture Company, a 60,000-acre Jefferson County ranch stocking 10,000 cattle in Mid-Jefferson County, and it was upon land owned and controlled by these partners that the famed Lucas gusher was bored successfully in Jan., 1901.
Volume I of the Beaumont "Enterprise" indicates that medical advertisements were an ethical procedure in 1880-1881. One such ad discloses that a Dr. J. A. Gilder was a Beaumont physician and surgeon who maintained offices in W. M. Kyle's drug store. In a health officer's report of Beaumont's small pox epidemic of May-June, 1883, Dr. Powhattan Jordan reported that he had burned the bedding, clothing, and other personal effects of Dr. Gilder and his family, strongly implying that they had died. Indeed, they most probably had been plague-victims who had hastily been isolated in a pest house built at Spindletop in June, 1883. Whether Gilder and his family died is not mentioned in any surviving account, but he no longer practiced in Beaumont after June, 1883, nor was he mentioned in any further news accounts.
Among other ads of 1880 were those of Drs. Woodson A. Tyree and C. Y. Thompson, each of whom maintained offices in Dr. J. J. L. Gilliland's drug store. A native of West Virginia, Dr. Tyree brought his family to Beaumont in 1878. In 1881 he and Dr. Zachary T. Fuller were appointed to the Board of Medical Examiners for the First Judicial District of East Texas. But the following October, the "Enterprise" reported that Dr. Tyree had chosen to resume his former practice in Virginia and observed of him: "Beaumont will lose a good physician, and good citizen, and a good man all around."
Dr. Thompson settled in the "sawdust city" in 1879, and in Jan., 1886, was one of three phsicians who attended the hanging of Bill Madison in Beaumont. In 1892, he was vice president of the Southeast Texas Medical Society. His length of residence and ultimate fate as a physician are also unknown.
The forerunner of the present Orange and Jefferson County Medical societies, the old Southeast Texas Medical Society had its "ups and downs" during the last century, and organized and disbanded two or three times. Its primary function was to name the Board of Medical Examiners in a district comprised of six counties, certify new incoming physicians who were just beginning practice, and set standards of ethics and fees for physicians. At a Jasper meeting of May, 1881, the board consisted of Drs. F. C. Ford and Stone of Jasper; Dr. McWhorter of Newton; Dr. Chapman of Woodville; Drs. S. W. Sholars and D. C. Hewson of Orange; and Drs. Zach. T. Fuller and W. A. Tyree of Beaumont.
In March, 1892, the board consisted of Drs. Sholars and J. C. Seastrunk of Orange; J. B. Roberts of Woodville; and Drs. B. F. Calhoun and J. S. Price of Beaumont. During the annual election of that year, the following were elected officers of the society for 1892, as follows: Drs. Perkins of Sabine, president; Thompson and Sholars, vice presidents; and F. Hydra of Orange, sec.-treasurer. In addition, Drs. Calhoun of Beaumont, J. Saunders of Orange, and Roberts of Woodville were chosen as the society's censors. The board also "acted on the application" of Dr. T. E. Stone of Beaumont and certified him for practice.
Other Society members of that year included Drs. W.J. Blewett of Beaumont, J. W. Cruse of Kountze, T. R. Ogden and W. R. Callen. At the July, 1892, quarterly meeting, Drs. Roberts, Price, and Saunders delivered papers on the diseases of "Hermaturia Miasmatic," "La Grippe," and "Typhoid Fever."
Little can be added about the early physicians of Orange from the writer's records, except that Dr. James Saunders became the first mayor of the city in 1886. Drs. S. M. Brown and his son, E. W. Brown, Sr., were also in practice there between 1880 and 1900, the latter marrying one of the young Orange belles of that period, Miss Carrie Lutcher. According to family traditions, Dr. S. M. Brown was killed by a locomotive on March 1, 1887, while attempting to save another person's life at a railway crossing.
A graduate of Mobile Medical College, Dr. Zachary T. Fuller was one of Beaumont's better-known physicians, practicing there from 1875 until his death of malaria on Nov. 2, 1890. He served often as a school board member. He left a young wife, the former Mary Gilbert, and four small children as survivors.
Dr. Powhattan Jordan had practiced elsewhere in Texas and in the Confederate and Guatemalan armies before he arrived in Beaumont in 1871. A graduate of Columbia College of Medicine, Jordan soon married a daughter of Mrs. Kate Dorman, the Confederate heroine of Sabine Pass. In 1882, Jordan was appointed health officer and was active in ridding Beaumont of all health hazards during the small pox epidemic of 1883.
About 1885, he left Beaumont for a few years, but he returned about 1889 and resumed his former practice. Dr. Jordan attained an enviable reputation as an anatomist, a contributor to medical journals, and as an innovator in new surgical techniques and devices.
In 1863, Dr. B. F. Calhoun was a 15-year-old enlistee in the Confederate Army. He enrolled in the Galveston Medical College in 1875 and came to Beaumont in 1882. In 1886 he was elected mayor, but resigned the following year. He was Beaumont's health officer from 1898 to 1904.
Other physicians began practice in Beaumont during the 1890s, but space will not permit any lengthy elaboration about their lives, since they could hardly be defined as "frontier saddlebag physicians." In 1899, six doctors organized the Jefferson County Medical Society. Dr. J. S. Price came in 1891, and in 1901 was a charter member of Hotel Dieu's staff. Dr. W. W. Cunningham also began practice in 1891, but soon resettled in Houston for a few years before moving back to Beaumont. He, too, was a charter member of Hotel Dieu's staff. Other staff members of 1901 included Drs. Blewett, H. A. Barr, C.A. Cobb, L. Goldstein, J. D. Gober, J. M. Gober, T. H. Frey, B. F. Cunningham, and others.
The area's first hospital was Sacred Heart, founded in March, 1891, in Orange, and administered by the Sisters of Charity of Galveston. In February, 1892, it was deactivated, having nursed only 70 patients in its eleven months of existence. It is evident to the writer that religious prejudices contributed to its demise, and many years would pass before the Frances A. Lutcher Memorial Hospital was completed in Orange.
In 1897, Beaumont's Hotel Dieu was begun under the pastorate of Fr. M. P. McSorley, but was completed, at a cost of $25,000, after the arrival of Rev. Fr. William Lee. The initial three-story, frame building had wards and private rooms to accommodate 55 patients, and an operating room on the second floor, all administered by the same religious order of sisters from Galveston. By 1900, it had already cared for 750 patients, including some small pox victims, "with very few fatalities." Dr. H. A. Barr was its first resident surgeon-physician.
In brief, this is the story of some of Southeast Texas' earliest saddlebag physicians and medical facilities. By the standards of today, their medical knowledge and treatment would probably be considered primitive and crude at best, but one must recall the great strides of advancement made every year in the medical profession. Some early doctors had no formal training at all, except that served as an apprentice to an older physician. Too often, too many myths and legends have entwined themselves around the country, "saddlebag docs," whereas an objective account of their lives would most likely serve a better purpose. Like their modern-day counterparts, they were medical men of iron, but they performed their errands of mercy at a time when transportation was snail-paced, medical knowledge and medicines were primitive, and life in Southeast Texas was harsh and violent.