Early Medical Practice in Lyons, NY

Contributed by Allyn Hess Perry

Source: THE LYONS REPUBLICAN 90th Anniversary Issue - August 3, 1916


The Days When Old Women Were Nurses and Dominated the Doctors--A Vivid
Description of the Errors in Early Practice--The Modern Advancement in Medicine.
(Written especially for the ninetieth anniversary issue of The Lyons Republican.)

By Dr. M. E. Carmer, Lyons, N.Y.

One of the recollections of my early childhood was the discovery one day of a large leather affair in the attic of my grandfather's house. I dragged the dusty thing down stairs and learned that it once belonged to the village doctor many years dead. It was his saddle bags which he threw across the saddle and fastened with straps and which served to carry his medicines, instruments, adhesive plasters and blisters and bottle of leeches. There were no improved roads in Western New York one hundred years ago; the low, swampy lands of the country had what were called corduroy roads--logs were placed close together directly across the road, smaller logs and poles were used to clink in between the big logs and brush was laid on top, a dressing of dirt completed the road. After a time the dirt would be washed away, the brush and clinking would mostly wear out, and the lumber wagons and ox carts of our great grandfathers would go bumping over the nearly bare logs of the corduroy road in anything but a comfortable manner for the traveler who sat on the hard side of a board placed across the wagon box without a spring of any kind. On the drier and hilly parts of the way, the deep ruts, the stones and hillocks and mudholes and the bare roots of trees stretching across the road were on the whole no better, if as good, as the corduroy stretches. And so the doctors visited their patients, widely scattered as they were in the sparsely inhabited country, on horseback, going from clearing to clearing in the woods, fording streams and rivers as yet unbridged and making their way as best they could.

The hardships of a doctor's life in those days must have been appalling. The people were poor, money was scarce, the fees small and often when paid at all, were paid in corn, wheat, potatoes or pork for the table; stove wood or hides, to be tanned by the local tanner and made into long-legged boots for the doctor's feet or laced shoes for his wife. The doctor's children, like all children in those days, went barefoot most of the year. There was much sickness--the country was new, the land was not drained, but was damp and reeking in the hot summers with decaying vegetation, a prolific breeding ground for germs of all kinds--the hot, shallow pools and damp, shaded places in the woods, a paradise for the malaria bearing mosquitoes. The people were poorly fed, the diet a monotonous round of cornbread and potatoes with native berries and occasionally wild game. Homes were poorly constructed. Ventilation was sometimes too well provided for. In winter the hot fireplace's radiant heat would bake one side of the body, while the other side was getting the draft from the poorly clinked logs of the side of the house. Pneumonias were common and of a type we do not have today. Pneumonia was described in the old text books of those days as beginning with a chill, the patient had high fever, bounding pulse, shining eyes, flushed face, noisy delirium. He must be bled to soften the pulse to weaken and break the fever; he must be made to sweat, be purged with calomel and sometimes take strong emetics. Many died but some lived. I believe if we treated the pneumonias that we have in our day in the same way, they would nearly all die. But it was the fevers of the new country that saddened the homes and filled the cemeteries. Whether malarial fevers were more prevalent and more malignant then than now or whether typhoid presented more acute symptoms of chills and hot burning fevers and sweats, certain it is that the death rate from fever was high and the manner of its treatment atrocious. I remember my mother telling me of the old doctor in my native village who died when she was herself but a girl. His children, then young people, had the fever, which was epidemic at that time and very fatal, and died one after the other in spite of emetics and purging and deprivation of water. The good doctor, years after they had died, learned that his treatment so vigorously and so faithfully done was radically wrong--that fever patients needed all their blood to withstand the weakening effects of the disease; that emetics and purging were harmful; that the excessive thirst was Nature's cry for fluids with which to eliminate the poisons from the system and should not have been refused, and having become convinced of these things his mind failed and he would sit for hours in his old age mourning the death of his children and accusing himself of killing them. "Oh, if I had only known, if I had only known, they might have been alive today," he would say over and over again. Epidemics of fever were common and one occurred in Lyons about 1813 and I believe the revulsion against bleeding fever patients took place a few years later.

But worse than the fevers of the new country it seems to me, was the suspense and dread and actual danger at every birth in those days of puerperal, or childbed fever. To the chagrin of the medical profession that almost always preventable disease, that in those days left so many homes motherless or made mothers invalids for life, was never thoroughly understood as to its nature and cause, its prevention and proper treatment until within the past twenty-five years. There were no bacteriologists in those days. The occurrence of puerperal fever was supposed to be either due to cold taking or to an act of Providence. Today it is known to be due simply and almost solely to lack of surgical cleanliness on the part of the doctor, the nurse or the patient, and death from this disease now very rarely occurs. There were no quarantine laws in those days or at most no rigid enforcement of them. Scarlet fever and diphtheria were supposed to be unavoidable, although I believe they did avoid contact with small pox cases. Even Asiatic cholera was allowed to visit our shores and spread its dreadful ravages throughout the country. There was a wide spread epidemic of cholera in 1828 to 1832. The disease was introduced into Lyons by canal boatmen. A rude shed was built for them on the banks of the old canal where now are Mrs. Parshall's willows, and as many as eleven were lying sick there on the straw at one time. When the men were either dead or getting well the boatmen were in a hurry to go. One man was supposed to be dying, so a grave was dug and he was let down into it as soon as he seemed to have died, but the man revived in time to protest against it, was pulled out of the grave and eventually got well. Lyons had a severe epidemic of cholera in about 1850. I was told by a lady who remembers the occurrence that one Saturday night seven lay dead of the disease in this village and that a large public funeral was held for a young man on Phelps street, when the odor from the corpse was so strong that the coffin had to be carried out of doors in order that the funeral might proceed. Funerals were an important function in those days, I was told, and were well attended, the services long and usually agonizing. Looking glasses and pictures were carefully screened for the occasion, but I was not told why this was done.

The modern trained nurse would have been scouted in those days as being too young or at least as being too frivolous in her white cap and gown. Only elderly women were allowed to be nurses and their ideas were traditional and not to be questioned or faintly opposed even by the doctor himself. Fresh air was excluded from the sick room for fear of drafts and of cold taking. Sunlight and even cheerfulness were avoided. Thick bedding, feather beds, hot, stuffy rooms were requisites, water, either for bathing or drinking, was looked upon with suspicion and grudgingly used, particularly cold water.

As to surgery, I remember an old man whose leg had been amputated at the thigh when he was young. He once related in my hearing how the doctors fastened him to the table with straps, he told of the pain he suffered when the surgeon began to cut until he fainted and became unconscious, of the long, tedious recovery and the many dressings of the suppurating and painful stump, infected probably with erysipelas. For the heroic doctors of those early years had no chloroform and no knowledge of asepsis. They did not know that if the instruments were clean and sterilized and the surgeons hands and dressings were sterile, the wounds they made would readily heal. Poor men, they had hearts that suffered in sympathy with their patients, they were kind, gentlemanly, many of them cultured; many of them leaders among men of their time. They did what they could. They did faithfully and earnestly as best they knew. I am making a clean breast of it for my profession. If Dr. Ostrander, in his paper on the early ministers and churches, had been equally as frank, his story would have been equally as shocking, for I think you would no more willingly listen to the two-hour sermons on infant damnation and other hard doctrines of those days than you would call a physician of that time to prescribe for you today. But the story of these things seems necessary in order to be able to appreciate what scientific medicine is doing for us today and how much the happiness and welfare of the human race depends upon the knowledge and skill of physicians. The horrors of surgery have been eliminated. The number of cases of malaria, typhoid, consumption and contagious diseases greatly restricted, and the treatment of disease now based upon a knowledge of the cause and nature of the sickness is not only rational, but comparatively successful.

So much for early medicine. Of the early doctors of Lyons I have been able to learn but little. A history of Wayne county published in 1877 states that Dr. Ambler was the first physician and that in 1808 he occupied a log house on the corner of Broad and Pearl streets, the site of the Hotel Baltzel. Mention is made also of Dr. Prescott and Dr. Willis as among the first physicians of the place. In 1808, Dr. Robert William Ashley from Deerfield, Mass., settled in Lyons. Later he built the second frame house in Lyons on the site of Dr. Veeder's present house. He had a large practice, was prominent in the affairs of the town, serving as supervisor. He was a man of education and refinement. A Puritan by early training and from principle; although his name is not on the rolls as a member of the church, he is said to have given one hundred and twenty silver dollars to be cast into the first bell for the Presbyterian church and his wife, Mary, appears on the church records as joining that church in February, 1822, and as departing this life September 7th, 1835. There is also a record of the marriage January 34d, 1833, of Hiram G. Hotchkiss and Mary Ashley, with Robert W. Ashley, Mary's father, I presume, as a witness. And from this union sprang the numerous and illustrious family whose headquarters are the big house on the hill. I am told also that other families on the hill, the Ashleys, VanCamps and Gardiners, can account for some of their sterling qualities by inheritance from that same ancestral Puritan, Dr. Ashley.

The Wayne County Medical Society was organized at a meeting in the Presbyterian meeting house in Lyons, June 2nd, 1823, the county of Wayne having just been erected and for the most part formed from Ontario county. Twenty-two members were enrolled, most of who were previously members of the Medical Society of Ontario county. Among them two are known to have been residents of Lyons village; Dr. Ashley and Dr. J. B. Pierce. The committee appointed to procure a seal for the society was instructed that the device upon the shield should be a lancet. The historian in the history of Wayne county before mentioned, in commenting upon the choice of this emblem, says that ten years had elapsed since the epidemic of fever when all who were treated by the lancet had died--so slow are men to renounce theories in the face of facts directly proving their falsity. Dr. Pierce, whose name I first mention as among those forming the original Wayne county Medical Society in 1823, had an office in the little building on William street where Dr. Bottom had his office when I first came to Lyons and where Lawyer Blaine has just erected a block. He practiced fifty years continuously in this village. Dr. Moore and Dr. S. D. Sherman in about 1848 formed a partnership for the practice of Homeopathy, they being the first doctors of that persuasion to locate in Lyons. The fee for a professional visit to the home of a patient at that time was fifty cents. Dr. Sherman died within my recollection at his home on Lawrence street, just below the school house. Dr. Peck had an office in a little building in his yard on Lawrence street where William Richards lives. He was a large, portly man, always telling funny stories--the proverbial jolly fat man. He once sent a large piece of a pig which he had just killed to his neighbor, Dr. Sherman, the Homeopath, with a card attached which read, "From the big pill to the little pill." To fully appreciate this witticism you should know that there was at that time a rather strong feeling between the so-called schools of medicine, and that Dr. Peck was not only a large man, but was noted for the large doses he gave, while Dr. Sherman, the Homeopath was of very slight build. Dr. Peck was very fond of children, and having none himself, adopted several. He practiced many years here and was deservedly popular. Dr. Cass had his office where Zimmerman's harness store stands. Dr. Mann of Sodus spent the last years of his life in Lyons, but did not practice much here, and his family erected a tablet to his memory in the Episcopal church. Dr. Teachout had his office in a wooden building on the Burnett store lot. He was quite famous as a singer.

There were doubtless many other physicians in Lyons prior to 1850, but their names and deeds are unknown to me.

                        MYRON E. CARMER, M. D.

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