With influenza viruses hopping and skipping through communities like pesky bugs right now, physicians get busier while their clinic lobbies become Petri dishes full of flying “nasties.” If only doctors made house calls again to spare us the cloud of other people’s “sneezy wheezies.”
Although it may seem like “the good ol’ days” of medicine, doctors making house calls in remote areas more than a century ago faced challenges. Despite its inadequacies and tenuous lifestyle, rural county doctors described their profession as “a holy calling.”
“When I think of the lonely, long journeys over muddy roads to some poor tenant miles across the river bottoms, I am led to believe that, after all, the country doctor’s life is almost a holy pilgrimage,” recalled Dr. William Price Connally (1871-1943) of McGregor.
No better example of that is Dr. Clyde Davis “Nip” Goodnight (1924-2002), who hung out his shingle in Holland in 1957. The folks in that part of rural Bell County welcomed him with open arms.
He was among the last of the country doctors who made house calls — sometimes as many as two to three calls a day before and after clinic hours plus visits to nursing homes as far away as 20 miles away. Goodnight was proof that a good doctor doesn’t have to be a professional athlete to take care of patients, but it sure helps with stamina and quick thinking.
Such was the life of a country doctor.
An alumnus of the University of Tulsa, Goodnight later played for the Green Bay Packers and the Washington Redskins. After a few years of getting knocked around on the gridiron, he walked away and into the University of Tennessee Medical School at Memphis to study medicine. The former player gave up bruising bodies to fixing them. For the rural folk around Holland and Bartlett, he was a godsend.
Hospitals and multispecialty clinics were a rarity in the late 1800s. The traveling country doctor was the only practitioner for miles across Bell County’s prairies.
Goodnight inherited a sacred tradition from countless traveling practitioners before him. In Lometa, beginning in 1903, Dr. Walter D. Biggs (1873-1944) delivered more than 3,000 babies, set many fractures, watched the scars develop on the face of a young girl afflicted with smallpox, prescribed castor oil and other saddlebag nostrums many times, broke his right wrist cranking his first Model T Ford, and proudly stated that he never lost a patient from snakebite or pneumonia.
Dr. George Cupples (1816–1895), pioneer surgeon and leader in Texas’ public health, praised the work of the “lowly” country doctor whose daily practice involved treating everything from the sniffles to surgery. “Surgeons of Texas, country doctors, though they (have) no long string of academic honors … are second to those of no country in the variety, the boldness, and the success of operations; in practical skill, in fertility of resources and in that self-reliance founded on knowledge, without which no man can be a successful surgeon.”
They often carried their drugstores in their packsaddles, compounded their own prescriptions by measuring drugs with their pocketknives and wrapped powders in corn husks and scrap papers.
Their medical kits were basic. Dr. Charles William Trueheart (1837-1915) of Galveston reportedly brought from Germany the first fever thermometer used in Texas. Early issues of the Texas Medical Journal indicated Bell County doctors were using thermometers by the 1880s. X-ray technology arrived in Texas by 1896; by 1899, Temple doctors received the first X-ray machine in Central Texas, paid for by the Santa Fe Railroad’s Hospital Association. Blood pressure monitors (sphygmomanometers) weren’t invented until 1896, but were in use in Temple shortly after.
Bell County doctors proudly published the names of out-of-town patients, as if to prove their services were indeed quality. For example, ear-eye-nose-and-throat physician Dr. James Madison Woodson (1868-1930) in an 1899 issue of the Temple Times publicized his patients’ names and hometowns pleased with his services. News reports indicated that he frequently traveled to Heidenheimer, Eddy, Cyclone, Belton, Moffat and Moody.
However, promotion doesn’t pay the bills.
In the 1800s, a carton of eggs or a side of bacon often covered the doctor’s house call. However, by the beginning of the 20th century, physicians demanded more than vegetables and homemade pies.
Mart’s Dr. Edward L. Wedemeyer (1869-1937) lamented in 1915 that he had more “downs” than “ups” as he traveled to see patients. Small-town doctors were “wealthy in happiness, but financially there was not much to be said,” he said.
By 1919, the Bell County Medical Society discussed the increased cost of living and inadequacies of doctor fees, especially for those making house calls. The assembly voted to increase fees, necessary to “keep themselves property fitted and informed in the progress of medicine,” according to the Temple Daily Telegram. The physicians approved minimum fees: day visits, $3; night visits, $5; prescriptions, $1; office visit, $2; telephone consultation, $1; and country visits $1 per mile added to patient visit. If the country visit was more than two miles from the doctor’s office, an additional $1 per mile would be added.
Connally could fondly recall the pathos and joys of the peripatetic farmland doctor in Bell and McLennan counties. “The average country doctor does not have many reveries, but he has dreams and often they are tinged with strong ambition, though often covered with the sloth of habit. He dreams of a city office with hours, his name in gilt on the glass door. He is a man of slow gait and simple life and, above all, is a most sociable fellow. The country doctor for all of his simpleness has not subscribed to the idea that there is a cure for every ill. Surely few men are better servants of his fellows than the country doctor whose pay is insignificant, but whose heart is mammoth.”