Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick


It is not always clear how much formal education the early doctors in Van Buren County had amassed, but like other professions, the amount of schooling required for a practicing license or certificate has changed dramatically since the 1800s. 

Believed to have been Van Buren County’s first medical doctor, Roger Nelson Cresap staked out a claim near Bonaparte in 1834. Dr. Cresap was born in Maryland in 1809 and began the study of medicine with his brother-in-law, Dr. John Temple. In 1829 Roger entered the Knoxville (Tennessee) Medical College where he graduated in 1830. 

Dr. W. John Kirkpatrick who came to Farmington in 1895, received a common school education, then graduated from the medical college at Keokuk in the class of 1886. He had also finished his courses in only one year. Farmington was platted in 1836. Dr. Miles was the town’s first physician and Dr. Barton was the postmaster. Not much is known about their formal education, yet it seems that theirs would have been similar. 

Frontier people relied heavily on herbs, plants, and tree bark to brew concoctions that would cure or prevent diseases and body disorders. These skills, some of which were acquired from the native Americans, were passed along from generation to generation. It was necessary for early doctors to have a knowledge of these old fashioned "cures." Sometimes they used herbs in their treatment, but more often had to apply medical knowledge to treat the side effects, sicknesses, and allergies caused by well meant, but harmful remedies. 

Doctors did not write prescriptions but carried a large supply of medicines at the office. However, in most cases people did not come to them for treatment. When a doctor was summoned, it was to make a house call. His large leather satchel contained any equipment he might need along with bandages, antiseptics, and a variety of the most common medicines for treating his sick patients. 

The mortality rate was very high. First of all, people would have tried many cures and remedies before a doctor was summoned, thus patients were often near death by the time the doctor arrived on the scene. Doctors were not equipped with modern means of detecting problems nor did they have the latest issues of medical journals to warn them about epidemics. They relied on their learning, their experience, their charisma or charm, and the reassuring words, "The doctor has arrived to see you now!" 

Soothing a patient’s nerves, giving him something to ease pain or make him rest, and breaking or bringing down fever were among the aces that the doctor pulled from his sleeves that sometimes resulted in a cure or "miraculous" recovery. The country doctor often developed a gentle, bedside manner so loved and respected by patients that they would remember more about the doctor’s visit than about their suffering or illness. 

Likewise, paying the doctor bill was often a major problem that might result in trade or barter. People worked off their bills by doing chores and repair work for the doctor. More often, the doctor brought home chickens, vegetables, pies, and even livestock as payment for their services. 

As a child, it seems that I would come down with a bad case of tonsillitis once or twice every winter. When my fever would reach an alarming state after about a week of confinement, Dr. Worrell or Dr. Furomoto in Keosauqua would be called, and if neither was available, old Doc Cummins would come from across the river in Douds. 

I don’t know if the sulfa pills or the penicillin shots from the doctors were responsible for my gradual improvement after their visits, or whether the change was the result of something else. 

Grandma Mary Fellows would bring home a tall bottle of Pepsi Cola or Nesbitt’s Orange from Finney’s Store in Leando. Then for these rare occasions, she would allow me to sip the pop through a huge, foot-long crystal straw. It was a good morale booster that she had used in nurturing four children and several grandchildren. Somehow, the whole world begins to take on a better appearance when you’re sipping cold drinks through a special glass straw!

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Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project by Andy Reddick