Winsted-Lester Prairie Journal, Oct. 15, 2001

A historical look at doctors in McLeod County

By Gail Lipe

The practice of medicine has changed over the years. Some of the instruments used in diagnosing patients and treating illnesses also have changed.

The McLeod County Historical Society presented a look at doctors, past and present, in McLeod County on Monday night.

Voices of doctors who practiced in the county from the mid 1800s to recent history were heard giving short biographies of their practices.

There were stories about different situations, but the one thing that stood out was that each doctor in the late 1800s and early 1900s traveled from place to place to help people. The county was huge with settlers all over, and the doctors went to them by horse, on foot or by buggy.

One story stated that Dr. Joseph Volmer slept in the back of a wagon wrapped in hay between patient visits while his driver braved the winter weather.

Dr. Elmer Ellsworth Barret, who was a doctor in Glencoe for 25 years and established the McLeod County Hospital in Glencoe, was gone for weeks at a time going from house to house.

Dr. Peter Smyth, the only currently practicing doctor on the panel, said the little black bag that doctors carried with them had to include every instrument they might need because the doctors went to the patients. It may have had instruments that were used only once every five years, but it was important for the doctors to have them for that one time.

One tool that has not changed in over 200 years is the stethoscope. Smyth said it was first invented as a round wooden tube that was placed on the chest to hear the heart.

Another story, about Dr. John Benjamin, said his house in rural Hutchinson was the first to get hit during the Indian uprising in 1862. It said that Benjamin brought 23 soldiers, who had been injured during battle with the Indians, through without losing any.

Before the uprising, Benjamin had treated Chief Little Crow's men and had become friends. The story is that he saved Little Crow's body from an angry mob.

One of the doctors who was in McLeod County in the early 1900s was jailed for 18 months because of a book he wrote.

Dr. C. W. Melchow practiced in Lester Prairie. He wrote a book that was intended for the medical community, but was spread throughout the county.

He and his publisher were jailed because the book was considered too risque.

Another doctor, Charles B. Day, who was also known for his alcoholism, shocked a store owner in Glencoe when he entered the store, picked up a gun and shot himself in the head.

Several of the doctors in the county made medical history. One used the first anesthesia machine and the first oxygen tent in the county. He also performed the first blood transfusion and had a list of all of his patients, their addresses and blood types long before blood banks were around.

Another doctor delivered over 3,000 babies and made medical history by successfully separating a pair of Siamese twin girls.

One of the most unusual cases that was mentioned was one that Dr. William Klima went to on an early spring morning. He successfully treated a girl who was scalped when her hair was caught in a piece of machinery.

Three doctors, Smyth, Dr. Clark Truesdale and Dr. George Smith, were there to talk about being a doctor in McLeod County.

Truesdale said the beginning of most hospitals was a "cottage hospital." They had one or two rooms.

He said the Barret Hospital was a thing of the past by the time he got to Glencoe. There was a municipal hospital by then.

He also said, as a coroner, he was the only person in the county who could arrest the sheriff.

Smyth's father was a doctor in Lester Prairie beginning in 1949. He replaced Dr. John B. Clement, who had been a doctor there for over 50 years.

Smyth said that he often wonders what it was like for the early doctors. There was no penicillin and no antibiotics. They would lose patients because of not having the correct treatments.

He said the medical field has made great strides. When he was in medical school, the first heart by-pass surgery took place. Now it is a common procedure.

He also talked about instrumentation that allows things like orthoscopy surgery. He said the practice of medicine has been constantly improving and continues to do so.

Smith grew up in Hutchinson and returned to practice medicine in 1949. He said when he responded to one of his first cases in Hutchinson, he definitely thought he was at the wrong place.

Someone came to him and told him he better come and bring his little black bag. He entered an attorney's office and there stood a woman with a pistol in her hand that was still smoking. She had just shot someone.

"I think every doctor has experiences every day," said Smith. "It is a very noble profession."

"It is a career that allows me many opportunities to get into people's lives and know them," said Smyth. "Despite the changes, you still get to know the people."

Smyth said he would like to return to the same place in 50 years to see what doctors are talking about then.

David W. Maher, D.P.M. serves Cokato, Hutchinson, Dassel, and Litchfield
Professional podiatry available near you. Call Hutchinson Medical Center at (800) 944-2690 to schedule an appointment today!

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