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Our History: The Doctor Is In

There was no shortage of physicians during Douglasville’s early days.

Editor's note: Lisa Cooper's newest work can be found at douglascountyhistory.blogspot.com.

Dysentery is more than just an upset stomach. During the late 1800s you could die from the intestinal disease. It still causes problems in various parts of the world today, and without proper medical care you and I could succumb to it as well. Folks worried about it so much the local paper here in Douglasville carried an article with the following cure for the malady which could be purchased for 15 cents back in 1885. The recipe called for 3 drachms (one eighth of a fluid ounce) of prepared chalk, 3 drachms white sugar, 1/6 oz. paregoric, and 1 drachma prepared gum Arabic. The directions advised adults should be given 1 Tablespoon every two hours until the symptoms subsided.  Children could be given a half Tablespoon.

Dysentery wasn’t the only medical problem early settlers in Douglas County had to worry about. Scarlet fever, yellow fever, diphtheria, smallpox, tuberculosis, and influenza were prevalent. Folk remedies were often used and patent medicines were recommended with the belief the most strong smelling, vile-tasting concoctions were the most effective. For instance, an American Heritage article regarding pioneer medicine advises drinking sulphur was thought to be good for almost anything. 

Luckily, the folks living in Douglasville and the surrounding countryside were never without several physicians to step in when needed. 

In fact, one of the first doctors in the county, Dr. W.H. Poole, was practicing medicine before the county existed in 1868. He received his diploma from Savannah Medical College about the time the Civil War broke out.  He was quickly in the thick of things and learned surgical techniques for the time period on the battle field. Dr. Poole, like many early physicians took their medicine to the patients via horseback rather than the patient having to visit an office.

The Douglas County Museum of Art and History has an excellent exhibit regarding medicine in Douglas County  including the saddle bags belonging to another physician by the name of Delvous Houseworth that were used when he made house calls (see image one).

American Heritage advises “the typical practitioner could stuff all his supplies and equipment into his saddlebags. Usually he carried homemade bandages, a few drugs, a mortar and pestle for mixing prescriptions, some syringes, perhaps some hot water bottlers of pewter or crockery, and a small assortment of knives and saws.” [By the time Dr. Poole and Dr. Houseworth were  practicing] “they would have had added tooth forceps, stethoscope, and obstetrical instruments to the meager list.”

This site showing information from the Vansant-Poole family Bible advises two of Dr. Poole’s sons, Reuben H. and Thomas J., were doctors as well.  Thomas’s obituary from 1910, can be found here and is quite interesting.

A.E. Schole’s "Georgia State Gazetteer" indicates in 1881 and 1882 James E. Henley and P.S. Verdery were the physicians at Chapel Hill. T.A. McLarty served Dark Corner, Isham N. Brown was the doctor for Wilsonville (14 miles SW of Douglasville), J.W. Westmoreland and C.C. Garrett were listed as serving Salt Springs now known as Lithia Springs, and Dr. Poole was listed as the physician in Douglasville.

During the 1800s the education and training for a medical career wasn’t as rigorous as it is today. In her book regarding Douglas County history, Fannie Mae Davis advises, “All you needed was a good horse, a folk medicine book, and a willing patient to be in business. Medical colleges had become numerous in the state although inferior in quality. The course of study required no more than a year to complete and no internship was required.  A diploma from one of the institutions was required in order to be granted a state license to practice, yet there remained a great laxity in the program.  It was claimed that some medical colleges actually sold diplomas without the buyer ever attending class. As governing laws regarding curriculum were strengthened, only the fittest survived.”

An American Heritage article regarding frontier doctors states, “The greatest shortage of all was in medical knowledge and training. Until the 1860’s—and in some sections long afterward—a frontier doctor was almost any man who called himself one. It is a safe guess that not more than a fourth of them held degrees from medical schools. Most learned by the apprentice system, and some were self-taught, self-appointed healers who hung out their shingles when they “got the call.”

Luckily the early doctors in Douglas County had the proper credentials, and many of them did more than just practice medicine. Dr. Thomas R. Whitley received his diploma from the Atlanta Medical College, one of the forerunners of Emory in 1876.  He was a long time resident of the area in Campbell County that would become Douglas County, served as leader of Douglasville’s city council and as the treasurer and recorder.  He was involved in seeing that a major hotel was built in Douglasville and in 1890 was appointed to the Congressional and Senatorial conventions. He was mayor from 1899-1900 and then again in 1922 and 1930.  Whitley was also an original investor in the Douglasville Canning and Preserving Company was co-founder of the Douglas Sentinel newspaper and co-founder of Douglas College. 

Dr. J.L. Selman also originally hailed from Campbell County and received his diploma for medicine from the Atlanta Medical College in 1879.  He was Dr. Whitley’s co-founder with the canning business, and is also remembered as Douglasville’s first permanent pharmacist. During a time when doctor’s had to mix their own drugs a permanent pharmacist was a welcome addition to the medical community in Douglasville. 

Dr. J.B. Edge was also a Douglasville physician who had an office and pharmacy in 1885 located on Bowdon Street. Dr. Edge apparently was into experimentation and discovering new techniques because it is reported that he had a laboratory in his home. Fannie Mae Davis advises he concocted a tonic using local wild herbs and roots indigenous to the area.

Another well known physician in Douglas County during the late 1880s was Dr. C.C. Garrett who practiced in Salt Springs now known as Lithia Springs. Like Drs. Whitley and Selman Dr. Garrett was educated at the Atlanta Medical College. Not only did Dr. Garrett serve his community he was also the Chief Physician for the famous resort at Lithia Springs, and more than likely was the doctor on call during the Piedmont Chautauqua of 1888 I wrote about here. Details regarding touring Dr. Garrett’s office can be found here.

Dr. Claude V. Vansant, Sr. received his medical degree from Emory at Oxford in 1911. He formed a partnership with his cousin, Dr. Reuben Poole (Dr. W.H. Poole’s son). They opened offices on the second floor of the Selman Building, known today as the old B & W Drug Store and now is the location for the Irish Bred Pub and Restaurant.

The Douglasville Museum of Art and History has the desk Dr. Vansant used in his office set up exactly as he would have used it during his 70 years of practice along with many items he used in his practice (see image two). The medical exhibit includes an early baby incubator (image three), examination chairs (image 4) and even his certificate to dispense opium and coca leaves (image 5).

Dr. Vansant practiced for over 70 years.   I agree with Fannie Mae Davis that the length of Dr. Vansant’s practice was “in certain aspects bordering on the incredible.” Davis continues, “In his early career there were no hospitals and no ambulance service nearer than Atlanta. Many times a surgical operation was performed in the home. His first surgery was for the removal of a stomach tumor. Dr. Vansant performed the operation on a dining table by the light of a kerosene lantern. It was a successful procedure.    

Dr. Vansant never set a fee for his services and was often paid in produce, potatoes, chickens, eggs, joints of beef, or pork or sausage. Dr. Vansant was available day and night believing he did not practice medicine for pay, but to relieve pain.  

Dr. Vansant was more into service and personal satisfaction than making huge sums of money.

What a refreshing concept! 

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