Medicine in the Past and Today

From Stephentown Genealogy: Roots & More

Written by Tina Ordone

Medicine was discovered around the 1500's. In the middle ages around the 1500's astronomy was basically what scientists where focusing more on. Later on people began to wonder about the human body and how each different element such as the muscles, nerves, bones, and tissues activated together. Galen lived from 130-200 A.D. he was a ancient Greek physician who studied the anatomy of animals such as sheep, pigs, goats, and apes. Galen never really dissected the human body so he assumed that the human body was similar to that of a animal's. Galen's textbooks on medicine were published around 1543 the same year that Copernicus published his book on astronomy. In that same year another doctor named Andreas Vesalius published a medical book by the name of "On the Fabric of the Human Body." The book showed well how the human body looked with drawings illustrating almost every detail. The next discovery was made by a man named William Harvey who published a book in 1628 that contained information on the human heart. In the early 1800's however doctors did not have enough equipment and medicine that can successfully fight diseases. In the later 1800's medicine started to conveniently advance. Around 1875 Europeans began to live 15 years longer than they used to. One very beneficial discovery was made in the 1840's which was anesthesia. Anesthesia was used to put people to sleep during painful surgery. Anesthesia helped surgery become less painful, but around that time patients were dying of infections after the surgery and the reason why was mysterious to doctors. A man named Joseph Lister was a Scottish surgeon who connected the conditions of the hospital to the infections. The conditions in hospitals were not very clean the patients were not really bathed and the doctors did not work with robes or gloves and the worse part was that the same instruments were used on every patient without cleaning them. Lister was the man who came up with cleanliness in hospitals which can be related to a quote in the movie Gattaca, "Cleanliness is next to Godliness." Joseph Lister found that after his observation that cleanliness is healthy 85% of the patients were surviving. A French scientist named Louis Pasteur followed up on Joseph Lister's theory that tiny invisible particles called bacteria caused infection. Pasteur discovered ways to destroy organisms that caused disease. Pasteur worked with the virus by the name of rabies caused when a dog bites you. In 1885 he cured a young boy that was infected with that disease. In the late 1800's scientists were equipped with new knowledge of medicine to which later other scientists followed up on and continued to find cures for deadly diseases. One of the most important discoveries at that time was how keeping things clean and killing bacteria can dramatically help people live longer. Medicine has advanced tremendously since the 1800's. Medicine such as antibiotics were discovered and what it does is it kills bacteria that causes infection or disease. In the 1980's the study of genetics began to take place. Scientists began to learn how the human genes acted on the human body. The study of how each human gene worked lead to a discovery of how to alter genes and put together genes to prevent disease which eventually developed into genetic engineering. Medicine has been the human race best progress because it helped people survive and battle diseases. Medicine and the study of human DNA however was what eventually lead to genetic engineering which is not progress because it doesn't help the human race. A conclusion that can be made is that we keep progressing, but in reality we eventually will fall because their only a certain limit to which humans can tamper with mother nature.

Shortly after the Revolutionary War, in 1787, Dr. Ezekial Baker opened the first medical practice in town. He has been recorded as making his calls dressed in buckskin knee breeches and carrying saddle bags over his shoulders as he walked or rode on horseback long distances to attend the sick. Dr. Baker practiced in the southeast part of the town nearly 90 years ago (written in 1880). He was probably one of the earliest physicians in the town. The oldest inhabitants but can recollect his buskin knee-breeches and immense saddle-bags filled with his magic potations. (He died on March 20, 1866 at the age of 69 years. His wife was Harriet) Dr. Nicolas Harris practiced very early in the northeast section of the town. He and Dr. Baker were contemporaries in practice. They were both charter members of the Rensselaer County Medical Society, organized in 1806. The honor of being the first physician to practice in town lies between them. Dr. Harris was noted for his elegance in diction and the beauty of his penmanship. A gentleman in his polite manners and conversation, he was considered by those who knew him as an earnest Christian. His was an extensive practice, reaching beyond Stephentown to other areas of the county. He served as a private in Colonel Kiliaen Van Rensselaer's Regiment of the Albany Militia and fought in four major battles of the Revolutionary War: Johnstown, Charghuawage, Oriskany, and Saratoga.(Nicholas Harris - b. 8/26/1749-4/22/1819, married Phebe Tibbits. He was from Scituate, RI, the son of Patience and Jedediah Harris). Dr. Brighton lived on the "East Road", and practiced in 1802.

Dr. Calvin Pardee was one of the earliest physicians of the town He came originally from Connecticut and settled first at Lebanon Springs, Columbia Co., and finally on "Presbyterian Hill," where he passed his life. (Pardee was born 1/26/1757 in Connecticut and died 10/27/1795 in Stephentown. He married Rachel Johnson)

Dr. Joshua Griggs came early, about 1810 and lived at Stephentown "Flats," where William Chevevoy lives. He was a surgeon in the 5th Regiment during the Revolutionary War. He died in town, at at the age of 43 and is buried in the Baptist Cemetery. (died 1/6/1813. He married Nancy)

Dr. Cuyler Tanner was in practice at Stephentown village fifty years ago, 1828. He was a member of Friendship Masonic Lodge #95.

Dr. Elijah Graves studied with Dr. Griggs, practiced for years at the "Flats" about 1810, and died there at the age of 84y and is buried in Garfield Cemetery. He was a member of Friendship Masonic Lodge #95. (d. 9/1/1869 at 84y)

Dr. Philander H. Thomas practiced from 1825 to 1840. He had practiced in the east part of the town. He was a physician of rare excellence.

Dr. Beriah Douglas practiced for a short time about the year 1820. he moved to Albany and then to Wisconsin. He was a son of Benajah Douglas, married a daughter of William Douglas and lived on the old homestead. (Douglas Genealogy) Dr. Frederick A. Carpenter, son of Benjamin H. and Asenath Carpenter, was born in Stephentown in the late 1790's. He studied medicine with Drs. Thomas and Tanner around 1835, practiced in North Berlin for one year, then moved to Lebanon, Illinois, where he died in 1865.

Dr. George H. Dickinson practiced from 1845 to 1878, having studied under Dr. Graves. His home and office were located on Presbyterian Hill. The house, built in 1843, is now owned by Georgiana Atwater Beebe. Dr. Dickinson is buried in Garfield Cemetery.

His son, Dr. George F. Dickinson, worked in his father's practice for a short time about 1866, before moving to East Chatham.

Dr. George H. Day began his medical careet in 1872; he also pastored the Stephentown Baptist Church.

Dr. Charles N. Reynolds practiced in the area about 1870. He is buried in Garfield Cemetery. (1848-1891; married Harriet E. Manchester. He was the son of nathan and Sarah Collins Reynolds)

Dr. Lawrence D. Green (1896-1963) began his medical practice in 1920 after receiving his degree from Albany Medical College. He started the Order of the Eagles in Stephentown and was a member of the Petersburgh Masonic Lodge. An ardent sportsman, he was an exceptionally good catcher on the Stephentown baseball team, sponsored by McClintock's in the '20's and '30's. One game was interrupted for over an hour because a dog was hit by a car and Dr. Greene left to administer to it. The dog lived and the game continued.

This is a Letter to the Editor of the Berkshire Eagle, dated July 29, 1948, written by Lawrence D. Greene, M.D.:

"You pointed out editorially on December 18, the catastrophic effect of the high cost of hospitalization for a major operation or prolonged illness on the head of the average profident family. You also pointed out the large popular approval of any plan which would eliminate the worry over this condition. I think those statements are true. You say the American Medical Association has offered no proposal to combat these hazards. I am not a member of the AMA and I have no brief for its opinions, but I had supposed that they favored voluntary insurance for which I believe agencies already exist. You seem to me further to imply that compulsory health insurance would correct the condition in question. Perhaps it would this particular one, but thorough consideration of all the easonalby expected effects of any compulsory insurance plan proposed to date lead one to conclude that on balance they are definately not in the public interest. I am sincerely convinced of this conclusion after 30 years of general medical practice during which I have had an opportunity to observe human behavior that may be justifiably predicted under the conditions of such a plan would ruin any chance of reasonable success. I regret very much that this is true. I have always been in the position of your hypothetical case and I can sympathize with him deeply. I hope a voluntary plan may be found which will lessen the inequities of our present dilemma to a bearable degree. At least let us expose all probable expectations and consequences before taking action." Lawrence D. Greene, M.D., Stephentown, NY

This is another Letter to the Editor, written by Dr. Greene and some of his area colleagues:

Hazardous Highway

"As physicians inured to travel the secondary and territory roads of the countryside of Eastern Renssealer County in all hours and weather, we do not lightly complain about road conditions. But the 16 miles of highway from the border of Columbia County north through Stephentown and Berlin to the ourskirts of Petersburgh have deteriorated beyondthe point of repair. This road lies sadly illin beautiful surroundings, contorted, twisted and deeply pocked amidst scenic hills and valleys. All who travel it do so at their peril. Witness the two accidents on February 23, one involving five people near Petersburgh, the other ivolving a car hurled into the ditch near Stephentown. As physicians there are special handicaps that hardly need to specified; danger of accidents in making night calls, patients being 'all shook up' on the rough road, loss of time in making calls and so on. Relief is twice blessed that is prompt, and part cure is often no cure. Hence, we request and urge friendly consideration by the New York Department of Public Works of the immediate reconstruction this spring of 1959 of Route 22 for the full 16 miles of roadway, not simply of part thereof, from Peterburgh south to the border of Columbia County."

Peter W. Borecki, M.D. Petersburgh, NY Lawrence D. Greene, M.D. Stephentown, NY F.J. Lancaster, M.D. New Lebanon, NY George Miley, M.D. West Lebanon, NY Sidney Schlesinger, M.D. Berlin, NY Andrew H.P. Swift, M.D. East Nassau, NY Marvin L. Thompson, M.D. Berlin, NY

Note from Tina: I can verify that these men did indeed make house calls, in a day and time long past. I remember well, Dr. Thompson coming to my parents house when my brothers and I came down with the measles. We always called him "I'm going to give you a shot Thompson." It seems that there was a shot for everything!! Dr. Swift was the man who pierced my ears when I was 16 years old. By that time, though, housecalls were on the way out and after much begging and pleading, I convinced my parents that I was old enough, and my Mom took me to Dr. Swift's office for the piercing. The above was written in part by Nathaniel Bartlett Sylvester in "The History of Rensselaer County, NY" and in part by an unknown writer in "Stephentown Historical Society's Bicentennial Album 1784-1984"

By David Flint Dr. Antoinette E.C. Russell in 1914. Photo courtesy of Helen Vedder.

Women in the medical profession have had a hard time gaining the respect of their peers. Berkshire Eagle Columnist, naturist and literary magazine editor Clellie Lynch presented an interesting historical perspective to members of the Stephentown Historical Society Monday evening at the Heritage Center. It’s not that women didn’t have the respect of those they served. For centuries birthing was the province of women practitioners known as midwives. People depended on women, too, for treatment of cuts and scrapes and minor illnesses. It was the women who preserved over centuries a store of knowledge about herbal remedies and even minor surgery. They passed on their knowledge and skills from generation to generation right up to the latter days of the 19th century. For major illnesses throughout most of that century men who called themselves doctors were still practicing what was known as “heroic medicine” which relied on techniques such as bleeding, leeching, intestinal purging, vomiting and ungoverned use of opiates such as laudanum. Their efforts were usually well meant but more often than not resulted in the death of the patient rather than a cure. According to Lynch, the often preferred alternative to heroic medicine was known as “therapeutic nihilism” or essentially doing nothing.

Toward the end of the 19th century the practice of medicine started to become more scientific with more precise diagnoses and cures. True medical schools were established, replacing the diploma mills that earlier enabled just about any male to set himself up as a doctor. Hygiene and prevention therapy were great advances made by the end of the century. Though midwives had for centuries been aware of the need for cleanliness, it had not been uncommon for doctors to go direct from an autopsy to delivering a child, with no hand washing in between. But things were changing, and the now more professional doctors looked around and found the continued practice of midwifery not to their liking. A concerted effort was made to label midwives as ignorant and incompetent and shunt them to the side. Childbirth was now, at least for those who could afford it, to take place in the hospital and doctors would do the delivering, usually with forceps. If the baby or mother died it was something that couldn’t be helped. But if death in childbirth occurred with a midwife attending, it was the result of ignorance and incompetence. Midwifery came close to being stamped out. It never disappeared completely, largely due to the fact that women continued to serve the needs of the poor and blacks especially, both in rural areas and in inner cities.

There were not many woman doctors in the 19th century, but there were some. The first to earn a medical degree in this country was Elizabeth Blackwell who graduated at the top of her class from Geneva Medical College in Geneva, NY in 1849. Her sister Emily followed her in earning a medical degree. After that the male students at Geneva voted to ban the acceptance of women there. Barred from practicing at most hospitals, Elizabeth Blackwell opened an infirmary for indigent women and children in the slums of New York. Later she and her sister established Woman’s Medical College connected with the infirmary. It took persistence and perseverance of the sort that the Blackwells possessed to buck the male chauvinism in the profession, but by 1900 there were actually some 7,300 woman doctors in the country.

One who had that persistence and perseverance was a Stephentown native. Program Chair Pat Bowman received a letter from Helen P. Vedder who had seen a notice of the Historical Society’s program on Women in Medicine. Vedder said she was the great grand-niece of Dr. Antoinette E.C. Russell who was born in 1861 on the family farm at Wyomanock Road and Presbyterian Hill Road in Stephentown. Russell graduated from the State Normal School – now SUNY-Albany – and taught for a period before moving on to New York Medical College for Women, graduating in 1891. She worked for many years at the Medical, Surgical and Maternity Hospitals of the Women’s Homeopathic Association in Philadelphia where she became Superintending Physician and Surgeon.

In 1919 Dr. Russell traveled to Serbia to do post-war volunteer work sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee (Quakers). She opened a dispensary in Serbia and later became Administrator for a hospital in Kosovo. There she not only opened a dispensary in the courtyard but also put together a traveling dispensary in a Ford ambulance which she took out to the countryside “to help people out of reach of a physician.” Working out of Pecs, she opened stations at Deschani and at Djacovitza which also served several villages across the border in Albania. Dr. Russell reported back to the Friends Service Committee on conditions in Serbia, which included scarcity of clothing and housing and fuel shortages. She noted that the Serbs, “are 2-3 generations behind the times and need help to establish themselves. There is much sickness there and a dearth of good physicians with only a few native ones.” She emphasized too the dire need for public health and sanitation. Arriving back in the USA in May 1921 she spoke at numerous meetings of organizations and churches begging for supplies and money especially for the hospital she had established in Pecs. That hospital was eventually taken over by the Serbian government. An article in the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin reads: “Woman Physician Returns - Dr. Antoinette Russell, former resident physician of the Women’s Homeopathic Hospital, has returned to this city after nineteen months in Serbia with the Friends’ Service Committee. While in Serbia, Dr. Russell treated 1,200 patients a month, administering a hospital and three dispensaries.”

Vedder noted that Dr. Russell was licensed in New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania. At some point she opened an office in Stephentown and delivered many babies in town, many of them Russells. Vedder says her father, Harold Provost, was the last born at the Russell family farm. She believes she herself, although born in Pittsfield, was the last of Dr. Russell’s family home deliveries. Dr. Russell died on January 1, 1928 at the House of Mercy Hospital in Pittsfield and was buried in the Presbyterian Hill Cemetery in Stephentown.

Vedder said she thought people might be “impressed with the persistence and perseverance of a woman born just before the Civil War into a humble, but proud farm family, who realized her potential and acted upon it.” She believes Dr. Russell “had a will of iron and was never dissuaded from convictions nor decisions thoughtfully and carefully made. She never married, but cared lovingly for all, be they Serbs, Turks, patients in her care, or her own family.” Vedder says it was because of the legacy left by Dr. Russell that she herself chose to become a Registered Nurse.

(This article was found in the Eastwick Press Sept. 15th, 2006 issue)

Name: Antoinette E C Russell Birth Date: 1 Dec 1861 Birth Place: Stephentown Rens CO, New York RESIDENCE: Philadelphia, Penn Passport Issue Date: 28 Aug 1919 Father Name: William F Russell Father's Birth Location: Stephentown, NY Father's Residence: Now Deceased Passport Includes a Photo: Y Source: Passport Applications, January 2, 1906 - March 31, 1925 (M1490) See see original of passport application, click here.

[[Category:Written by Tina Ordone][