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Good Morning Doctor! - Chapter 24

Truly a Pioneer

It wasn't long after I had located in Waverly that an elderly gentleman walked into my office one morning and asked if I was Dr. Rohlf, the new doctor. When I answered in the affirmative he said, "I am Dr. Oscar Burbank and I came to call to welcome you to the professional ranks of this county. I wanted to ask you, doctor, if you remember the Johnstown flood?"

"Why yes, doctor, I do. Very distinctly."

"You should forget it, doctor," he replied, "and remember the Maine!"

And that was typical of him. He managed to have some fun in almost everything he did. He often told of his first call. It came from the home of a man who was said to be very sick. When Dr. Burbank arrived he made the diagnosis of intoxication and then, getting ready to leave the house, was told by the sick man, "I suppose you want money for this call." The doctor answered that money would be very convenient since he had been in town only a few days and was in need of ready cash to pay his lodging and meals.

Then the man spoke up, "But you haven't told me what's the matter with me."

"Very well, sir. My diagnosis is that you are drunk."

Without another word the patient turned to his wife. "Mother, the doctor is right; you better pay him." Then turning back to the doctor he added, "If I need you again I'll let you know."

Dr. Burbank's dramatic experience with ether came when he was a student of medicine at Harvard. This supreme incident occurred in the General Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, in the presence of a group of doctors and students like Dr. Burbank; it was the first time that ether was used as an anaesthetic in major surgery. The room was hushed as the patient was anaesthetized. Then Dr. John Collins Warren proceeded to remove an ugly growth from the patient's neck. The operation completed, Dr. Warren turned to the tense spectators. "Gentlemen," said he, "this is no humbug."

The room where that operation as performed October 16, 1846, remains intact today in the General Hospital in Boston and is known as the Ether Dome. In it are preserved, as they were the day the operation made medical history, the very bottle and sponge that were used in that amazing experiment.

An account of that incident was written for me by Dr. Burbank when he was eighty-five years old. It may be seen today in the Iowa State Medical Library in Des Moines, Iowa. There also is shown a group of Dr. Burbank's surgical instruments which he designed himself and which a Waverly blacksmith made, using for the handles the bones of Dr. Burbank's first horse! The instruments were designed for the repair of a vesico-vaginal fistula. The operation was done by Dr. Burbank for a farmer's wife in her home, using an ordinary dining room table for an operating table. The operation was a complete success.

Dr. Burbank was born September 24, 1819, in Parsonfield, Maine. Among his instructors at Harvard, where he took his course in medicine, was Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes who taught him anatomy. The parchment which Dr. Burbank received on graduation from Harvard in 1848 remains a cherished possession of his family.

He came to the Middle West from Maine after he had been to California in the gold rush of 1849, rounding the Cape in a sailing vessel on the way out and crossing Panama on the return trip. Coming to the Middle West, he reached Cedar Rapids by train, went on to Waterloo by stage coach, and came to the newly-platted town of Waverly by team. He and his wife arrived here in 1854 and built a small cottage, having at first only blankets for a door and a plank on a pork barrel for a table.

He models on horseback all over this section of the country. There were no roads. At night he had only the stars to guide him.

Through his long years of practice he was always a student, keen and alert to the very end. In fact, when he died in his eighty-eighth year, a victim of pneumonia, he was taking a post graduate course at Drake University in Des Moines!

He not only read many medical papers, but he organized a professional study club which met frequently to keep its members informed on progress in medicine. While he was alert to new developments in his profession, he never accepted them until he was sure in his own mind that they were sound. He hesitated, I remember, to admit that surgery was the way to treat appendicitis. In fact, he wrote an article for a certain paper in which he ridiculed the idea that appendicitis could cause so much trouble and criticized the frequent operations for its relief. Later, Dr. L. C. Kern and I invited him to the hospital to witness an operation for the removal of an infected appendix.

The old gentleman accepted our invitation and watched the operation. On its completion, he apologized not only for his attitude but also for that article he had written for the local paper in which he had scoffed at surgeons for operating and removing what he had until that moment believed to be an inoffensive organ. Surely that incident alone showed how truly great he was; for only a man of real character has the courage to admit, without reservation, that he wrong.

As I think of him now, however, I recall him as a very human, very entertaining person. His sly humor was one of his greatest attributes. It was this quality, as much as any other, which kept him close to us, which let him be one of us rather than one set apart because of unusual talents and great achievement.

The doctor was a very strict prohibitionist. One morning when he was passing a saloon two friends took hold of him and suggested that they would take him into the saloon and get him a drink. Of course he said, "No." Then they lifted him up bodily to take him in.

"Well, I am surely specially favored this morning," said the doctor calmly from his precarious position. "Our Lord was carried into Jerusalem on the back of one ass. And here, this morning, I am carried by two!"

  Version: World Wide Web Edition Copyright 1995 by Richard Rathe
  Created: October 1, 1995   Modified: July 5, 1999

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