Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Frontier doctor: a rousing read

The beauty of open stacks library facilities lies in the browsability of the collections: there is much to be said for the serendipitous discovery of books one might never have come across otherwise, whether by searching in electronic databases or by reference from scholarly footnotes.

And so I found Urling C. Coe's Frontier doctor, originally published in 1939. The foreword is by William Duncan Cheney: "There's a Doctor at Farewell Bend"--
...'But that's a hundred miles; it's below zero; and besides, I don't know how we can ever pay him.'
'The young Doc doesn't think about such things,' is the reply, and five minutes later the clatter of a running saddle-horse dies away northward.

The physician is president of a bank; and it is imperative that I see him immediately. All this particular day, save for lunch and dinner, I have waited in his office above the bank; and it is now two o'clock in a still winter night. I hear the trotting of a team of driving-ponies, the creaking of the ice beneath the buggy-wheels, and after a few minutes of silence, slow steps on the stair and along the hall. The door opens, and the doctor enters, clad in a heavy fur coat. He nods to me, but does not speak; and instinctively, neither do I. He goes to his desk, set his bag upon it, lays beside it a blue Colt six-shooter and a flask, opens a wall-cabinet, remembers his overcoat, removes it, serves me and himself with a glass of whiskey from the cabinet, wearily drops into a chair, and fifteen minutes later we are in the midst of our mutual business when we hear the clatter of a running saddle-horse, hurried steps upon the stair, a rap at the door, and the doctor says,
'Come in.'
A man enters, closing the door with a bang by standing with his back against it, as if he were unable to stand without support. Wiping the ice from his eyebrows and unshaven face with his coat-sleeve, he peers uncertainly, first at the doctor, then at me. Physically the physician is the most powerful man I have ever known; and now, tired, dishevelled, and dirty with the stains of travel, he might have been the town blacksmith. So the visitor selected the sedentary metropolitan as the person to address, saying to me,
'My wife is dying.'
The blacksmith rises, serves another glass of whiskey, and asks,
'Where is she?'
'About a hundred miles south.'
The doctor dons his fur coat, fills the flask, placing it in his left pocket, the Colt in his right pocket, picks up his bag, says to me, 'Handle that matter as you think right--I'll approve it,' and is gone.

My acquaintance with the author of this book began where the story ends, in 1911; and this is a truthful description of our first private interview. He was still going, you see, wherever people in distress were saying, 'There's a doctor at Farewell Bend.'
The foreword is followed by chapters called:
  • Wide Open Town: I Arrive
  • Doctor to Buckaroos
  • Wild West Babies
  • Epidemic on the Frontier
  • Delivery by Telephone
  • My First Death
  • Teeth Extracted--$1
  • Accidents and Indians
  • Prostitution on the Frontier
  • The Worst Enemy is Ignorance
  • Horse Thieves and Cattle Rustlers
  • Mr. and Mrs.--and the Doctor
  • Complaints Real and Imaginary
  • Ills and Bills
  • Busman's Holiday
  • Homestead and Forest
  • The Doc as Mayor
  • Pain and Pretense
  • The Golden Spike
The book describes Coe's thirteen-year residency in frontier Oregon, detailing his experiences in delivering babies, fighting a typhoid epidemic, setting fractures, and dispensing advice on unwanted pregnancies and the like. It includes accounts of his patients--cowboys, rustlers, ranch wives, Indians, prostitutes, homesteaders, and town boosters--offering a social history of town and ranch life on the Oregon high desert. Along the way, Coe documents the development of a Western boomtown: with the arrival of the railroad in 1911, the wide-open settlement known as Farewell Bend (later shortened to just Bend) was transformed into an important center of industry, commerce, and culture.

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