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The Life Story of a Country Doctor

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By:  Mrs. W. W. Duncan

The success of a man's life can not be measured until it is over or finished.  This is the story of a man's life, one of your fellow citizen's of Pickens County, Alabama, who lived, walked the streets and rode along the highway which you travel today. It was written for the Medical Auxiliary of Pickens County Medical Association of which he was a member.  It is not intended as a eulogy in any way or sense of the word but given with respect and reverence by his companion of 44 years, as a true story.

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William Wallace Duncan, the subject of this discourse was born in Benevola, Pickens County, Alabama on August 7, 1887, the son of Thomas George Duncan and Alice Carolyn Giles, both long time residents of Pickens County - 1900-1949.

At the Sixth Annual Commencement of the Birmingham Medical College, held in the Jefferson Theatre in Birmingham, Alabama on April 2, 1900, William Wallace Duncan of Benevola, Pickens County, at the age of 23 years received his medical degree to become a full fledged practioner.  He was Valedictorian of his class and an honor student.  His pre-med work was done at the State Normal College in Florence, Alabama.

He began the practice of medicine at Bethany and had a wide territory from Vienna to Olney, Benevola, Pleasant Grove and Old Bridgeville, all of Pickens County.  All travel was done on horseback with saddle-bags across the saddle in which to carry the medicine and instruments with him, which among other things included pills, capsules, calomel in quantity, quinine in bottles, and morphine in large bottles.  He filled the capsules at each patient's bedside as he prescribed the medication.  He also carried with him chloroform at all times to enable him to given an aesthetic in case of an emergency involving surgery.  This is what is called minor surgery today, yet in the days of the Country Doctor it became in some cases a     major problem.  (Above  undated Photo of Dr. Duncan and Miss Winnie in front of their home in Aliceville, Al. )

People had accidents in those days as they do now and  country doctors had to set legs and arms without the skilled help of either a trained nurse or another doctor.  They were too widely and thinly scattered to come to one another's assistance.  If you secured a doctor for a certain area, he was the only one available and you had to trust him for medical work and rely on his judgment and ability.  It was a marvel to peep into a doctor's satchel - in addition to various medicines and drugs, they carried the necessary instruments for normal surgery, including forceps for extracting teeth.  Many an aching molar was pulled while the patient sat on a log after the doctor had been hailed in passing.  Too, boils were lanced in this way.

Standard drugs such as morphine, calomel, quinine, chloroform, etc., were unknown and unavailable in rural sections in the days of the Country Doctor.  Country stores usually carried patent medicines - Swamp root, Wine of Cardui, etc. - all of which have been prescribed and used for time immortal.

In those days the patient was billed by the doctor for both house calls and the medicine on the same bill - no separate bill - which was paid once a year.  A patient would have been frightened to death to have been expected to pay cash for medical services!  When the crops were gathered and sold the doctor came in for his share - and if there was no share for him he was expected to wait until the next years' crop was harvested.

A Country Doctor was a man of much importance and his advice was sought on every occasion.  Housewives were careful to have everything in order before retiring for the evening - there must be no shoes, etc., to fall over and everything had to be in it's proper place - as the doctor might have to be summoned during the night.  When a new baby came into a home it was a great occasion as it is now, but there was not much excitement over the baby and it's coming - no mother-to-be was x-rayed or required to keep her weight down - and usually the doctor was not notified until it was time to meet the stork face to face!  However, extensive preparations were usually made in advance of the doctor's visit - the finest hams, chickens, cakes and pies were saved for his meal or meals, as the case might be - as it was sometimes necessary for him to remain with the patient for several days, or from the first symptoms until little Bill or Sarah arrived.

After the arrival of the new-born child there was no giving over the reins to a trained nurse for there was none available, therefore the entire performance was the responsibility of the attending doctor until Grandma or Aunt Mary took the squirming infant in charge to introduce it to the canton flannel diapers, flannel petticoats and yard-long dresses.  It was an occasion of great rejoicing - the children came back home from Uncle John's and Aunt Sallie's where they had been sent beforehand for fear that they might see or hear the stork's wings flapping.  Children were not informed then in advance of a new arrival and the news oft-times came as a great surprise - perhaps like Santa Claus.  But sometime they knew more than they would confess!

The largest number of obstetrical cases Dr. Duncan ever had in one day was four.  My, how rich he thought he was -- the customary fee was ten dollars--just think 40 dollars in one day!  We were on the road to prosperity!  But this was rare and happened but once in a lifetime.

Very often the new baby was named for the doctor.  My husband has many friends today named "Wallace" for him:  Wallace Sanders - Wallace Speed - Wallace Colson - Wallace Stapp - Wallace Powell - and some others.  Very few babies have been named for his wife, Winnie, but she is very proud to have few so named:  Winnie Brandon of Carrollton and Winnie   ?  here in Aliceville.  A lady once named her favorite dog "Dr Duncan" after my husband and this dog had the seat of honor in the living room in the only rocking chair and he used it continually.  One afternoon a neighbor came to call and the hostess said casually while motioning her to a straight chair with a hard seat, "Dr. Duncan" does not give his chair to anyone.  She also remarked that the dog only ate cake and pie and that she kept them cooked for him at all times.  The neighbor was very indignant and related this incident to her family, but "Dr. Duncan" kept his seat!

The largest baby ever delivered by Dr. Duncan was a negro child which weighed 16 pounds, however the infant only lived a few hours.  I think I am correct when I say that Dr. Duncan in all of his obstetrical practice of 49 years only lost two babies. 

The Country Doctor had to supplement their living by farming or operating a country store, for he did well to make a few hundred dollars a year in the practice of medicine.  Dr. Duncan had the usual troubles of people becoming angry with him.  One man wanted to sue him when his wife died, claiming that the doctor was responsible for her death.  My husband was quite upset over it for a time but his good reputation with the people and other doctors of the County saved the situation for they all came to his rescue and testified in his behalf as to his worth and ability and the case never came to court.  It was a most unjust accusation as the doctor had done all that could be done in her case.  People still die at times!  No doctor enjoys losing a patient and if the laity only knew the agony that is the doctor's when such things occur they would be more charitable. 

An interesting example of the method of treating obstetrical  patients in the days of the Country Doctor, is related below:

Dr. C. M. Murphy and Dr. Duncan were good friends, both having graduated from the same Medical School and began their practice about the same time; they were always associated in their practice, lived and died almost together - only six weeks between their deaths - and both are buried a stone's throw from each other.  When the Murphys first child was born Dr. William Sanders was State Health Officer and a close relative of Mrs. Murphy.  As such he was very much interested in the coming event and gave Dr. Murphy explicit instructions as to the care of Mrs. Murphy as well as dire warnings of great danger if such instructions were not followed.  She was not to be allowed to raise her head off the pillow for several days, remain in bed for two weeks and then in doors for one month.  Water must be sipped through a straw and her foot must not touch the ground for a month.  Similar directions were followed by other women when they gave birth to their children, for that was the only time they got a rest from the duties of housekeeping.  Also, it was rather nice to be the center of attention and having lots of good things to eat as patients were not restricted from eating anything they wanted or liked. 

We have come a long way since the days of the Country Doctor.  In these modern times we are told that women quite frequently leave the hospital on the third day after her child is born and sometimes carrying the infant in her arms.  In one case it was reported that a patient in a nearby hospital, a short time after having given birth to her baby, went to the telephone and called her family to tell them the good news!  In another case a mother having been summoned to the city hospital to be with her daughter in time of childbirth, was met at the door of the hospital by the daughter herself - all was over and she was Grandma!  She was properly shocked of course, but was told that this is the new day and no one should be surprised considering the progress made by people and in medicine.  The poor mother did not wholly agree but of course accepted it with equanimity.  What else was she to do?

The shades of our grandmothers!  How shocked they would be!  The following illustration is an apt one for the great transition that has come about in recent years:  A mother of five children remarked: "When my first baby was quite young I called the doctor every time it sneezed, but with the later editions it was somewhat different  One of the succeeding children accidentally swallowed a nickel one day and I just shook him and said 'Young man this comes out of your allowance'".

Now life is not complete without a helpmate so the doctor takes a wife.  In 1905 at Knoxville (Greene County), Alabama, Dr. Duncan was married to Winnie Andrew Cox, a country school teacher.  I must tell you of this suspicious event.  It was a lovely wedding which was performed in the little Presbyterian Church of Knoxville.  The bride wore a white silk dress with veil and train and the groom the traditional black broadcloth.  There were four flower girls, a maid of honor, 2 ushers and the best man. The flower girls were:  Julia and Nell Sulzby, sisters of the bridge, Beatrice Cox of Starkville, MS, a cousin of the bride and Ruth Hamilton of Knoxville.  The maid of honor was Miss Clare Gosa.  The ushers were:  Mr. Borden Gewin and Mr. Albert White.  The best man was Mr. Clell Bailey of Pleasant Grove, Pickens County, a close friend of the groom.  The ceremony was performed by the Rev. Edward Marmaduke Turner of Greensboro, Alabama, a great uncle of the bride.  The church had been beautifully decorated by friends.  There were no bought flowers in the country in those days, but such were homegrown and given by friends - not the first posy was bought, not even the bride's bouquet.  A Miss Ella Patton made the bride's flowers from American Beauty roses from her yard and they were lovely.  Dr. Allen, a neighborhood dentist, superintended the decorating of the church.  A large wedding bell was suspended over the altar and two gates were made for the aisles - one for the entrance aisle and the other for the exit aisle.  The entrance gate had the name "Cox"  on it and the exit gate, the name "Duncan".  The bride's music teacher, Mrs. Minnie Patton Archibald, a close friend for many years, was organist and sang "O Promise Me", followed by Mendelssohn's Wedding March and loengrin.

There was the usual white carpet even in those days for the bridal party.  There was no expenses involved except for maybe the cloth used for the aisle - and it was re-used later for making undergarments!  There were no nylon "nothings" in those days in the country - no presents given to anyone, not even the best man,  organist or bridesmaids.  Those WERE the good old days!  The bride's mother and step-father, Mr. and Mrs. Philip J. Sulzby of Knoxville gave a wedding supper, we called it, for the wedding party.  The newly married couple did not dash out as is customary these days, but spent the night at mamma's, leaving the next morning for the home of the husband's parents, Mr. and Mrs. T. C. Duncan at Benevola (Pickens County), to meet the new family.  There were no bells nor old shoes tied to the buggy - it would have frightened the horses and caused a runaway - neither was any rice throw !  The groom came in a brand new buggy, driving two beautiful black horses by names of "Pet" and "Pansy".

Seeing and being seen!  In the afternoon they went to Bethany where friends had gathered and greeted them and had  prepared a wedding feast.  They had the house all bright and shining and ready for the beginning of housekeeping.  The groom had rented a house and furnished it completely to the pots and pans, kitchen stove, a barn with cows, horses, chickens and pigs!  He remarked afterwards, "I got my cage before I got my bird"!  The following week a colored woman, Fannie Wilder, came to work for the couple as a cook and remained with them for the rest of her life - about 35 years.

The young doctor and his wife settled down to become a part of the community of Pickens County.  They went on their honeymoon after six years when their first child, Laurence was 4 years old - the expense of which was borrowed money from the bank!  They visited the nation's capitol in Washington, the mountains of North Carolina (including Asheville, NC.)  and the Vanderbilt mansion.

Many and varied were the experiences of this young couple, including the ups and downs - and sometimes it seemed mostly downs.  The young wife went with her husband on many of his house calls, arising at midnight to go rather than stay at home alone.  She was a "fraid cat" and would ride behind him on horseback in many instances.  She helped roll pills, fill capsules and measure out calomel in the prescribed doses. She was also, to her great annoyance, his bookkeeper.  On occasions she would witness amputations, arm and leg settings, but was never known to become sick or faint from these undertakings.  Once she even administered the chloroform to a little girl was had been kicked by a mule, caused by her tickling the animal's leg with a straw as he was grazing in a pasture.  The child was completely scalped by the blow and the doctor had to sew the scalp back in place.  The mother of the child ran out of the room rather than witness the operation, and the doctor's wife had to hold the chloroform mask over the child's face.  It was an enormous task for the doctor as he had to sew the child's scalp, watch the pulse, and keep an eye on the nurse, but the patient got well.  The scar was hardly perceptible as it eventually grew up into her hair in the forehead and she became a beautiful woman.  It was amazing how the country doctors managed to set limbs and perform surgery all by themselves with unbelievable results!  On one occasion a young girl fell and her nose was practically cut off her face except for a small piece of skin.  With the aid of another doctor the nose was held in place and sewed back to its original position and today this woman has no scar as the nose grew back as nature had intended.

Doctors often set legs and arms by themselves and got perfect results, sometimes in places where the light was poor, maybe using a pan with only a little water and maybe a hole in the pan - the most primitive conditions where germs would seem to be rife but God took care of the people and the doctors too.  No one was afraid of germs much and perhaps they are a product of our progress too.  We surely have more of every kind of pest, insects of every kind than in the former days.  An illustration given to me recently by a friend who helped Dr. Duncan in an emergency in those days - A man had  a broken leg and sent for the doctor, "a must call".  The only light was from a little brass lamp - the doctor had a lantern in his buggy and it was brought in to furnish extra light.  There was no one present with the patient but his aged mother.  The patient was tied to the head of the bed by his shoulders with a plow line to hold him securely - the help was instructed to pull the leg straight in place while the doctor set the leg and bandaged it.  After a few days the patient pulled all the dressing off and got a crooked leg as a result, but he got well and could walk again!

In a few years the doctor moved to Benevola where he practiced for several years and in December 1918 he moved to Aliceville where he lived until his death and practiced 'til he was stricken in his last illness while he was operating with Dr. Murphy on a patient, Kenneth M. Owens of Pleasant Ridge.  After the operation was over he slumped to the floor in a dead faint, he revived, came home, undressed and was never up again.  He lived four months, going to Lloyd Noland Hospital in Birmingham for surgery.  He came home to Aliceville and lived four weeks - dying on April 14, 1949.

Dr. Murphy, his long life friend and fellow physician, died in February just prior to Dr. Duncan's' stay in the hospital, having visited Dr. Duncan in his early sickness for three weeks.  All the doctors in Pickens County came to see Dr. Duncan but no one diagnosed his case.  On entering the hospital the disease was soon found and treatment was given, including surgery, but to no avail and death called him away.  Drs. Duncan and Murphy are buried near each other in Franconia Cemetery in Aliceville.  After Dr. Murphy's death, Dr. S. R. Parker was his physician and  was most considerate and kind.  He, too, was a life long friend and contemporary.

Dr. Duncan would eagerly watch for the doctors coming each day and say, "I know now what people meant when they would say, 'It does me good just to see the doctor come in the door' ". 

Dr. Duncan was a member of the Presbyterian Church and an Elder for 40 years.  The family altar was established early in their family life.  Kneeling down in their chairs at night when they were young the children would listen to their father, who was the Priest of the home and gave the prayers.  When the children grew older and often out at night, their father would read the scripture and give the prayer in the morning at the breakfast table.

He was a man of honor and integrity, generous with his time as well as his means.  He had many friends attested by the devotion to him to the very last of his illness.  He begged us not to turn away any who wanted to see him and to the very last he would smile and talk to them.  Everything to temp his appetite was brought by loving friends - from quail to venison.  He said when in Birmingham "when we get home we will not have anyone to come to see us, they have already been", but he was mistaken for again food, calls and card

Dr. Duncan was a man of chaste language, never using profane or obscene words.  His wife said she never heard him use an ugly word but once and that was before they were married. They were out riding and the horse got his foot over the doubletree and said "the devil".  He was not a saint, he had a quick temper but his wife said again, "I never talked back, that is the best way to stop an argument.  When we would have a puncture, I would take the children up the road while he fixed the tire."  He never complained during his illness, did not fret or whine and always had a joke and a smile for everyone.  He realized that he could not get well and he said when the doctors in Birmingham informed him of his condition, "They have read my death sentence this morning" and then added, "Do not let me suffer".  He believed in paying his debts too and when he died he was in debt to no one.

The young couple surely had a struggle to pay for their home and to educate their three sons,  all growing to manhood and each attaining a college education.  For a period of 19 years there was one or more of the boys attending college.  It was nip and tuck (mostly tuck) during those days for the dollars did not flow as freely as seen in these days.  The Lord was good to let this couple live to see the results of their labor for the boys were all grown and had gone out in life to make a home for themselves.  One son was a pilot in the Air Force and was killed at Maxwell Field, Montgomery, Alabama on July 29, 1934 as the result of an aircraft crash.  He had flown for five years and was considered a competent pilot, having been assigned to flying the mail when the Air Force took over the mail at one time.

The second son studied medicine, finished college and went to Medical School for three years.  World War II intervened and he entered the Army, married and spent 22 months in the Pacific Theatre, participating in the invasion of Guam, Layte and Okinawa, coming out with the rank of Major.  After his release from the Service he never again took up his studies.  He now lives in Hackensack, New Jersey, where he has a business of his own.

The youngest son studied for the Ministry, finishing college at Southwestern at Memphis, TN; studied at the Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY and received his degree at Princeton.  He is presently living in Birmingham, Alabama where he is Pastor of Shades  Valley Church.

On April 14 1949 the gentle spirit of William Wallace Duncan went out to meet his Maker and on Good Friday, April 15, 1949 his earthly body was laid to rest in Franconia Cemetery near Aliceville by the side of his son, Laurence, until Resurrection Morning.  A large number of friends and relatives were present; the funeral was in the Aliceville Presbyterian Church, conducted by Dr. Joseph Dunglinson, Pastor, and assisted by the Rev. Robert Sloop of Starkville, Mississippi, a former Pastor of the Aliceville Church.  The choir and organist conducted the music, singing "Abide with Me" and "The Lord is my Shepherd".  Flowers, telegrams and cards of sympathy poured in.  A large concourse of friends from several States came to pay their respects to this man of God.

A young man in whose home the doctor had been the family physician and had brought him into the world said to me in a most sincere manner, "Miss Winnie, I guess he was the best man that ever lived." To me that was the dearest and kindest tribute that could have been paid to him.

                                                                                                            Miss Winnie Duncan