Before large hospitals, centralized medicine and the pharmaceutical industry, many small towns relied exclusively on the services of one doctor for all medical needs. This country doctor truly was the backbone of community health and often traversed the countryside by foot, horse or carriage at all hours of the day or night to reach patients. Once the doctor arrived, it wasn’t uncommon for him to stay at the sick person’s bedside for days if needed, and many country doctors answered every plea for help without regard to whether a patient had the financial means to pay for the service. The Arkansas Country Doctor Museum is only one of four museums in the nation to honor the doctors who worked tirelessly across rural and small town America.
The Arkansas Country Doctor Museum is located just off the town square in downtown Lincoln, southwest of Fayetteville, in a lovely white house that served as a clinic, office and surgical space for three country doctors. Dr. Harold Boyer created the museum in honor of his father, Dr. Herbert Boyer, the last doctor to practice in the home. Dr. Boyer established the museum in 1994 and it was formally dedicated in 1996.
Inside, visitors will find a wide variety of medical history and a glimpse into the lifestyle of a country doctor in the 1950s. The rooms have been stored as closely as possible to their original versions, from the nursery located across the hall from Dr. Boyer’s bedroom, to the separate men’s and women’s recovery rooms where patients recovered from surgeries performed right inside the home.
Among the many objects are exam tables, an iron lung, a birthing bed and many surgical tools. Some of the items are quite similar to what doctors use today while others send chills racing down the spine. The museum also captures the stories of 19th and 20th-century medicine. One of the achievements of the museum is the Hall of Honors, which honors men and women who served Arkansas as doctors and nurses. The museum has researched over 200 doctors, nurses and others in health professions across the state. Those who reach the Hall of Fame served their patients for over 20 years with dedication, compassion and integrity that went beyond the normal expectations of a doctor.
One of these honorees is Dr. Fred Thomas Jones, inducted into the Hall of Fame in March of this year. Dr. Jones’s grandparents were former slaves and Dr. Jones still experienced extensive racism as he opened his practice in Homer, Louisiana. After moving to Shreveport, he established Mercy Sanitarium to meet the needs of patients suffering from tuberculosis and other diseases that required long-term care in the early 1900s.
Another Hall of Famer is Dr. Ruth Ellis Lesh. Dr. Ruth (as she was called by her patients) became a pioneer for women in medicine in Arkansas. She graduated from the University of Arkansas in 1930, obtained a medical degree from Women’s Medical College in Pennsylvania, and returned to her home state to practice medicine for the next 42 years. She broke many barriers along the way, becoming the first woman to hold an office in the Arkansas Medical Society, the first woman to serve as chief of staff at Fayetteville City Hospital and Washington General Hospital and one of the founding fellows of the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology.
Anyone may submit a nomination to the museum to honor a country doctor. Once submitted, the museum will research the nominee, collect information and archive it, then vote on whether the nominee meets the criteria to be placed in the Hall of Honor. They also welcome additional information on the medical personnel already nominated and encourage the community to help preserve the history of country doctors in Arkansas.
The museum doesn’t just highlight doctors, though. Peggy Ann McCormack was only 16 in 1952 when she contracted a devastating case of polio that left her paralyzed from the neck down. For the next 31 years, Peggy lived her life almost entirely in an iron lung, encapsulated from the neck down in a machine that breathed for her. She learned to paint by holding an elongated paintbrush in her teeth and eventually earned a living by selling her paintings. Later, she learned to type in same manner and wrote poetry and stories. The museum displays several copies of her paintings and poetry, as well as an iron lung.
The staff at the Arkansas Country Doctor museum welcome the involvement of the community and state, whether it’s to take a tour of the museum, research a particular physician, or volunteer. The museum is open Wednesday through Saturday from 1- 4 p.m. and group tours are available, including school groups. The staff love to talk about the history of country doctors in the state and have many more stories to share about a fascinating time period in Arkansas history.
Photos by the staff of the Arkansas Country Doctor Museum and used with permission.