“Anyone who reaches the heights of his ambition never had an ambition.”
— Arthur Hertzler, M.D., 1938
The advancement of a civilization can be chronicled through personal stories of the study of medicine. For those among us who feel our current day may be tough sledding, a simple reminder of grittier days can be found in old autobiographies, prompting the realization we were built on strong shoulders.
Hertzler wrote The Horse and Buggy Doctor, which was published in 1938. Born in the 1880s, he saw some of the worst of times in terms of physical suffering.
He had to start somewhere, he knew, if he wanted to achieve his goal to one day become a doctor, a possibility born while still quite young, and before doctors really had much power, or prestige, for that matter.
He watched eight of his nine neighbor playmates carried off in coffins, all succumbing to diphtheria, leaving only the family’s 9-month-old baby untouched.
“Watching that mother, carrying her baby with her while she did all the farm work, taught me that it is not the dying but the living who suffer.”
He witnessed scarlet fever sweep entire communities, often leaving survivors deaf. Measles and smallpox and tuberculosis and many unknown horrors were regarded as inevitable, and in this day, not even the very ill was isolated, so disease continued to spread.
Only the very strong survived. Hartzler was one of the survivors, and from a very young age, he wanted to find a way to help the sick. He began milking cows at age 9, by 11 started to plow corn, and by age 12 he took his “regular place plowing ten hours a day … I had for my team an old mare and her cantankerous colt.
“This added to my labors because the colt wanted to go every place but straight down the row, and watching him and the plow also doubled my labor. Tall and frail of body, I am still haunted by these long cruel days. I can say with Horace Mann that I was rocked in the cradle of toil and she rocked me too hard.”
Feeling certain that farming was not for him, he moved in with an uncle to attend an academy. In exchange for board, he was to milk the cows, tend the horses and flatten out iron in the blacksmith shop with a 16-pound sledgehammer.
In school, the tall and gangly young man was stumped by Latin, and horrified by the giggles of young girls as he attempted to speak it, dressed in clothes that were far too small for his tall frame.
“No wonder some boys develop an inferiority complex which they must battle the rest of their lives. Six inches more of pants might have changed my whole life.”
Studying Greek, mathematics and English, one lesson stood out for this young man who was constantly hungry.
“I learned that a straight line is the shortest distance between two points. This impressed me as utterly silly. I had already demonstrated this fact, in the course of farm labors, whenever the dinner bell rang.”
Next week: Part two: the difficult journey.