Survival of a young country doctor


“Dog trainers have a saying that in order to train a dog one must know more than the dog. In order to drive a horse in dangerous situations, one must know more than the horse. I soon learned that in intelligence in dangerous situations my horse knew more than I and I always deferred to his judgment.”
– from Horse and Buggy Doctor
by Arthur Hertzler, M.D., 1938

In this day of changing atmosphere in the area of family medicine, there is nothing quite so refreshing as reading about the golden, olden days of doctors making house calls.
Dr. Arthur Hertzler was determined to become a doctor, even though his parents did everything they could to put a stop to his foolishness.
Education. In the late 1800s, the trend was to keep children close to home by limiting their education.
Hertzler tells of practically starving to death as he worked his way through his education, determined to help end the scourge of fatalities in his Midwestern community from such things as measles, diphtheria and smallpox.
It is around 1930 when he writes, “It is difficult to realize the position of the country boy of 50 years ago bitten by an ambition to enter the medical profession.
“It was generally believed by the laity in our community that all the lawyers and two-thirds of the doctors went to hell.
“Most of the doctors of that day were addicted to liquor, smoked pipes and did not go to church. I knew full well that any mention of my ambitions would bring on a storm of protest,” Hertzler writes.
The young man was right. He was given no support, and notes that he practically starved to death while being forced to walk seven miles to purchase old bread a couple of times a week while in medical school.
“To go hungry is not so bad at the time; the pangs of hunger are not so keen to a boy as a real healthy appetite.
“Possibly those so zealous to feed the heathen while they neglect the child next door know this.
“It is not the tragedies of childhood that hurt so much as the memory of them in later years.
“Struggling for an education on a bread and potato diet, I did not suffer from a sense of a lack of proper nutrition but from a feeling of utter exhaustion.”
Survival. Nevertheless, Hertzler graduated from medical school, his sense of adventure and his sense of humor amazingly well intact.
Both were required in order to survive.
Hertzler tells incredible stories of traveling by horse and buggy, sometimes sleeping due to sheer exhaustion, allowing the horses to lead the way.
He tells of one night, being awakened out of a nice sleep by a “peculiar jerk of the buggy.”
The doctor awoke with a start, and realized “my team was gone. There I sat in a buggy on a snow-covered prairie apparently without a team.
“The fact was, of course, that the team had run into a snow-filled ditch; once in, the loose snow covered them completely and they were quite invisible to sleepy eyes.”
The good doctor took his shovel and dug them out, unhitched them, backed them on to the road and hitched them up again.
He was lost and confused by his sleepiness and the blinding snow. He sat for a time, then allowed the horses to determine which way they had been going and continue on, five miles west to get to the patient.
How in the world did the horses know which way to go? I have read this book a number of times and am still stumped by this!
Next week: The horse and buggy doctor deals with the onslaught of trains and automobiles.


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Judith Sutherland, born and raised on an Ohio family dairy farm, now lives on a 70-acre farm not far from the area where her father’s family settled in the 1850s. Appreciating the tranquility of rural life, Sutherland enjoys sharing a view of her world through writing. Other interests include teaching, reading, training dogs and raising puppies. She and her husband have two children, a son and a daughter, and three grandchildren.