Editor’s Note: A version of this essay was presented as a lecture sponsored by the Bethel Historical Society on 7 November 1991 held in the Dr. Moses Mason House exhibit hall. The author has revised, added to and updated her remarks for this issue.
In this essay, I deliberately limited the time period to those years which I know well. My father, Raymond R. Tibbetts, M.D. (1875-1958), practiced medicine in Bethel from 1905 to 1957. My mother, Pearl Ashby Tibbetts (1885-1982), was a registered nurse. I was born in 1919 and I have many recollections of what life in a busy doctor’s house was like. Obviously, my memories are not all inclusive, but eyewitness accounts are often very useful to future historians even if inadequate. My memories also, of course, tend to feature one doctor—Dr. Tibbetts. Since he practiced here for over fifty years, his experiences were very typical; perhaps in some cases—accidents, for example—his experiences were broader than for the other doctors, since Dr. Tibbetts’ office was on upper Main Street beside the drug store and emergency cases were often brought to the easiest office to locate.
The early 1900s were a period of rapid change in American life; much of the change came in the form of great inventions. These inventions were eventually to transform the life of the average American. Among the earliest of these transformations were the telephone, which came to Bethel in 1895, and the automobile that arrived here seven years later in 1902.
The most popular and the busiest of Bethel doctors at that time was Dr. John A. Twaddle (1849-1918). There were other doctors. Dr. Tibbetts bought his practice from Dr. John Sturtevant in 1907. Dr. Twaddle, a native of Weld, had come to Bethel in 1877 and enjoyed a very large practice. In country towns, doctors were usually prominent citizens, and Dr. Twaddle was accepted as an almost indispensable part of Bethel life. The Twaddles—old Doctor Twaddle and his two sons, Dr. Widd and Dr. Gard Twaddle—all had fine personalities. They were noted for their friendliness, humor, kindness and competence.
Dr. Twaddle’s practice covered a large area: Bethel Hill, West, East, North and South Bethel, Greenwood, Mason, Albany, Newry, sometimes Upton, and, after the death of Dr. John Willard, Woodstock. In time, other doctors including Dr. Twaddle’s son, Dr. Widd, and Dr. Tibbetts also had patients in these areas.
When Dr. Twaddle began his practice, he used a horse and buggy to cover his territory. This conveyance was delightful at some seasons of the year, but had obvious limitations when a doctor was needed in a hurry—for example in the case of a serious accident. Accidents were common in the country. In time, the telephone and the automobile would become essential for the physicians, but in the early 1900s one could not be sure of finding a telephone in every home, and in the winter, particularly, one could not assume that the automobile would reach the patient through drifts of snow, and not every patient owned an automobile. I can remember when, in the winter, my father kept horses in our barn up until 1927. When I was five years old (1924), I saw how difficult it could be for country people. One winter day we were all in the kitchen when a big old horse with sleigh came thundering into the dooryard. The horse was covered with ropes of sweat. My mother jumped up and rushed to send my brother out to help the young boys in the sleigh walk the horse to cool down. “Do not let that horse drink water,” she called to the boys and rushed to help the doctor (my father) into a surgical gown. When they brought the injured child into the house the blood dripped through the old quilt so much that the hall floor was slippery. Later we were told that the child in the quilt had been playing with others on the roof of a small farm building. The children jumping around did not see a weather vane under the snow, and the weather vane’s very sharp edge had cut the child severely. There was much stitching for the doctor to do. What impressed me most at the time was the worn out old horse. Now I think of how agonizing for the parents that trip must have been: a bleeding, crying child and other children frightened and shivering under the edges of an old quilt. Also I now think of how many things could go wrong in dealing with wounds of that magnitude
Both local patients and doctors were to benefit in 1924 when the campaign to build the Rumford Hospital was launched. The initiative for the Hospital came from a prominent Rumford surgeon, Dr. Eugene McCarty, who was moved to begin the project by his experiences in having to take patients out of town to find a hospital. For the doctors, the Rumford Hospital meant a significant rise in the level of possible care.
After old Dr. Twaddle died in 1918, he was succeeded in his practice by his older son, Dr. Widd Twaddle (1884-1963). The Bethel doctors all got along well with each other. They practiced independently and seldom consulted on a case, but they “talked shop” a good deal at the drugstore with the druggist. William Bosserman (1861-1948) was the owner of the drugstore; his pharmacist, Alton Carroll (1896-1973), was considered exceptionally good at his job.
Along with Dr. Tibbetts and Dr. Twaddle, the third doctor in the 1920s and early 1930s was Dr. Isaac W. Wight, who died in 1931. He was much liked, a tall slender, courteous man. He was succeeded by his nephew, Dr. Harry Wilson, young, energetic, and very good looking. During World War II, Dr. Wilson left to go into military service. At the war’s end, he left Bethel permanently. Dr. Homer Lawrence came to Bethel in 1942. He was succeeded by Dr. Willard Boynton in 1945. For two years Dr. John A. Matheson was associated with Dr. Boynton. They also served as Gould Academy physicians as did Dr. Tibbetts in an earlier era.
All the doctors were busy; none was a specialist. At that time, country doctors were expected to be able to take care of all types of cases, at least initially. Relations between doctors and patients were very informal. Seldom did patients make appointments. Usually they just came to the office when convenient or telephoned. Dr. Tibbetts carried most of his files and appointment schedules in his head. Fortunately, he had an excellent memory. His medical files consisted of the daily record of patients seen with the name of the patient, the type of the illness or affliction—one or two words—and then two or three words followed by a line to indicate whether or not the patient had paid.
Bethel had very few arrangements for helping or caring for poor people before the New Deal of President Franklin Roosevelt came into being. The informality of the time and the doctors’ relations with their patients somewhat compensated for the relative indifference of town officials.
My mother told me of one instance of my father stopping for gas at Frank Robertson’s filling station on Railroad Street (now the Big Apple). Frank said that a little girl from a house across the tracks had left a message with Frank to ask Dr. Tibbetts to come by and look at her brother who had a “bad bellyache.” The doctor said to tell her he would come by after supper. When he went down after supper, my mother went with him. She said below the tracks it was pitch black, impossible to see except with car lights. The doctor said the absence of street lights was due to the stinginess of the town officials who did not believe in spending taxpayer’s money on poor people.
When they entered one of the small houses below the tracks, the parents had no idea the doctor was coming but welcomed him warmly. To go upstairs, the doctor went on a ladder, examined the little boy carefully (he told my mother he was afraid the appendix might rupture). After pushing and probing, etc., the doctor decided the little boy was all right but that his sister should keep a watch for danger signals.
Dr. Isaac H. Wight. He died 28 October 1931, age 56. He was found dead in his car near Riverside Cemetery. A member of the Bethel Odd Fellows and the local Masonic lodge, he was also a trustee of Gould Academy and president of the Bethel Savings Bank. Over four hundred attended his funeral at the Bethel Congregational Church. He began his practice in Bethel in 1902 shortly after his graduation from the University of Vermont Medical School.
The doctor’s fees at that time were laughable by today’s standards, even allowing for changes in the value of money. A patient’s visit to Dr. Tibbetts in 1930 cost $1; later in the 1930s it increased to $2. A visit to the patient’s home in the country was $5. An enterprising young local man returned to Bethel from Massachusetts for his wife to have their baby when he discovered that for delivery and postnatal care Dr. Tibbetts charged $25.
Fortunately for the older doctors it was not until after World War II that medical insurance was used frequently by patients because, prior to that time, they were frustrated with the process and skeptical of even the idea. Neither my mother nor my father ever came to accept the concept of medical insurance easily. My father thought it a nuisance and my mother believed it promoted carelessness.
My mother often said that my father could not have practiced medicine successfully without the Bethel telephone operators and Alton Carroll. Compared to today’s medical standards of careful files, medical histories, complex equipment and medications, the methods and routines of country doctors of the pre-war period were backward. The medical drug salesman who came regularly in the 1920s and 1930s began to be replaced by more sophisticated methods of selling new drugs. Perhaps one of the most useful developments was the cooperation among doctors allowing them to have joint practices and time off at regular intervals.
The type of practice to which my mother referred and the one in which she participated so fully was often exciting and challenging. The telephone operators were regular players in “hunting down” or locating the doctor as he made his rounds in order to save time, mileage and money. Relatively often my father would be wanted on one side of the Androscoggin and at the same time he was speeding along the back roads to reach the other side. The need to intercept him was a “game” the operators played with great skill. A Bethel operator—the best at that time were Mona Martyn and Alice Smith—would telephone operators and acquaintances on the appropriate side, outline the problem and the time limits. The operators would then find someone willing to hail the doctor as he came by at the right time. Once the message was delivered, the doctor would rush off as needed. No one ever refused or hesitated about helping.
Dr. Widd B. Twaddle (extreme right) poses with members of his wife’s family on Metallak Island, Umbagog Lake, about 1915. Also in the photograph are, standing (left to right): Aldana (1855-1928) and Mary King Brooks (1865-1934), Gerry Brooks (1878-1966), D. Grover Brooks (1892-1955), Harry Brooks (1883-1943), Agnes Brooks Twaddle (1885-1971). Seated (left to right): Mildred Mason Brooks (1882-1934), Ethel Sanborn Brook (1888-1945). Photo courtesy of Donald and Eleanor Brooks.
Alton Carroll’s friendship and assistance were most valuable to my mother. He could read my father’s handwriting, assist my mother when patients arrived at the office during the doctor’s absence to ask for medications, and often work with my mother on numerous accidents by bandaging victims while waiting for the doctor to return.
When the war ended in 1945, my father was seventy and beginning to talk of retiring, although, except for refusing to make night calls, he did not change his daily routines much. The system of organizing doctor’s offices changed considerably, however, with joint practices, more modern equipment, and the eventual development of extensive health insurance organizations, both private and government operated. These new developments, which seemed to save some of the doctor’s time, are now common. The days of chasing the doctor down within a sizable area are no longer necessary. Bethel went through a period of reorganization, which eventually in the 1970s and 1980s resulted in the formation of the Bethel Health Center, which is outside the limits of this presentation, but remains a story that needs to be told.
My brother, sister and I all realized even as children that my father thoroughly enjoyed practicing medicine and reveled in being a country doctor. He liked the variety and the excitement; he enjoyed the admiration of the townspeople and the sense of being useful. He was amply repaid for his hard work and late hours by the loyalty of his patients and their respect for his courage and skill. He was not an easygoing or cheerful, joking man. Often he was brusque and silent. In his defense, he did not have much chance to talk when my mother, sister and I were all at home. In all the years I knew him, he only once told a funny story. He was, however, a devastating mimic, who could do a priceless interpretation of the Headmaster of Gould Academy or some of the self-important guests at the Bethel Inn with whom he played golf. Medicine was his major interest, and he enjoyed practicing in a town surrounded by woods and mountains. He loved making his house calls to watch the changing seasons, the progress of each farmer’s crops, or the occasional deer or partridge in an orchard eating buds.
My mother told me once that she and my father often thought how fortunate they had been when as strangers fate brought them to Bethel to live in a beautiful town, in pleasant surroundings with so many good people living there. Bethel has had conscientious and able doctors who have helped to make this a place in which we are all happy to live. May all future doctors be as happy here as have been the Bethel doctors of its past.