|History of Medicine
in Athens County, Ohio
Gary E Cordingley, MD, PhD
This county's medical history includes elements as diverse as horseback
doctors, kitchen-table appendectomies and pregnancy-diagnosing frogs.
This article depicts a century of local medical history by emphasizing the following themes—changing
demographics of medical care, influences of Ohio University and the Athens State Hospital, sectarian
vs. mainstream medicine, evolution of diagnostic testing and the rise of specialization.
Changing demographics of medical care
In 1901 the Physicians’ and Dentists’ Directory of the State of Ohio identified 11 different towns as
home bases for the county’s 47 physicians, including four towns with populations of 300 or fewer. By
itself, the metropolis of Coolville, population 330, supported five physicians. In contrast, a hundred
years later, the Verizon telephone directory of 2001 showed all but five of the county’s 64 resident
physicians concentrated in just two cities, Athens and Nelsonville, leaving only three medical doctors
for Coolville and one each for Albany and Glouster.
Why the shift? The answer, in short, is roads, vehicles and hospitals.
Edward Stanley, M.D., who practiced between 1898 and 1944, mainly in Albany, contended with the
transportation difficulties of the earlier period. According to his daughter, Aldena Stanley Frey:
“Dr. Stanley started out in the horse and buggy days when bad weather meant a good strong horse
and saddlebags. Many trips took him away from home for a whole day and night in case of serious
illness or long drawn out deliveries. As time passed and roads improved he used a closed buggy in
most weather, but still resorted to horseback on the worst winter days. He hired a driver, Joe Brooks,
who kept the fires stoked at the house and office and who slept at the office. When a night call came,
two rings on the phone would rouse Joe, who then came to the barn, harnessed the horses and
drove on the call.
“After cars came into somewhat general usage, Dr. Stanley bought his first Ford and used it in
summer and early fall, putting it in the barn for the winter and early spring when the roads were too
bad. As some roads became passable for year-round travel, he would drive the car to the end of the
good road where farmers would meet him with horse, wagon or sled depending on the weather. He
had several narrow escapes both with runaway horses and in his cars, but managed somehow to be
lucky enough to escape serious injury.”
The development of hospitals also affected demographics of care. Converted from the Athens home
of Charles and Delia Breinig in 1921, Sheltering Arms Hospital proved a magnet for medical care, as
did Mount St. Mary’s Hospital in Nelsonville after it opened in 1950. Physicians increasingly relied
upon hospitals for treatment of medical and surgical inpatients, and to provide diagnostic services,
like x-rays and blood tests, for outpatients.
Influences of Ohio University and the Athens State Hospital
Ohio University has been both an employer and trainer of medical personnel. In 1937 the university’s
growing student body prompted the employment of physicians working full-time on behalf of the
students. E. Herndon Hudson, M.D., the Student Health Service’s second director from 1940-1955,
moved the service out of the basement of the Agriculture Building into a new facility that was
eventually named for him. Prior to the opening of O’Bleness Memorial Hospital in 1970, the health
service even provided on-site care for inpatients.
In 1975 the opening of Ohio University’s College of Osteopathic Medicine changed the local medical
landscape, as the newly arrived osteopathic faculty members not only taught medical students, but
provided care to the county’s residents. In many cases, graduates of the new medical school
remained in the community as practitioners.
Opening in 1874, the Athens State Hospital grew rapidly. With a patient census peaking over 2000 in
the 1950s, the state hospital not only employed its own physicians, but kept community physicians
busy as well.
Another influence of the growing state hospital was to support the careers of female physicians. In
those days, women found more opportunities to work in institutional practices. The first female
physician to practice in Athens County was Agnes Pyle Johnson Richmond, M.D., who worked at the
state hospital 1881-1889. Subsequently, Ada Ford, M.D., launched her career there 1909-1911,
and an already seasoned Beatrice Postle Fockler, M.D., became the director of women’s services at
the hospital 1940-1962.
Sectarian vs. mainstream medicine
Squabbles among M.D.s (allopaths), D.O.s (osteopaths) and chiropractic practitioners represent just
the latest chapter in turf-battles among medical sects that go at least as far back as the early
nineteenth century. Without much scientific evidence to go on in the 1800s, philosophical differences
among medical sects ran deep. Mainstream physicians often used high doses of harsh and even
toxic drugs, which was acknowledged by Boston physician and poet Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. when
he wrote that if, with the exception of opium, one sank all the drugs then used “to the bottom of the
sea, it would be all the better for mankind, and all the worse for the fishes.”
Mainstream physicians faced challenges from Thomsonians who emphasized botanically based
drugs, from homeopaths who treated their patients with miniscule doses of drugs, and from “eclectics”
who disavowed any philosophy of medicine, using whatever treatment seemed to work.
Athens County received medical graduates from all these sects, but—far from their philosophical
power-centers—the local practitioners seemed more pragmatic than dogmatically pure. For example,
John Higgins, M.D., an 1893 graduate of a Cincinnati homeopathic school, became Athens County’s
first and longest-serving health commissioner, and John Webb, M.D., a 1917 graduate of a Chicago
homeopathic school, became a leading surgeon in Nelsonville.
The medical sect of osteopathy, founded by Andrew T. Still in the late nineteenth century,
emphasized treatment by manual manipulation, with surgery considered acceptable “when
necessary.” However, over time and as drug treatments improved, osteopaths additionally sought
the right to prescribe them. Fighting for this as well as for surgical privileges—which in Ohio and
many other states had been denied them—put the D.O.s on a collision course with the prevailing M.
D. graduates who were already providing these services. In broadening the scope of their
treatments, osteopathic physicians sometimes found themselves in the difficult position of explaining
in one breath how they differed from their allopathic colleagues and, in the next, how they were the
In Athens County there has always been enough work to go around so that conscientious medical
practitioners of every stripe have been able to earn decent livings. Relationships between M.D.s and
D.O.s have remained cordial, if sometimes strained, and collaborations in the day-to-day practice of
medicine have depended more on the physicians’ individual qualities than on the letters following
Evolution of diagnostic testing
As early as 1921, x-ray equipment was apparently briefly operational in leased space on the second
floor of the Athens National Bank building. In 1924 Blaine Goldsberry, M.D., introduced x-ray imaging
at Sheltering Arms Hospital. Dr. Goldsberry was the same individual described in the county’s
centennial atlas of 1905 as a “bright, active” boy of 12 in the Athens hardware store of his father,
In 1937 Carl Frey, Ph.D., professor of bacteriology at Ohio University, supervised installation of a
clinical laboratory within Sheltering Arms Hospital. Dr. Frey hired Charles Fulks as a technologist to
do the laboratory's day-to-day work.
According to Mr. Fulks, “Back then the laboratory was about the size of a small office. It consisted of
a small centrifuge, a monocular microscope, a Bunsen burner and a colorimeter, an old device in
which you matched the colors and density of your specimen against a chart, took a reading off that,
and then converted it to a number. What it boiled down to back then is that you had to do real
laboratory work. Nowadays if you want to hire a good medical technologist you find somebody who's
had a lot of experience with a computer, because everything is packaged for you.”
Fulks described an early pregnancy test: “I would inject the woman's urine beneath the skin of a
male frog. Then, about an hour later, I'd take the frog and squeeze it to make it urinate. If there were
sperm present, the patient was pregnant.
Fulks joked: “People used to ask me how the test worked and I would tell them to come down
sometime while I'm doing one and I'd show them. I said I'd put the frog on the floor and if it jumped
towards the North Pole, it was positive. If it jumped towards the South Pole, it was negative.”
Toward the end of the twentieth century, imaging technology made leaps of its own. O’Bleness
Memorial Hospital and John Murrey, D.O., radiologist, acquired the county’s first computed
tomographic (CT) scanner in 1983 and the county’s first magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner
in 1991. Now, in the bicentennial year of 2005, the hospital is arranging to acquire a positron
emission tomographic (PET) scanner, a technology that will become widely useful in the coming
Rise of specialization
The beneficial relationship between doctors and nurses seems so natural that one might suppose it
has always existed, but this is not the case. Nursing can be considered as one of the first medical
specialties. The massive scale of injuries and illnesses associated with the American Civil War made
female volunteers, the forerunners of modern nurses, indispensable. Their aggressive efforts in
support of cleanliness, hygiene and empathetic care did as much good, if not more, than many of the
doctors’ interventions. In Athens County, schools of nursing have existed at different times at the
Athens State Hospital, Ohio University and Nelsonville’s Hocking College.
Psychiatric physicians—known as “alienists” at first because they treated people who had been
alienated from society—began work in the Athens State Hospital when it opened in 1874 and have
remained continuously active there to the present day.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, Athens County had no hospitals to support surgical
procedures and, for that matter, no surgeons. Patients in need of emergency surgery got shipped by
rail to Columbus, but with a frequently poor outcome due to the inherent delays. In 1914 local
practitioners John Sprague, M.D. of Athens, his brother Warren Sprague, M.D., of Chauncey and
James Blower, M.D., of Glouster decided to do something about this problem.
According to Edward Sprague, M.D., John’s son, “They went to Harvard and took a course in
surgery. They learned how to take out an appendix or a gallbladder and repair hernias, but mainly
how to do appendectomies and give the proper anesthetics. When they came back they still had no
hospital to operate in, so Dad did a lot of kitchen surgeries. He’d go out on a house call, make a
diagnosis of appendicitis, and call Warren or another doctor to assist. On the kitchen table they’d
give anesthetics and take out the appendix. Dad and Dr. Warren saved a lot of lives by doing
appendectomies on kitchen tables here in Athens County. Of the first one hundred cases they did,
just eight died.”
In subsequent decades, more formally trained general surgeons would take up the scalpel in Athens
County, including early practitioners William Allen, M.D., Philip Kinnard, M.D., Theron Morgan, M.D.,
and Tamin Najm, M.D., all of whom performed operations in both Athens and Nelsonville.
In 1906 Thomas Copeland, M.D., became the county’s first specialist in eye, ear, nose and throat
treatment, and in 1935 Charles Hoskins, M.D., joined his practice. Allan Baldwin, M.D., became the
county’s first pediatrician in 1951. Trained in internal medicine, Carroll Sines, M.D., opened a
practice in Nelsonville in 1955, and Jon Tipton, M.D., was an internist who practiced in Athens in the
1960s. John Kroner, M.D., was the first obstetrician and gynecologist, starting his Athens practice in
1968. In 1970 Earl Stanley, M.D., became the county’s first residency-trained radiologist.
Ophthalmologists Henry Croci, M.D., and Bruce Paxton, M.D., opened their joint ophthalmology
practice in 1971.
By the end of the county’s second century the additional specialties of anesthesiology, dermatology,
emergency medicine, endocrinology, family medicine, geriatrics, neurology, oncology, orthopedic
surgery, otolaryngology, pathology and vascular surgery had all been represented by locally residing
(C) 2005 by Gary Cordingley
History of Medicine in Athens County, Ohio