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Doctors share stories of old-time Stanly physicians

The works of Dr. Francis Kron, known to be Stanly County’s first physician, are well-documented and well-known, primarily as a result of exhibits and artifacts preserved at Morrow Mountain State Park and the Stanly County History Center.

The physicians who came to Stanly County following Kron’s tenure, although not achieving the notoriety of their predecessor, occupied roles equally as important to the people of the region as did Kron, local physicians stress.

Dr. Eric Johnsen and Dr. Steven Seltzer, who have researched the health care history of Stanly County, recognized these doctors in the first of a two-part presentation at Central United Methodist Church titled “Health Care Heroes of Prior Decades: 1850-1950.”

Since Kron’s legacy is known and occurred primarily prior to 1850, Johnsen and Seltzer focused on those doctors whose practices were subsequent to his.

“Dr. Kron started in 1822, and there is much information and many artifacts in existence that tell us about him,” Seltzer said.

Early physicians had virtually no standards or regulations to meet, Johnsen said.

“Before 1900, there were no standards for medical practice, no minimum education requirements and no required courses,” he said. “Some apprenticed with practicing physicians and eventually advanced into a practice of their own.”

A move toward standardizing and regulating the practice of medicine began in 1910 with the release of a document known as the Flexner Report.

“At the time, there were 155 ‘medical schools’ in the country,” Johnsen said. “The Flexner Report set standards for coursework in core subjects such as chemistry and biology, and in doing so reduced the number of medical schools to 31 nationwide.”

Prior to 1923, there were no hospitals in Stanly County, but two opened in the span of five years.

“The first hospital in Albemarle, known as the Tally-Brunson Hospital, opened in 1923, and in 1927, a group of 10 physicians each invested $30,000 to build Yadkin Hospital, the county’s first public hospital,” Johnsen said.

The original structure in West Albemarle is still standing and in use as the Taylor House, a Baptist Retirement Homes facility.

Early physicians in Stanly County performed their work with limited resources, often with little to no remuneration, while working endless hours, mostly visiting the homes of their patients.

“A physician’s life is one of toil,” stated Dr. Richard Anderson in the text of an address he gave at a graduation ceremony. Anderson, one of Albemarle’s first physicians, came to the city in 1858.

Dr. V.A. Whitley, who apprenticed under Anderson and later practiced medicine in Albemarle, once worked 59 consecutive days without sleeping in a bed during a flu outbreak.

“He slept in his wagon when he could,” Seltzer said. “These doctors were physicians, not ‘providers’ as they are often referred to in the present.”

Dr. Clarence Lentz, who began a practice in Albemarle in 1917, was known to keep no records of which patients paid, instructing them to “pay when you can.”

“He would often drive patients to doctors and hospitals in Charlotte,” Johnsen said, “and after his death, many of the patients he had treated and told to pay later paid his widow.”

The doctors of the late 1800s and early 1900s not only served as physicians, but often filled the role of pharmacist.

“Doctors had to produce their own medicines,” Seltzer said. “There were no prescriptions written nor pharmacies to fill them.”

Diseases faced by these local medical pioneers also differed from the present day.

“Malaria, Typhoid Fever, Scarlet Fever, and Whooping Cough were common,” said Johnsen, who noted that in 45 years as a physician (ending in 2018), he had never had to treat some of these diseases.

Fees for treatment were different as well. In 1905, member physicians of the Stanly County Medical Society adopted a standard common fee for various practices and treatments, many of which were performed in the home of the patient.

Some examples include:

• Home visit (in town) — $1 to $2;

• Office Consultation — $1 to $5;

• Insertion of catheter — $1 to $2.50;

• Removing ingrown toe nail — $3;

• Treating fractures of large bones — $10 to $50;

• Delivery of twins or triplets — $10 to $50; and

• Operation for hernia — $25 to $50.

Johnsen and Seltzer plan to continue their research and will present the second part of the Health Care Heroes series in 2020, highlighting physicians who served the county from 1951 to the present day, as part of the Stanly County Historical Society program.

Meanwhile, an exhibit on the history of health care in the county will be hosted at the Stanly County History Center at 157 N/ Second St. in Albemarle.

Toby Thorpe is a freelance contributor for The Stanly News & Press.