The Doctor Book

I grew up in my Grandmother Fanny’s house, getting most of my medical care from the same woman who treated Esther in this story. Esther describes the all too common wound of a foot punctured by a random nail.

Henry on crutches – after a 1936 snowstorm.

Henry on crutches – after a 1936 snowstorm.

As a wide-ranging eight year old child, bare foot most of the summer, I stepped on plenty of nails and sticks, pulling them out of my foot before heading home for Grandma’s treatment according to the “Doctor Book” that Esther describes. The standard treatment for foot wounds was to wrap the wound in bacon and wait. It may have worked, as the salt from the bacon could reduce infection.

The other treatment that is much more memorable was for sunburn. In the summer, neighborhood kids went without shoes or shirts. On the exceptionally sunny summer afternoons we’d come home beet red with sunburn. I hated the treatment described in the book. Vinegar.

Grandma would douse us thoroughly with vinegar and we’d scream. To treat the pain, she’d tell us to run around the outside of the house as fast as we could. Twice. I understand that part of the treatment. Get those screaming kids out of the house!

You can find descriptions of both treatments on various home remedy websites.

One more thing about the “Doctor Book.” Grandma still had it in the house in the fifties. We boys loved to sneak a peek at the book, just to see the gruesome photos of various boils, deformities, and diseases. That was one gross book. Maybe that’s what triggered my life-long interest in things medical?

Grandpa Guy Havelick

Esther writes:

Harold, still born, 1936

Harold, still-born, 1936

It’s difficult to compare today’s medical care with what we had available to us in the 20’s and 30’s in rural North Dakota. I remember a country doctor who lived a few miles away, who also farmed. I am not sure how much farming he did by himself—I do know that in later years he hired my brother Henry to put up hay for him, so he must have had livestock. This doctor also had pharmacy supplies in his farm-house-office. I can remember seeing jars and bottles of powders and pills on his shelves. Of course, he made “house calls.” I think he attended when some of us were born, but not sure which ones. I think his name, Karterman, is on my birth certificate. All five children were born at home. The youngest who was stillborn, very nearly cost my mother her life.


Esther on the farm in North Dakota

There were also doctors in some of the small towns. House calls were made by one from Tappan when I had pneumonia in 1936. During that time we had six weeks of winter when the temperature never got above zero. We had our share of injuries and illnesses, some serious and some not so serious; but most were treated by Mama with help from her “doctor” book. She studied the book seriously to diagnose and treat. If the book said you stay in bed for a certain number of days with the measles or chicken pox, you better believe we stayed in bed for that number of days. Punctures of bare feet by nails in boards were a common hazard and were treated at home. I don’t remember what year it was when Mama had scarlet fever, but I think Melvin and I were both going to school; we were quarantined and missed the first couple of weeks of school, but no one else in the family contracted the disease.

When Henry slipped on some snow on the kitchen linoleum and broke his hip, I think he was the first family member to be in the hospital in Bismarck. The ball joint was broken off and he was in traction for about six weeks. He was 16. Health insurance was unknown. My father made a deal with the hospital to pay part of the bill with a butchered hog for the hospital kitchen.

I had pneumonia twice, Melvin and Grace each once, and all were treated by the country doctors and Mama at home. Note, this was before sulfa and antibiotics. We were treated with mustard plasters, and mostly hope-for-the-best. Papa suffered from rheumatism and a bad back. A practitioner (whether or not a doctor, I don’t know) who had a diagnostic machine, claimed that with this machine he could trace the source of the pain to the body part that was causing the problem. His diagnosis—the rheumatism was caused by bad teeth. Believing him, Papa had the designated teeth pulled though the dentist objected. The wonderful machine was later discredited as a hoax. Ted died when he was 47 from a perforated duodenal ulcer.

Note: lists a Monroe Karterman as a resident of Kidder County North Dakota in the twenties and thirties.