Mary Elizabeth Birchfield my Great Great Grandmother
In Midwest rural communities during the 1800’s and into 1900’s there was a shortage of educated physicians. To see a doctor within 100 miles one would have to travel by horse or foot. This could be a death sentence for some. These settlements and dispersed farm communities suffered from diseases like scarlet fever, influenza, and smallpox just like larger towns.
Rural communities depended on Hill Doctors, or folk healers.
Hill doctors had dependable knowledge. They assisted in dire situations but also in births, deaths, broken limbs, cracked teeth, etc. Just like today there was a constant need for medical care in every community. Homesteaders depended on someone who lived in their communities and trusted them with their lives. The person that Qulin, MO and surrounding area depended on during the late 1800’s and into the 1900’s was my Great Great Grandmother Mary Elizabeth Birchfield. Later she became known as ‘Ma Petty.’ She was a loved member of her rural community for generations.
Like the patients they treated, the pioneer physicians were long on courage and endurance, and short on almost everything else. The typical practitioner could stuff all his supplies and equipment into his saddlebags. Usually he carried homemade bandages, a few drugs, a mortar and pestle for mixing prescriptions, some syringes, perhaps some hot water bottles of pewter or crockery, and a small assortment of knives and saws…Well-equipped frontier doctor(s) had added tooth forceps, stethoscope, and obstetrical instruments to the meager list.https://www.americanheritage.com/doctors-frontier#5, Groh, George, April 1963
Holding the position of hill doctor in her town was not easy.
The possibility of getting infected with a disease herself ran high. For years she was able to avoid sickness but in the winter of 1917 a measles outbreak hit their community. As she tended to very sick families, three of her own children came down with the virus. Her daughters, Tessie, Clara Lou Ella, and Nettie Pearl all developed the measles and secondary pneumonia. Tessie (aged 7 years) and Clara Lou Ella (aged 3 years) passed away within 5 days of each other in February of 1917. Ma Petty missed the funeral for her daughters to tend to Nettie and continued to nurse her to health. Nettie is my maternal Great Grandmother.
Nettie Pearl and Tessie Lancaster 1910
Rural doctors…often created their own medications, as well as many of the instruments they used…The rural family doctor was well known in the community and was often considered the most valuable asset in the area. They saw people into and out of this world and in the meantime tried to keep them alive and healthy.https://www.ohsu.edu/historical-collections-archives/stories-frontier-settlement-doctors
I remembered my Grandfather’s account of seeing Ma Petty for a stomach illness. My grandfather had been suffering from severe stomach pain for a few days. Ma Petty gave him a tonic. He said it was a nastiest tasting liquid he had ever had. But after one night, he felt back to normal. He was glad to be better but doubly happy because he didn’t want to drink that remedy every again.
As rural towns became more established into the 1900’s actual doctors became more prevalent. They began to move into the communities they once never visited. For a while, many people didn’t trust physicians and still went to see local hill doctors like Ma Petty.
As time went on doctors became more of a staple in society leaving rural hill doctors by the wayside.
Ma Pettys daughter, Nettie, grew up to be a nurse. My oldest daughter and I are both Respiratory Therapists. Two of my cousins, Emily and Emma, are Nurses and my sister, Amanda, works in Pharmaceutical Drug Research. I guess you can say we are a family of medical professionals carrying on a healing legacy.
Do you have an ancestor in your line that was a hill doctor or folk healer? I want to know all about the stories you have and get to know that person in your past.
Holler at me if you are also in the medical field!
Want to know who I discovered when I emptied out an envelope? Check out this blog post!
Deborah Campbell Moersch says
I am privileged to say I got to spend time with this remarkable lady. As children my sister and I would spend time in the summers at my greatgrandma Petty’s farm. She taught us about farm life and life in general. Thanks for this loving tribute to her!
Pioneer Flunkies says
Wish I was able to meet her! I’m so glad you have memories with this remarkable women!
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