Biographical Sketch of Dr. William Henry Abington
January 2, 1870 – March 15, 1951
April 20, 1873 – March 1951
All calculations herein were made using birthdate of 1873.
All clipped quotes are from: Abington, E. H. Backroads and Bicarbonate: The Autobiography of an Arkansas Country Doctor.
New York: Vintage Press, 1955
Under similar circumstances, conditions, and education, men form similar opinions, both on public and private matters. In the human family, all races are influenced by their surroundings and their teachings, and they form conclusions based upon these. This being so, it is no wonder that people of the same race, living far apart and under different conditions, should have different views on many fundamental subjects.
This may explain to the reader of another time and another background why I have believed as I have and why I have acted as I have during the long life whose circumstances and conditions I will reveal in this book.
I was born on a cotton plantation in the Deep South on April 20, 1873. There were only four white children in our school district—my sister, my brother, myself, and a boy by the name of Herman Taylor. The Taylor’s sold out and moved away, leaving only three of us. We had no schoolhouse for whites. The schoolteacher lived in what we called our “parlor room,” which was used as a schoolroom by day and a bedroom by night. My sister, being older, boarded and went to school at Des Arc in Prairie County, Arkansas. p.7
When William Henry was fifteen years old, his father died. He finished High School with a private teacher. An unfair incident caused him to become critical of the penal system and he loudly complained. As a result he was appointed a member of the penal board by the Governor. From that time forward he was interested in the welfare of any person threatened by jail time. Abolishment of whipping convicts, as well as families whipping their children, became his life long crusade.
At an early age William went to work for a Dr. Gist, a physician and pharmacist who owned a drugstore. He learned use of drugs quickly and soon began to go with the doctor to make house calls. Before he was 20 years of age, he went to a small medical school, the South Kentucky College in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, graduating in 1889. He later enrolled in courses at Arkansas Industrial University’s Medical Department. He was licensed in 1892 and began practicing medicine in Russell, Arkansas often on horse back. Two example cases are reported there: “We had an ex-Confederate soldier who, during the Civil War, had been shot with a rifle in the middle third of the thigh. The bullet lodged in the bone and the bone began to decay around it, causing a bad leg. He was a poor man and unable to go to a hospital, but something had to be done. We bought a new carpenter’s hammer and a chisel a quarter-inch wide. We cut the leg open, took out the bullet, and removed the dead bone with the chisel. His recovery was as complete as if he had been in a first-class hospital.
We had an old German lady who could not speak a word of English, with complete cataracts of both eyes. She could not be persuaded to go to a hospital for an operation. We bought the necessary instruments and operated, with good results. We eventually got her to go to an eye specialist to have glasses fitted. The specialist was amazed to learn that a couple of young general practitioners had done the operation.” p. 140-141
He entered politics in the 1890 as mayor of Russell and remained interested and active most of his life.
(Refer to “William Henry Abington (1870-1951)” that follows this biographical sketch.)
Dr. Abington left Russell to return to Beebe to work again with Dr. Gist. There he bought a buggy and made house calls more easily. His practice grew rapidly and he was able to charge a dollar for town visits and a dollar plus 25 cents a mile for house calls. He rode a horse,- or horse and buggy about 30 miles one direction in the morning and 30 miles in the opposite direction in the afternoon, taking care of town visits at noon when he came in for lunch or late at night. He had no office hours but had a slate on his door for messages that he would answer in the evenings. Dr. Abington found that he learned a lot about human nature and saw a great amount of tragedies other than those of illness.
In December 1879 Dr. Adington at the age of 24 married Cora Beam. The couple had their first born in December of 1898. She was named Alpha Beam. They later had a son, named Thomas.
When Cora developed tuberculosis Dr. Abington moved to Oklahoma City for a drier climate hoping that would help to cure her. While there he used his old pharmacy skills learned with Dr. Gist, and passed the Board exam to become a Registered Pharmacist. His previous experience with the brutal penal institution made him sympthetic toward your people making the wrong choice. He gave them a second chance: “I told the Negro porter that he had been running with a bunch of white thieves and that I could not blame him for stealing. I told him he could quit if he wanted to but, if he stayed on and I ever caught him stealing again I would have him put in jail. He worked for me a number of years following that.” p. 101
“About two months before this a woman came in and wanted to see me privately. She told me that in one of my girl’s room there was a bureau drawer full of articles generally carried by a drugstore. The young lady had a sister about twelve years old. The woman had a daughter about that age. The families had been very friendly so the girl’s sister had shown her daughter these articles and told her that the drug clerk had brought them to her sister. She admitted that the families had had a quarrel and that she was trying to get even with them. Now I went down the street and bought two market baskets, brought them back, handed them to the clerk and told him to go get all the articles in the drawer and bring them back and put them on the shelf. He first denied everything but, when I began to tell him of the things in the drawer, he confessed. He offered to pay for them but I told him I would not accept the money, that the goods must be returned. About an hour later he returned with the baskets, well filled and put them on the shelves. I paid his salary up to date and let him go.” p.100-101
Cora, his wife did not recover from the TB. She continued to struggle with the disease, eventually hemorrhaging and died. Soon Dr. Abington sold his drugstore and a farm he had acquired. It was then time to return to Arkansas. Soon after arriving in Beebe, Dr. Abington married Mrs. Hope Presley, an old classmate, a widow who had no children. He set up a successful practice again. During this time two memorable incidents of compassion occurred:”One Monday morning a father helped his son into my office. In getting the history of the case, I found that he and two other young boys had drunk a gallon of moonshine whiskey between Friday evening and Sunday midnight. I told them that I thought he had “jake legs.” They informed me that my diagnosis could not be correct as the other young men were all right. I told them there was no successful treatment for the condition and advised them to go to a specialist. The second day the father came back with the patient, his legs completely paralyzed. The specialist had confirmed my diagnosis and he told them he thought treatment would not do any good. After about six months he was able to walk on crutches, but remained a cripple all his life.
Another case proved to be very severe, the patient being on the critical list for ten days or two weeks. He finally got well but was totally deaf and blind in one eye. About four weeks later, his parents carried him to a dentist to have some teeth pulled, believing he was suffering with toothache. Due to his condition, the dentist refused to pull his teeth and advised that he be removed to a hospital to have them pulled. The parents sent him to my brother’s hospital. He called me. The family insisted that he be given an anaesthetic. I gave the anaesthetic and my brother pulled the teeth. The boy’s right arm was drawn across his chest under his chin. Both knees were drawn up well against his abdomen. The father was present. I said to him, “It might do some good to straighten those limbs while he is under this anaesthetic, if you will keep them straight.” He requested that we straighten them. We did and put splints and bandages on them. We told the father to keep the splints on until morning, and then to take them off, massage the limbs and then the joints. He was to keep the splints on at night and take them off in the morning. He brought the child back in about two weeks and, to my surprise, he had been able to keep the limbs on the splints straight and was getting some motion in all the joints. I told him to keep the work up, that he might get the boy to the point where he could walk. For a number of years now this young man has been operating a machine in print shop in Denver, Colorado, and is self-sustaining.” p. 100-101
Dr. Abington was always concerned with the elderly. Usually they were given a brief examination and told that old age was responsible for their aches and pains. He did not accept that kind of thinking. He declared that older people need to be diagnosed and treated as carefully as the younger population.
Knowing how the older citizens were often left out, he and his wife gave an annual party for many years for anyone over 70. They averaged a hundred or more each year. It was the social event of the season. “Knowing how many old people feel dissatisfied and neglected and have the blues most of the time, we decided to give a party once a year for all people above seventy in the town and surrounding country. We had an average attendance at these parties of more than one hundred people over seventy years of age. Many of the older ones had to have assistance, some were on crutches, and others in wheelchairs. We kept this up for a number of years, until we reached eighty. On one occasion I made arrangements to have a half barrel of red lemonade, a bountiful supply of watermelons and cantaloupes. My wife thought that it would have been better to serve Coca-Cola, ice cream, and cakes. Two days before the time for the party, I went home and found her very badly disturbed, claiming that my refreshments would make all the old folks sick, and that every doctor in town would have to be up with them all night to keep them from dying. I did not want this to happen, so I told her to order the refreshments that she wanted. The morning of the party, a farmer drove up with a load of watermelons. A little later another showed up with twelve dozen cantaloupes. My wife found out that they were there and she questioned me very closely as to what I was going to do with them. I told here that after the ice cream had been served that I would offer them some watermelon, but did not presume they would eat any. When it was all over, all the cantaloupes were gone and only four watermelons were left. My wife was sure that every guest would be sick that night. I made inquiry about them the next morning and they were all feeling fine. Our experience is that the latter part of life is pleasant and enjoyable.” p. 162-163
Dr. Abington lived a long and productive life. He died March 19, 1951 at age 78-(80).* He had practiced medicine about 59 years most of that time in Beebe, White County, Arkansas.
*Dr. Abington’s autobiography was published several years after his death. There may have been a mistake concerning birth/death date. His age of 80 does not match the date in Preface.
- L. Battenfield November 2019