James Anthony Dibrell was born in Nashville, Tennessee on August 15, 1817, the son of Edwin and Martha Shrewsbury Dibrell. His father was a descendent from the French Huguenot family, his mother of English descent. James Anthony was one of nine siblings. At the University of Nashville, James Anthony studied medicine under Dr. Thomas R. Jennings for three years, then enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania and graduated from the department of medicine in 1839. He was also schooled in the classics and read Latin on sight.
In 1840 he settled in Van Buren, Arkansas. He remained there except for four years during the Civil War when he moved his family to Little Rock for safety. An 1848 newspaper article described Dr. Dibrell: “—the 31 year old doctor is a colorful figure. He looks taller than his 5 feet 10 inches because of the stovepipe hat he often wears. With gray hair and hazel eyes, he carries a gold headed, engraved walking cane).”* The article descries Dr. Dibrell as “one of very few trained physicians [who] often travels long distances on horseback into the Ozark Mountains and to the Indian Territory to treat patients”.* In 1848 he built an office adjacent to his house where patients could come to him, reducing his travels to make house calls.
During the Civil War Dr. Dibrell was acting assistant-surgeon for both armies. He moved to Little Rock for safety, and was drafted when the Union Army captured Little Rock. For the Confederate Army he was in charge of the wounded after the Battle of Prairie Grove. He became a noted physician, surgeon and accoucheur, having delivered more than 2000 babies. As a surgeon, he performed exceptionally difficult surgical operations.
Dr. Dibrell helped form the first local medical society in Arkansas, which did not last, with a few Fort Smith Army doctors. In Crawford County, he served as chairman of the Medical Examining Board and was examining physician for the New York Mutual Life Insurance Company. His interests in the community led to involvement in other affairs. In 1841 he joined Van Buren Masonic Lodge and served for several years as its Master. He was also an active Knight Templar. As a faithful member of Old School Presbyterian Church he served as a ruling elder from 1848 until his death.
Dr. Dibrell married Ann Eliza Pryor in 1841. The couple had five children. Ann Eliza died in 1854. His second wife, Jane Emily Pryor, was the sister of Ann Eliza. They married in 1855. Four children were born of this union. Of the nine children, seven grew to adulthood. His three sons became doctors. The oldest, James Anthony Jr. son of Ann Eliza, helped found the Department of Medicine at the University of Arkansas and was Dean of the School for eighteen years. Both of his other sons graduated from the University of Arkansas Department of Medicine and taught courses while attending. They later returned to Van Buren to follow their father in medical practice. The four daughters two from each marriage, were prominent in Van Buren society. Two married doctors, the other two married prominent businessmen. Sparks Hospital in Ft. Smith is named in memory of Annie Dibrell Sparks, wife of George T. Sparks.
An 1881 article described Dr. Dibrell thus: “firmness and decision of character, fixedness of purpose and great attachment to home and friends, characterize the man. He preserves the old family love of propriety, rights and dignity — by honesty of methods [he] accumulated his comfortable property and enjoys it in peace, rectitude, domestic love and esteem of his fellow-citizens. He has lived an honorable life and is beloved by all who know him.”** Upon his death one of the largest funerals ever seen in western Arkansas gave honor to the old doctor. All business in Van Buren closed and people from remote places in the country came to honor the doctor who had cared for them for more than fifty years.
Dr. Dibrell died February 23, 1897 at the age of eighty and is buried at Fairview Cemetery in Van Buren, Arkansas where his two wives and his two small children were buried.
**”Dr. James A. Dibrell”, Encyclopedia of the New West: Marshall, Texas, U. S. Biographical Publishing Co. (1881) p. 104-105