originally published in the Bicentennial Book
In this age of medical miracles, of marvels done by modern surgery, of the availability of hospitals, clinics, specialists and much more, we forget how short a time has really passed when all that stood between us and the grim reaper, here in rural areas, was a tired man, in a mud spattered carriage, equipped with a bag of simple instruments, another of medicine, and doing a really remarkable job of it. This sketch is about one of these men, Dr. George Towle, of Deerfield.
There is a bit of the Horatio Alger story in his life. Born in Pittsfield, one of eight children, his mother lied when he was five years old and after struggling along for a few years alone, his father "bound him out" at age eleven, to a farm couple, where he worked at whatever he was capable of. He used to say, "They were good to me. They let me go to school during the winter term." When he became eighteen, and his bond was up, he was given a new suit of clothes and twenty five dollars, and he was on his own. He had finished Pittsfield Academy, and somewhere along the way had decided to become a doctor. He was encouraged by the then Pittsfield doctor, who took the young man around with him and helped him to study in his office. Thus encouraged, he borrowed heavily, entered Dartmouth Medical School, going from there to Bowdoin where he graduated, then a P.G. at Harvard, where Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes was his biology professor.
He practiced first in Salisbury, but after three years, an opening in Deerfield presented itself, and he came here, to the house where Waldo Twombly lives. Hardly settled, with a wife and prospective family, he was drafted for service in the Civil War. Still heavily in debt, he borrowed another hundred dollars and hired a substitute, and settled down to pay for his education. (He always kept in touch with his "hired hand" in the army and the young man came through un- touched, to be discharged, broke as when he entered.)
As is the case with many of the old time doctors, not only illness came to his door but half the woes of mankind. Family feuds, political problems, the making of wills, drawing up of deeds, arrangements for mortgages or sometimes just a place to talk things out . . . get it off the old chest. Perhaps the long, lonely trips over the hills gave him time to think these things over. Perhaps he gave good advice because of the mileage that was then Deerfield's roads; and those roads, dirt roads—drifts in winter, mud in spring. He always maintained a stable of four horses, with one or two hired besides, in bad travelling. Old Berglind, Polly, Prince and the Old Switcher, the latter a bay mare with a vile temper, sharp teeth and quick heels. No one went near her except the doctor, who paid no attention to her tantrums. But she always made the hard trips, in deep snow, or mud, the one to come home in the small hours, to the stable door, the reins around the dashboard and the doctor sleeping, weary to the bone. She would shake herself, or paw the ground, and he would waken. Home, thank God, for both of them!
Babies are the doctors' bread and butter, then as now, Going through his day-book, after he had gone, it seems that the fee for a delivery was an exhorbitant five dollars, and it was an amazing thing to see how many an honest and upright citizen was going about the town, still "on the cuff." The arrival of a baby was a simple thing . . . a friendly neighbor woman would arrive, cook up a supper for the family, wash and dress the baby, and there you were. One night the neighbor did not quite make it, and the doctor pinned the new arrival into a pillowcase, to meet its Pa for the first time. At another time, the helpful friend has told about finding no pins in the layette. The doctor wandered about the room, pulling pins from an abundance of religious cards, on the walls. As each card hit the floor, he would repeat the verse . . . "God is Love," "Send out Thy Light," "Do unto others" (How many you need, Flo ?) till the new citizen was properly fastened together.
Psychology played a small part in his treatment. The doctor would come into the sick room, take off his overshoes, coat, gloves and hover over the stove a bit, ostensibly thawing out, and making a few remarks about the condition of the roads, maybe a word or two about coming town-meeting, perhaps a bit of news. If after a few minutes, the patient reared up on one elbow, and began giving his own opinions, the doctor knew it was not too serious a case.
So many stories come back . . . about the couple whose only little daughter was literally kept in cotton-wool, and after a long winter seemed pale and listless. He left her a simple tonic, and orders to get outdoors more. Spring came and in no time the child was fine. The next winter the same process took place, indoors and coddled, such a small girl. This time the mother remembered the bottle of tonic in the kitchen cupboard . . . it was half gone and the cork had fallen out, a few flies had fallen in and perished . . . The mother gave it a good shake, remarking "I don't remember flies in that medicine. But if Dr. Towle says for you to take flies, flies you take!" This was faith, certainly; and it worked. Probably the flies were safe, having lain in alcohol for so long.
There was the night when the doctor was rushed to a sawmill deep in the woods, where a young man had caught his hand in the saw and almost completely severed it. There was a question of just taking off the mangled thing, but with the aid of every lantern in the camp, boiling brook water (no ether, because of the open lantern flames) he stitched, and patched and sutured and the young man earned a good living with the hand, for many years. A little crooked, perhaps, but not too noticeable.
Dentistry was not his forte. But he could, reluctantly, pull a tooth, if the patient insisted. Strong men have told of this and moaned a little at the recollection. If anyone ever went back a second time, they would usually fill up on hard cider or any other available brand of "Old Red Eye", to the point where they literally felt no pain.
There were other adventures where he was of help, outside his profession. The Cray home at the Parade, was then the Prescott Tavern. On a night of unusual festivity, one rough and ready citizen got himself filled to the brim, and decided to take the place apart, threatening death to all present. Someone tore down the road and summoned the doctor, who, tired and mad, got out of bed, climbed into trousers and slippers, and entered the scene. He seized the wild one by the collar and the seat of his pants and threw him right through one of the big windows, sash and all. Went outside to administer a final dusting off, found the man quite sober, said a few choice words and then home, and back to bed. Some people call them the Good Old Days.
Somehow he managed to help with civic affairs, the library, the schools and a little involvement in politics made him a state senator, and later a member of the general court. His family prevailed upon him to retire at 65. He took down his sign, sold his stable and invested in a Model T. This was his undoing. Having driven horses for so many years, he expected a little co-operation, but cars have no brains. After several sessions with the monster, he closed his career as a driver by careening through his wife's flower bed, down a steep bank and into the back yard, yelling "Whoa! Dammit, whoa".
Late in life, he developed a brain tumor, result of a heavy fall on ice, and slept a great deal. Toward evening he would rouse and remark that he guessed everyone was doing pretty well, and he must be getting home. His son would drive him up over the Parade, down through James City and back to the stable door. And there he was, safe at home again. Everything was well for the night.
We salute him, as well as all the dear country doctors we have known. They fought the good fight and kept the faith. May they ever walk the green arbors of Heaven, with St. Luke and Aesculapius and the rest.
Dr. Fred Fernald was born Sept. 17, 1874. He studied at Bowdoin College and in 1903 he took a Post Graduate Course at Baltimore Medical College and in 1904 at John Hopkins University also in Maryland. This same year he married Elizabeth Williams Cilley, great granddaughter of General Joseph Cilley whose wife was Sarah Batchelder Longfollow. These ancestors of Mrs. Fernald lived at the Garrison at one time in Deerfield. Dr. Fernald and Elizabeth were the parents of six children. Elizabeth C. Josephine Welch, Frederick Longfellow, Mary Louise, Joseph Gilley, and John Thompson. They are all living but Joseph and Elizabeth. Mary Louise lives on the home place.
Dr. Fernald was the family doctor for countless families in Nottingham, Deerfield, Raymond, Northwood and many other towns. He took over here in Deerfield after the many successful years of Dr. George H. Towle's practice. He is beloved by all as well as Dr. Towle.
In 1928 Dr. Fernald took over Dr. Guptil's practice in Raymond and in all his years of practice, he never lost a mother in childbirth.
He was Moderator in his home town of Nottingham, the mother town of Deerfield, for forty years. He was twice president of the Rockingham County Medical Society from which he received a 50 year pin in 1952. In 1953 the University of New Hampshire gave him a special citation for excellent work as a country doctor.
He was physician in charge at Brentwood County Home and the nursing home at Mitchell Memorial Hospital is called the Fernald Home in honor of Dr. Fernald.
For many years he was doctor at the Deerfield Fair, not an easy position. Doctor Fernald practiced until he was eighty-three years of age. He is the subject of the book written by our beloved Rev. Christina MacKenzie, "The Country Doctor." [A copy of this book may be found in the Philbrick-James Library here in Deerfield.]
In the forward of "The Country Doctor" there is a poem which expresses the sentiment of the thousands of women, men and children ministered to by Dr. Fred Fernald. This poem also applies to Dr. George H. Towle. He filled the roll of Country Doctor as well as thousands more in this fine country of ours.