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  • Thomas C. Rosenthal MD

Bloodletting and Germs

I practiced family medicine and geriatrics in western New York State for forty years. As I was opening an exciting chapter of life called retirement, my wife and I visited the one room East Aurora historical museum where the town historian, Robert Goller, displayed artifacts once belonging to Dr. Jabez Allen. Included, without explanation, was a nearly two-hundred-year old hand written copy of Dr. Allen’s medical diploma alongside the original. Five years of painstaking research has revealed the impact that simple copy had on a doctor, and a village.

Dr. Allen’s story is much like that of many physicians, who in the nineteenth century tried to reason with the contradictions between emerging science and the bloodletting and the purging of bowels they had been taught. Dr. Allen practiced in the village now known as East Aurora from 1834 to 1884 and that hand copied diploma nearly cost him his license, but never stymied his devotion to his adopted community. For fifty years, Dr. Allen raised a family, befriended some of the most famous medical men of the nineteenth century and a U.S. President, struggled to understand germs, and according to his obituary, “Dr. Allen was highly respected by his medical brethren in both city and country” while practicing according to his motto: “No cure, No pay.”

Not a word for word account of Dr. Allen’s medical practice, this text captures the challenges facing pioneering doctors practicing in communities buffeted by quacks, epidemics, and Civil War. The nineteenth century was an exciting time to practice medical science, but discoveries arrived fragment by fragment, journal article by journal article, and misconception by genuine breakthrough. The reader will become familiar with the medical treatments and theories referenced in nineteenth century medical sources as Galen’s four humors were relegated to history, experiments replaced rationalizations, and the concept of germs emerged.

I have anchored the story on the known events of Dr. Allen’s life drawn from a family bible, property deeds, medical society minutes, diaries of contemporaries, newspapers, and the oral history passed down to a great-great-granddaughter. The patients, events and motives I have attributed to Dr. Allen are based on over four hundred nineteenth century textbooks and journal articles. Actual events and probable reactions are merged into a first person memoir as might have been told to his niece, an aspiring writer, and his nephew, a Cornell professor who authored several regional history books.

The characters Abiatha, Dr. Phineas J. McCarthy, Margaret Fairling, Allie Johnson, Civia Morgan and her husband Elmas have been created from several of Allen’s contemporaries. Patient names have been altered. All others are real people serving in roles consistent with what is known about their lives. Narratives are modernized and abridged in the interest of clarity, but preserve the biases and prejudices of the extant nineteenth century literature referenced in the bibliography.

Physicians of all eras are haunted by episodes in which a preconceived opinion or an overwhelming desire to be useful compromised their intent. Health professionals of the twenty-first century will be surprised by the relevance of many nineteenth century concepts, even as they are struck by the scientific naivety. Readers will ponder, what of today’s beliefs will seem naive to tomorrow’s practitioners as they experience the challenges of caring for neighbors, making a living and doing the best you can do when what is possible is often not enough. -The Author

The book is being published by and should be available by late summer 2020.

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