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HEALTH PROBLEMS OF THE PIONEER SETTLEMENT
We have mentioned many of the hardships encountered by the early settlers of this community, but so far we have scarcely noticed what was probably the greatest hazard of all – that of disease. The inadequate housing facilities, the lack of hospitals and medical instruments, and the lack of professional physicians often imperiled the lives of the Dutch pioneers. Today life has its hazards but because of the proper housing facilities, and the great advancements made by the medical and allied sciences, and the presence of specialists, these hazards have been reduced. Today an organized community fights against all enemies of mankind. In the day of the pioneer, each individual was compelled to fight his own battles against them.
When the Holland settlement was founded and for over ten years following, there was not even a doctor within twenty miles. Hospital facilities were not within the most ambitious dreams of these people. There was no scientific diagnosis, no consultation of specialists, and very little was known of antiseptics.
When disease or accident struck one of these families in the little settlement, the good wife and mother drew upon her own scanty knowledge of remedies and brought forth such curealls as turpentine and lard, onions and sugar, goose grease and turpentine, mustard plasters, caster oil, and kerosene.1 The pioneer mother often, alone, sat through the long nights by the bed of her sick child while the husband and father was away. Whooping cough, chickenpox, mumps, rash, and other child diseases often invaded the homes of the settlement. Scarlet fever and diphtheria have taken their toll. These pioneer families were not quarantined as people are today. They prevented the spread of contagious diseases, however, by voluntarily isolating themselves. Later quarantines were imposed. There is no church or adequate official record available of the number who died from these contagious diseases.2 In addition to personal interviews, a general survey revealed approximately the number of diphtheria deaths in the community during the period from 1870 to 1900. One family lost three children; two families lost two children each, and several families suffered the loss of one child each with this disease. J.W. Lefferdink lost one child with scarlet fever.3 The Daharsh and other families also had scarlet fever at this time, but lost no children.4 The most trying and troublesome illness which many of these pioneers had to combat was “fever and ague.”5 It was claimed that the tall, rank grass, with its moisture and “awful odor”, was very conducive to the “shakes,” especially if one ventured out in the evening.6 An early pioneer of the Dutch settlement, spoke of the “fever and ague” as though it were a very common complaint. There seemed to be two types of this sickness. In one case, the fever occurred every other day; and in the other, the fever lasted three days. In the latter case, the sickness left the patient in a very weakened condition. No deaths from this illness are recorded. The early pioneers who became afflicted were incapacitated for several weeks at a time.7
Mothers expecting the birth of a child could not confidently await a confinement in a clean hospital ward, or the expert attendance of the trained obstetrician with all his cumulative knowledge. When her hour came, there was no easing anaesthetic to carry her away from the excruciating pain of childbirth. There were few precautions against infection and other dangers incident to woman’s supreme adventure. The only assistance available to the pioneer mother was that of a midwife, whose knowledge and technique were gained solely from practical experience.8
A Mrs. Carlson, the wife of a Swedish pioneer, who lived in this settlement, served as midwife from 1870 to 1881, when Mrs. Lambert Lockhorst, a Dutch midwife, arrived. Mrs. Wubbles says, “These ladies had not been trained in this profession. They had not begun their practice, it had been thrust upon them. As neighbors they had been called in.” They worked with their husbands in the fields. They looked after the oxen, horses, hogs, and chickens. They milked the cows, they washed, and did the cooking. When they were called to a delivery, all they possessed was their hands. They had no rubber gloves or equipment. The expectant mother had clean cloths that had been washed, but not sterilized.9 The mother worked in the fields right up to the time of confinement. One mother, the day before her confinement, sat upon a corn planter, checking corn all day for her husband. A very few babies were lost in delivery and only one mother sacrificed her life, in spite of the fact that adequate equipment was lacking and no doctor who had specialized in obstetrics was available.10 This successful record was the result of a simple diet and the sturdy, outdoor living of the Dutch pioneer mother rather than the efficient training of the midwife. These Dutch pioneers had large families. One pioneer mother gave birth to sixteen children. The baptismal record of the Holland church shows that three hundred twentysix babies were baptized during the period from 1870 to 1886. This shows approximately the number of babies, who were delivered by these two women.11
Mrs. Carlson could not speak the Dutch language and these pioneer mothers could not speak English. Mrs. Chris Brethouwer was the first mother of a child born in this settlement. She procured the services of Mrs. Carlson during the arrival of the little one. These ladies were unable to understand each other. This handicap, however was easily overcome, for Mrs. Brethouwer used her son as an interpreter and the ladies managed very successfully. Mrs. Carlson remained with the family until the mother was able to care for the child.12
The midwives suffered many hardships in reaching their patients. Often they rode several miles through severe winter weather. The eleventh day of February 1876 was a bitter cold day. Mrs. J. H. TeSelle, who was expecting the arrival of a little one, told her husband she needed the services of Mrs. Carlson. This lady lived a distance of six miles from the TeSelle home. Mr. TeSelle had no choice except that of leaving his wife alone with the small children and making the long trip by means of horses and wagon. Since the day was so severe, Mr. TeSelle kept in mind the comfort of Mrs. Carlson. He covered the box of the wagon with blankets and put hay on the floor. After he had made these preparations, he drove to the Carlson home. He had Mrs. Carlson sit on the floor of the wagon-box, underneath the cover, thus protecting her from the severe cold. They arrived at the TeSelle home in sufficient time to take care of the baby’s arrival. Mrs. Carlson experienced several similar trips, many of which were made at night.13
The arrival of the country doctor somewhat lessened the duties of the midwife among the pioneers. The pioneer doctor, known now as the “general practitioner,” was a part of every early-day small town and its surrounding rural community. In truth, the pioneer doctor was almost as much a spiritual adviser to his patients as he was their physician. He and his saddlebags went everywhere at all hours. Darkness, rain, snow, blizzards, and the searing heat seldom kept him from his objective, the alleviation of human suffering. Often he knew before starting out that there would be no pay beyond his own satisfaction in a duty performed. The old-school doctor might have lacked the college training demanded today, but he was honest, and accumulated a wealth of experience, the foundation of practical common sense. Though his equipment, judged by today’s standard, was primitive, he got results. His successor has a telephone and motorcar. In the pioneer days, the country doctor had neither of them. He resorted to two good horses, his handbag of medicine, and a limited number of instruments. The country doctor may have been better at some things than at others, but he was not a “specialist.”
Mr. A. Brethouwer, commonly called Doctor Brethouwer, was not graduated from a school of medicine. Previous to his migration to Nebraska, however, he was issued a license to practice in the state of Wisconsin.14 Doctor Brethouwer owned a small stock of patented medicine and frequently was called out for illness of children. He also extracted teeth. Further than performing these minor duties, Mr. Brethouwer’s ability as a doctor did not rate high among these pioneers.15
The first physician who came to this settlement was Doctor Vandenburg. Little is known of this man, except that he was very unpopular with these pioneers and remained only a short time.16 The second physician was Doctor Demaree, who locaated near this settlement in 1878. He was graduated from the Kentucky School of Medicine at Louisville. Doctor Demaree established his practice at Roca.17 Frequently he was called on cases in the Dutch settlement. His arrival at Roca, however, was not a great help to these Dutch mothers, due to the fact that he was unable to speak the Dutch language. For this reason, they did not call for his services during childbirth.18 Later, however, Doctor Demaree succeeded in gaining a large practice in this community.
The third physician, Doctor Tou Velle, was graduated from the Ohio College of Medicine, at Cincinnati in 1882. In the same year he located at Firth.19 On his arrival there he was very disappointed in its location and decided to return East. When he reached Kansas City, however, he changed his mind and returned to Firth.20 The Dutch mothers did not call for Doctor Tou Velle’s services during childbirth for the same reason that they failed to call upon Doctor Demaree. Consequently, the mothers of the Dutch settlement did not have the aid of an obstetrician during childbirth.21
In 1887, Dominee Huizenga sensed the danger of the situation, and proceeded to advertise for a doctor. The qualifications read: “The doctor must be able to speak the Dutch language and be specialized in obstetrics.”22 Doctor Louis Was, who was graduated from Rush Medical College in February of the same year, noticed this advertisement. He immediately purchased a ticket to the Dutch settlement of Nebraska. He arrived here with exactly three dollars and eighty cents with which to start business.23
Louis Was, at the age of nineteen, made his first trip to the United States. He first went to Patterson, New Jersey, where his second oldest brother, John, lived who was a practicing physician. Louis worked in the silk mills of Patterson for a year, but found it very discouraging. He then went to his oldest brother, Alexander, who was clearing off timber land in Michigan in preparation for farming. This occupied two years. Louis then went back to his father in the Netherlands and began studying medicine under him. In addition to being a doctor, Louis’ father was a druggist. Louis not only received a thorough background for the treatment and diagnosis of diseases, but also the training of a druggist. This experience was very valuable to him later, as it was the means of financing the doctor through college. At the end of three years, Louis’ father sent him back to America where he went directly to Chicago and entered Rush Medical College. Louis’ own words are: “Rush College was known as the school where boys came to study, and so our lives were one day of grinding after another. We had very able instructors, however, whose lectures we enjoyed very much.”24
When Doctor Was arrived in the Dutch settlement, he says:
I found it (Holland, Nebraska) to consist of a large Dutch Reformed Church, two stores, a blacksmith shop and about a half dozen houses, Next to the minister, the storekeepers (William Walvoord and Thomas Liesveld) were the most influential men. They, as well as the minister, were, anxious to help me in every way. I told them I possessed only three dollars and eighty cents and this represented all my worldly goods. I came here to work and made good. I was then informed by the merchants that they would aid me in every way possible.25
The doctor was given a room, in which to sleep, and he used the storekeeper’s (Walvoord) parlor as an office until he could build his own. He bought a horse and buggy at a sale. He paid for these with the money furnished by Mr. Liesveld and Mr. Walvoord. This credit was extended to the doctor without the assurance of a note. Later he borrowed three hundred dollars from his father, with which he built a twelve-by-fourteen foot office on the storekeeper’s (Walvoord) ground, free of charge.26
Coming from a family of doctors on both sides of the family for several generations back, he naturally was proud of his profession. He began his practice with high ideals. Absolute honesty toward his patients was his first obligation. With this in view, Doctor Was says:
It is no wonder that my practice was good from the very start. My earnings, the first nine months were nine hundred dollars, which enabled me to pay all my debts. The next year I married Frona Kroese, one of the young ladies of the Holland settlement. My wife was a great help and comfort to me throughout my professional life. She was my nurse and always ready to help me in every way she could.27
Later Doctor Was bought a five-acre piece of land and paid seventy-five dollars an acre. He built a house, twenty-six by fourteen feet, with three rooms. The doctor had his office building attached to his home. This piece of land furnished pasture for his cow and two horses.
Doctor Was, as an obstetrician, was very successful among the mothers of the pioneer settlement. Doctor Was states:
Fortunately, on my arrival, the wife of the merchant (Mr. Walvoord) was to be confined. I gave her all my attention and care. She was very pleased with my work and gave me good advertizing. Succes is the only advertisement a good doctor ever uses.
The child who was born to the wife of the merchant was Gerrit Walvoord, who is the present merchant of the Holland store. This is the sarne store that so kindly received the young doctor when he first arrived in this new settlement.28
The vast practice of the doctor is indicated by the baptismal record of the Holland and Pella Dutch Reformed Churches of this settlement. No early record of the Firth Dutch Reformed Church is available. From 1887 to 1915 the record of the Holland church shows five hundred and eleven babies were baptized. The record of the Pella church from 1884 to 1915 shows that two hundred fourteen were baptized.29
The universal success of Doctor Was in the field of obstetrics was not always equaled in case of disease. This settlement experienced epidemics of scarlet fever and diphtheria in 1891. Doctor Was lost several of his cases with diphtheria. All of them were children. At that time the serum which is necessary for the treatment of diphtheria was not used. The doctor, of course, could not be criticized for these deaths. Doctor Was lost other cases, which with today’s knowledge of medicine and surgery could have been saved. In one case, which he erroneously diagnosed as inflamation of the bowels, and treated with hot packs, a life was lost due to the ruptured appendix. He also lost two other cases of appendicitis in the same family. Modern medical science is aware of the danger of rupture when heat is applied in cases of appendicitis. Heat causes the expansion of the contents of the appendix and increases strain upon the already weakened structure of the walls of the appendix. Doctor Was did not have the benefit of this modern knowledge and could only do his best. His educational equipment was the best afforded by the times. It may be recorded, however, that another doctor was called on a similar case in this community and had greater succes, His treatment consisted of the use of cold packs rather than hot, and whether he knew the scientific reason for it or not he was successful in this case.
In 1893, Doctor Was moved to Panama, Nebraska, where he built an eight-room house. He had not only established himself in the Dutch settlement but also added the Panama territory to his practice. The doctor made weekly trips to the Dutch settlement.30 In one of the local papers the following news item appeared: The doctor can be found in Walvoord’s store every Wednesday afternoon between two and three o’clock in the afternoon.”31
Doctor Was made many calls in mud, thunderstorms, sandstorms, and blizzards. Before the days of hard surfaced roads and telephones, he suffered many hardships. Doctor Was says, “Anyone who knows a Nebraska blizzard will appreciate the many trips I made through such storms.” He vividly describes one of his experiences as follows:
Having been called on a case of confinement nine miles west of Panama, I arrived just before a terrific blizzard came sweeping over the prairie. I finished my work about midnight. In spite of the fact that the blizzard was still raging fiercely, I decided to go home. I knew I had to face the storm for a half a mile. After that I would have the wind behind me. This short distance, however, was enough to set me circling on the prairie until I arrived at the farmer’s house from which I had started. Fortunately, my horses knew more than I did and brought me safely back or I might have perished. The farmer then took me to the main road where I continued east. I was lost three times, but in each case I discovered a landmark, which enabled me to set my horses in the right direction. I released my lines and I trusted my fate to them. After much suffering from the cold, I arrived safely home.32
In the following words the doctor describes another trying experience which he had while going to the aid of a sick child:
At nine o’clock in the morning I was called by telephone to visit a child ill with pneumonia, four and a half miles west of Holland. The snow was from four to six feet high and many fences were completely covered. The liveryman flatly refused to go through so much snow. Finally I persuaded a young man to go with me. Armed with two shovels we started on our snow shoveling trip. As we proeeded, the farmers seeing that it was the doctor, promptly came to our assistance. By the time we had the road opened for a distance of two and one-half miles, we had six men to help us. The young man and myself were completely worn out. Fortunately, we had reached a farmer who had a phone, so I called the party of the sick child whom I was to visit. I told them to send men from that direction and meet us. I told them to have a warm dinner ready for the men who were assisting me on this trip. We finally arrived at our destination at two o’clock in the afternoon, and I found my patient suffering a great deal. In all I had twelve men who aided me in shoveling snow in this trip. Such experiences, I had every winter. When these trips occurred at night our suffering was more intense. It was not possible to get help, hence the liveryman and I had to battle the way by ourselves. On such trips I only added the expense of the liveryman to my regular charges.33
Hardships and difficulties such as those here described were frequently encountered by Doctor Was during the many years in which he ministered to the illness and suffering of this pioneer settlement. These experiences merit for him a high place in that honorable company of “country doctors” or “general practitioners” who courageously served the pioneer communities of the West. With the passing of the years and the progress of medical knowledge, specialization, and the contribution of the schools, there has been brought to these pioneers a modern knowledge of health and sanitation.
Table of Contents
1 Personal interview with Mrs. Hannah (Schnieder) Lefferdink, Hickman, Nebr., 1938. [return]
Three infants were severely burned in one week during the early “eighties.” One fell into a vessel containing hot water and another fell into a kettle of boiling jelly, while a pot of hot coffee was spilled over the third baby. The mother of the first child applied flour to her infant’s burns, while the second baby was dipped into a barrel of cold water. Both babies died. The third mother used kerosene freely on her infant and, whether because of this treatment or because the burns were less severe in this case, the child eventually recovered. A doctor explained to the mother later that the kerosene treatment in such cases was dangerous, because the intense pain sometimes produces convulsion and death.
2 Nebraska Census of 1875-1876, mss., Nebr. Hist. Soc., Lancaster County, South Pass Precinct. The record gives the following information for the years 1875 and 1876:
Records for other years are not available.
3 Personal interview with Mrs. Jane (Lefferdink) Heitbrink, 1937.
4 Personal interview with William Daharsh and others, 1937.
5 Personal interview with Mr. Henry Wubblesl 1937.
6 Verne C. Fuhlrodt, Pioneer History of Fontenelle, Nebraska, mss., (Lincoln, 1934), 43.
7 Personal interview with Mr. Henry Wubbles, 1937.
8 Personal interview with Mrs. Dillie (TeSelle) Wubbles, 1937.
10 ldem. There is no official or church record available showing the number of infantes who died during delivery.
11 Holland church records; In the office of the consistory; General survey.
12 Personal interview with Mr. Ben Brethouwer, 1937.
13 Personal interview with Mrs. Dillie (TeSelle) Wubbles, 1937.
14 Personal interview with Mr. Ben Brethouwer, 1937.
15 General survey.
16 Personal interview with Mrs. Dillie (TeSelle) Wubbles, 1937.
17 Portrait and Biographical Album of Lancaster County, Nebr. ,212.
18 Personal interview with Mrs. Dillie (TeSelle) Wubbles, 1937.
19 Portrait and Biographical Album of Lancaster County, Nebr., 483.
20 Personal interview with Doctor Tou Velle, Firth, Nebr., 1937.
21 Personal interview with Mrs. Dillie (TeSelle) Wubbles, 1937.
22 History of Doctor Was, mss. private possession.
29 Records of the Holland and Pella churches; In office of the consistory; General survey.
30 History of Doctor Was, mss., private possession.
31 The Hickman Enterprise, December 18, 1896.
32 History of Doctor Was, mss., private possession.