Tennessee Mountain Stories

Mountain Medicine

Chamberlain Memorial Hospital, Rockwood, TN

Chamberlain Memorial Hospital, Rockwood, TN

I’ve been learning about health care on the Plateau from a historical perspective and it’s very humbling!  Today, we take for granted the excellent medical care we can reach in a 30 mile radius.  Drive a bit further to Nashville, Knoxville or Chattanooga and you’ll be in world-class medical facilities.  But how feasible was a drive to Nashville in 1930?  What about 1910 or before?  Not until 1917 was a hospital built within any reasonable driving distance of the Plateau communities.  In that year, Chamberlain Memorial Hospital was erected in Rockwood – a nearly 50 mile drive from Clarkrange.  That same year, Dr. May Cravath Wharton arrived with her husband in Pleasant Hill and realizing the community’s great need for a doctor began seeing patients in their homes.  By 1921 Dr. Wharton had opened a tiny 2-bed clinic, in Pleasant Hill, which she shortly expanded to 30 beds.  That clinic is the origin of The Cumberland Medical Center.   A 15-bed clinic also opened in Cookeville in 1921.  But Pleasant Hill and Cookeville were still 30 and 25 mile drives, respectively.  There was always the question of transportation; I know some seriously injured miners were put on the train in Wilder and sent to Rockwood’s hospital

So, what was the solution of these hardy mountain-folk of yesteryear?  Self-sufficiency reigned supreme.  There have always been gifted ‘healers’ in our communities.  From midwives to herbalists, these were people who were willing to use their gifts to serve their neighbors.  Admittedly, the death rates were high but they were high in the best of hospitals in that day.  Remember that we didn’t really understand antiseptics and the extreme importance of sterile conditions until the end of the 19th century.  Think of how many women died following childbirth, how many soldiers died or lost limbs from relatively minor wounds simply because germs were introduced to their bodies by unsanitary conditions. 

For many years, it was almost safer to take care of all but the most serious injuries and illnesses at home.  As the Consumption (Tuberculosis) epidemic raged, mothers and wives knew they were powerless against that genteel killer, but they were also sure they could care for their loved ones better than any stranger could.

Now I’m in favor of good medical care – I’ve certainly availed myself of skilled doctors and will do so again when needed.  Still, I hold an incredible respect for these healers of old that steadfastly loved their brother and cared for their neighbor in need.  We can learn much from them.  A number of books have been written on some of these folks and I think we should visit some of those books. 

In the meantime, I’d love to hear any stories you have of people who were taken to those distant hospitals, how they got there, any details of the trip and the care.  Just click “Comments” below.