Volume II, No. 2, Winter 1974
"Oh, my goodness, she brought my daughter into the world fifty-nine years ago, and I knew her long before that," exclaimed one of Dr. Ruth Seever's patients, answering our questions about her. Dr. Ruth is a ninety-one year old "female" doctor still practicing at Osceola, Missouri. Another of her patients said, "I think she knows more about things than anyone in medicine today. They just give you a shot and some pills and see if it does you any good. She really knows your case. I ain't never took anything yet that hasn't done me good."
When we first walked through the door we weren't sure if we were at the right place. There was no office smell, or a crowded waiting room filled with disgruntled people because the doctor is running late, or a nurse in a white uniform asking all kinds of questions without looking up to see who you are. Instead there were four small comfortable rooms. The first one could be called a waiting room, but there was no window to go up to say you were there for Dr. Ruth would come out to you.
The examination room was very small with a cot and an easy chair. Next was her office with her desk, and medical books in an antique bookcase along with her files. Beyond that was a room containing rows of medicines. Instead of the crisp voice of a nurse calling out the name of the next patients, Dr. Ruth came shaking our hands and inviting us to come in, almost like it was her own home not an doctor's office.
Around the waiting room were plaques on the wall which showed us Dr. Ruth's personality and interest. One in particular which interested us was an arrangement of buttons. Dr. Ruth told us she saves all kinds of buttons and then produces a plaque out of it. While we were there a woman called to ask how to fix her tray and what to put on it to take it to the state button show.
In the inner room we were surprised to see a brand new riding lawn mower squeezed between her desk and the medicine room. Dr. Ruth explained laughing, that it was stored temporarily in her office because that was the only door large enough to get it through. She explained that she has been in charge of the cemetery for years. When the city did not keep it treed and mowed, the women of the community formed a cemetery association. The first man they hired mowed it by hand for twenty cents an hour. Now they have purchased the riding lawn mower.
Dr. Ruth is an added part of the community. She not only has been in charge of the cemetery, but was also on the school board. She was president for about thirty-four years, and has her fifty year pin which President Truman's sister gave to her in a ceremony. She was also a secretary of the county democratic committe for thirty or forty years. If the community ever needed a chairman of any organization they could almost always count on Dr. Ruth.
Getting paid for her services wasn't her main concern. She wanted to help. While we were there a patient brought Dr. Ruth some eggs. "She has been the doctor that an average citizen could rely on and she didn't charge so much that you could pay it. She's really marvelous. I just don't know how in the world she does what she does at her age."
Dr. Ruth likes to tell the story of a young woman who was in labor one Sunday afternoon. Someone sent for Dr. Ruth. When she got there the husband was lying on the floor drunk, sleeping off a Saturday night fight. Dr. Ruth delivered the baby, and fixed up the man so he could go back to work on Monday. A few months later Dr. Ruth met him on the street and asked him if he didn't think it was about time that he paid her for the nice baby boy she delivered. He pulled out fifty cents and said that was all the kid was worth.
One would think she would get very impatient with people coming in day after day for over sixty-seven years with the same old complaints. But Dr. Ruth doesn't seem to tire. She has treated the same families for three or four generations and looks like she could for another generation. When a patient comes through the door, Dr. Ruth immediately jumps up to go see to them. She finds out what they need and comes swiftly back to the medicine room for the drugs. Then she sits down to write out the directions and takes time to visit a few minutes before going on with her work.
Although some of her way of life has changed, such as the modern lawn mower and the new model car she now drives, some things have not. An old fashioned heating stove still heats the office, and her hair is still short, not because of any hair fashion but because it is easy to care for and she doesn't have time with her duties. She still has the old fashioned characteristic of modesty.
She doesn't really think she has done anything worth our attention, and was surprised that we though she was remarkable to be so useful and active outliving most of her patients.
A VISIT WITH DOCTOR RUTH
Edited by Terry Brandt
My patients die off and leave me. You see, people, I have served my day, really--since 1906. I think it will be 68 years in June since I made my first call. Most of the doctors are dead long before this time.
Are you ever going to retire?
I doubt it. What would be the use of retiring? People would still come and want to know things. And you just as well have a little medicine on hand to give to them. I have some of these people who come to me that are third and fourth generations of the family, and they say, "Oh, don't, don't close your office. Don't close your office." Well now, what are you going to do? You've got the ability and you've got the material at hand to aid these folks. And I don't know what I'd do if I retired. I never lived on schedule. Never worked by appointments. I just take people as they come. Once in a while somebody comes in so sick I want to get them back here to lay on the lounge.
Sometimes people used to walk to see me in the snow when they didn't have rubber footwear. They wrapped their feet in gunny sacks tied with strings. That kept them from slipping on the ice and protected their shoes somewhat from the snow if they weren't out too long. Denim coats and overalls. Blue shirts for the men, calico dresses for the women long enough to drag in the dust sometimes. I still have one or two of the older women that come to town in their sunbonnets and their aprons. You know, a full apron tied around the waist. No, I can't retire.
We were wondering when you first decided you wanted to become a doctor.
Now that was in the summer of 1902.
How old were you?
Are you a good mathematician? I was born in '83.
What made you want to become a doctor?
Well, my father was a doctor and had five girls. The four older ones had all turned him down. The first girl became a teacher. The second one married her college professor, and the third one was going to study medicine, but she met a young medical student. One day she said, "Father, I'm not going to be a doctor but a doctor's wife." And so she married. Then my next sister, the fourth one, just had no use for sick people. She just said, "No, I'm not going to take care of sick people."
I was seven years younger and when I was through high school, I applied for a little country school out here. The board didn't give it to me because they said I wouldn't be equal to handling the big rough boys. I weighed about a hundred pounds and was just a little over five feet tall. They kind of apologized to my father for not giving me the school, but they said they were just afraid I couldn't handle the big boys. Maybe I couldn't, I don't know. So then my father said, "Well, you have to do something, and if you'll go to school and study medicine for me, I'll see you through if you make me one promise. You mustn't stop in the middle of it and get married. Now the day you get your licensee to practice, you can get married if you want to, but you must finish it if you begin it." I began it and I finished it and here I am.
Did you ever get married?
No, I never had the time. It takes time to get married.
Wasn't it kind of unusual for a woman to want to be a doctor back then?
Did you have any problem going through medical school?
Nothing, except it took a lot of hard work. I'm often asked if I met discrimination in the classroom and I never did. When you looked at the faces of those men, they were nearly all straightforward and honest.
Were there any other girls in your class besides you?
Not directly in my class, but there was one just younger and one older.
How many people were in your class?
When we started there were forty-eight and when we finished there were six in my graduating class.
What was your first call like?
Well, we got home on the three-thirty train and at four-thirty I was gone on my first call. It was an elderly woman who had rheumatism. The joints were all swollen.
Were you kind of scared?
I don't think I've ever known what it's meant to be really scared with anybody day or night. I've gone all over this country and on the darkest nights of the world by myself and I've never been really frightened. I'm just not a scaredy-cat.
Weren't you afraid somebody might rob you?
I didn't have anything for them to steal. There had been some robberies around in the country, and I know my father was a little fearful sometimes that he might be held up. I had been out southwest of town on a confinement case one Saturday night. About three o'clock in the morning I started home and instead of driving my own two horses that could have outrun anything, I had a little team from the livery stable. I had these little horses I drove every once in a while when mine were tired. You couldn't hurry them for your life. They just wouldn't hurry. So about three o'clock in the morning I started home on a bright moonlight early Sunday morning. As I started to go up a hill, I came upon a little creek bottom. A couple of young men rode their horses right in the middle of the road that I had to travel. And right by a monstrously large oak tree that shaded that road, they rode into the shadow and stopped. One man got off of his horse and I thought they were going to rob me. I didn't have any money with me. But I did have my watch pinned on me. So I unpinned it and slipped it down with my arm between the seat without letting them see a motion of my arm. There was nothing to do but ride on. As I came pretty close to them, this one man that was on foot stepped right out in the middle of the road. I just let the horses walk right up to him, and he turned around and looked at the other young man on the horse and said, "Oh, it's nobody but Dr. Ruth." Now I think they were probably just a couple of young fellows that enjoyed getting their companions a little scared. But they certainly didn't bother me. They both waved their hands when I went by. That's the only time that I ever thought that I was going to be robbed.
Did you have any protection like a dog?
I had a big dog, part bull dog and part bird dog. He was my body guard and it was his delight to go with the team. I never saw him back away from anything except once. One night I was driving out east here and came up from a creek bottom and started up a hill when one of the horses began to snort. I supposed that maybe there was a snake in the road. She hated snakes and we had lots of them here around the creek bottoms. So I spoke encouragingly to her. Then the dog stopped beside the buggy and bristled his neck and I knew something was wrong, but I didn't know what. I called the dog to get up in the buggy. And as we drove on by, there were three big timber wolves down by the side of the road. But they didn't bother us at all. But that's what had frightened the horses and the dog. That's the only time I ever knew him to back down on anything.
He was a big dog. He weighed around sixty pounds. In those days doctors carried little medicine bags with medicine bottles in them. The dog carried my medicine case. He had to hold his head up to keep it from dragging on the rough places. So I started walking down the street here going home in the evening. There was a dog fight out in the middle of the road. He walked out to it, set his medicine case down and settled the dogs. He came trotting back to me, you know, kind of proud of what he had done. There were a couple of men standing in front of the store. One of them turned to the other and said, "I always knew that dog would drop that case someday." Of course, I was ready for him to come back to me, and when he got back I said, "Cub, where's your medicine case? Go get it." And he walked out and picked it up and brought it home.
One of the worse troubles he had was carrying the mail for me. He was thirsty, and instead of going across the bridge, he went down into the water to get him a drink. He had to drop his mouthful of mail and, of course, the current carried it off downstream. He was terribly distressed. It took him quite a little bit to retrieve all of that. But he got it, every piece and brought it back out.
Another night I went out on a confinement case. There were two women and three men. The men were all three drunk. It was stormy and cold. I'd tied the horses under a big cedar tree and when I found I was going to have to stay all night, I said to the men, "I wish you'd go out and unhook the horses and put them in the stable to get them in out of this cold storm. So they all three went out and were gone for a little while. Pretty soon one of them came back and said, "You know, I'm just kinda ashamed of myself to be afraid of a dog, but that there dog of yours won't let us touch those horses. If you'll just call the dog in the house, we'll take care of the horses."
I had a tanned hide off of a black angus cow, great big thing lined with felt. It was my buggy rug to keep me warm. I'd always take it in the house and let the dog lie down on it. So he slept inside the house on that rug the rest of the night for I didn't start home that time until daylight. He was a very faithful animal.
At first did men hesitate coming to you because you are a woman?
You might say I stepped into my father's shoes. My father and mother came from Iowa in '81 and settled here. Father stared his office on this corner with a lawyer. They had a front reception room and each had their consultation room. I began practicing in the same building. When he died his patients kept coming to me. Sometimes I have five or six men in here a day when I won't have but one or two women. It just depends on who needs something.
Being a woman I'm sure you handled a lot of maternity cases. Do you have any idea how many babies you did help deliver?
I quit keeping track of them after World War II and at that time it was 2,999. I've not done so much of that work lately because so many folk like to go to the hospital.
Have you had many babies named after you?
There's a lot of little Ruths over the country. I delivered a baby girl out east of town. The mother wanted to name her Ruth but she had an older son. He said, "Oh, Mother, I don't think I would name her Ruth." The mother said, "Why not? Don't you think it would be nice naming her after Dr. Ruth?" He said, "Just think how many other babies are going to be named Ruth." So they named it Margaret Ruth.
Do you sometimes have to go on house calls and stay there overnight? Like with delivering a baby?
Yes, and I slept all sorts of places. On top of the grand piano, on a feather bed, under the dining room table, on a straw tick in the corner of the room. I've traveled almost all ways. In the winter times when we had sleet and snow, we had what we called ice shoes put on the horses. These iron horse shoes would have spikes welded to them so that when they put their foot down, they didn't slip on the ice. And I've gone as far as I could in my buggy. Usually the high school boy that would be staying with us to go to high school would drive me a distance, or one of my sisters. And then somebody'd maybe meet me and carry me across the water where there was no bridge and no other way to get through. Then from the other side of the creek I had to walk to the house.
One time I came back off of those night calls and the man carried me to the other side of the creek and set me and my bags down and he went on home. I had to walk on into town. And oh, I was so tired. I'd been up all night and ended with a breech delivery and I was worn out, so I thought to cut a little distance, I'd cut catty-cornered across a field, not follow the road around. I laid down and rolled under the wire fence. It felt so good to stretch out on that snow, and the sun was pretty and warm. I thought, I believe I could just lie right here and go to sleep. And then I thought, well, it's awfully cold. If I do I might freeze. I'd rather get up and go on in home. I was only three-fourths of a mile from home then, but when I did get home I had frosted my toes and both my hands. That was about as bad an exposure as I ever had.
Another time I was called in the night to come across the river where there was no bridge. I drove my horses out from town here about two miles, wakened the people at the house and told the man what I wanted. I said, "Mr. Glassen, I want to be set across the river. And I'll probably be gone all night and I want you, when you come back from setting me across the river to put my horses in your stable." He said, "All right. I'll dress and be out there in a minute." It was one of the blackest nights I was ever out. That man took me down the river bank and skipping 'cross that old swollen river landed me right across in the opening on the other side. How he measured his distance and knew just how many strokes to give I pondered about it. But he was a fisherman and knew the river. Then on the other side the man met me and carried my bags about half a mile. When I came back the next day, he harnessed my horses for me to come back in home.
But another time when I left my team at his place I was taken up the river in a boat. I had to go about a mile and a half up the river in a skiff. I found a baby with spinal meningitis. There was ice in the river then. It was beading up. And the only way to get that baby back to town where I could take care of it was back down the river. So I put the little thing on a pillow, wrapped it all up in a blanket and got back in the boat. The man guided the boat down the river while I held on to a paddle and pushed the pieces of ice away when they were about to hit us on the side. That I think was the hardest trip I ever did make.
What were your horses' names?
Alice and Topsy. They were full-blooded full-sister Hamiltonians, best driving team in this part of the country at least. Topsy was rawboned and high-headed, just always up and ready to go. Alice was round and roly. Sometimes she protested. She might have to be urged a little bit, but you never had to urge Topsy.
Dr. Ruth, did you ever ride horseback or did you always ride in a buggy?
Sometimes I would ride horseback in places where a buggy wouldn't go, but I never rode horseback by choice. I don't like riding, but I could ride. We always had four horses and I could ride any one of mine. We used to go down here and cross the bridge [down the street about one block]. Then we went down the river bottom till we came to a good-sized creek. For years and years there was no bridge there and if the water was up, you couldn't put your buggy there without getting the buggy bed wet. I've ridden that road on horseback many a time.
Did you get a car as soon as they were available?
I had my first car in 1917, a Model T.
Did it ever give you any trouble, either going flat or wouldn't start?
Oh, I cranked on the old thing so much till my arms were black and blue.
Have there ever been any epidemics, like smallpox?
Yes, I've been through two bad epidemics of smallpox. I've bathed people and changed their bedding when their own folks were afraid to touch them. But I always kept vaccinated and I never had it. And, of course, we used to have epidemics of scarlet fever. It's been about wiped out. I think I've disinfected every school house in the country and some of the homes. We don't pay too much attention to chicken pox and measles. And the flu hits us to some extent most every winter. We had quite a little of it this winter and a number of deaths among the elderly people.
When you first started practicing medicine did a lot of the people around here have their own home remedies and cures?
We're right in the edge of the Ozarks, you know. Oh, back in the depression when money was scarce, I just learned to use a lot of them.
Can you tell us about a few of them?
Well, children used to always go barefoot in the summer and boys especially would develop what we called stone bruises. Ever hear of stone bruises? Big abscesses would form from them. Green mullein leaves make one of the finest poultices you can use on a stone bruise. Just cut the green leaves, wash first to get the dust and dirt off and mash them into a pulp. Put them right on.
Would you use those yourself when you treated people?
Yes, I sometimes had to show people how to do it the first time...and bread and milk poultice.
What would you use that for?
Anything that you'd want to poultice. A boil or a bruise to take the soreness out...and fat meat.
Is that where they put a steak over your eye? Is that the same thing?
No, you put raw beef steak over an eye when it gets bruised. The fat meat was used as a poultice to draw. You get a little infection started and that will draw all of the pus and the poison out and start it to bleeding good blood. Then the good blood heals it. The white of an egg was used for the same thing. It's been so long since I've heard these I've almost forgot what we did use.
In the depression days would people hesitate to call you because they couldn't pay?
They'd call for information lots of times, but some of them hesitated to ask for drugs. However, I don't think I lost much in the depression, because when you sum human nature up, the majority of the people do have a little honor and good in them. And if they couldn't pay the money, they paid in produce. Sometimes I got a chord of wood. One time I got a whole great big gunny sack full of cabbage to make my kraut. Maybe a dressed chicken. You know the country will produce your living if you'll just let it.
Did you have very many that owed a lot of money to you and just not pay it?
They'd always see to it the debts were paid?
Yes. We used to have what was called collection agencies. I think there's still some operating around the country. But they used to go to the individual doctors and ask for your outstanding bills to collect them for you. They didn't believe me when I told them I had collected over ninety-five percent of all the bills that I had put on the book.
If you could would you go back in time--re-live your life? If you could change, would you still be a doctor?
Yes, if I could do it in times past. I would not want to begin and start out now because of all the government restrictions. But if the circumstances were the same as when I started out, I'd be the same thing over.
Do you think the future will be good?
In the world in general I think times will get better, a lot better, a lot easier living. People live longer and don't have to go to the poor farm. That used to be a heart-breaking experience when you'd find some old person sick and maybe hungry, un-fed and you'd have to load them up in your buggy and take them to the poor farm. Maybe they didn't have a home that amounted to anything, but it was home. And how they did hate to leave it.
If you were going to give me some advice on living in general as a person who has already lived a full life, what would be your advice to me?
I would say conservation would be a good bet for a young man like you. I'm pretty straight laced. I believe everyone should have a Christian faith. I don't care which one it is. They're all good. I think that should be the basis of your activity.
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