Vol. VIII, No. 1, 1995

The Jim Johnson Story

by Melinda Muetzel Hartel

Melinda Muetzel Hartel, native Springfieldian and SMSU alumnus, lives and writes in Kansas City, Missouri.

Early 20th Century medicine was no doubt primitive by today's standards. Treatment for even the most serious of injuries was often a mixture of doctor ingenuity, ministrations of family members and, perhaps most importantly, the sheer will of the patient to survive.

It was a formula born of necessity. But in a surprising number of instances, it worked.

Jim Johnson's story is just such a case. In 1914, at the age of 10, Jim's kneecap was knocked up his right leg several inches by a kicking horse. Manual pressure to put the bone back in place and three months' bed rest was the common-sense remedy. But four years later, the same limb began inexplicably to swell until it reached nearly twice its normal size; doctors were forced to amputate after several unsuccessful attempts to save the leg, ultimately leaving the young boy with a five-inch stump.

That was 76 years ago. Out of bull-headed stubbornness, Jim Johnson not only survived, he has lived -- and lived well -- leading for most of his years a remarkably active, sportsman's life, finding love under the most unlikely of circumstances, and making a name for himself in Ozarks land development decades before the present boom in Branson.

The football practice injury which marked the beginning of Jim's ordeal occurred in the fall of 1919. Jim had begun his secondary education at Springfield High School (now Central High School) a year late, having taken advantage of the wartime labor shortage and working at the American Savings Bank during the flu epidemic of 1918.

He doesn't recall the injury, only that his leg began to bother him and he started running a fever. Sent home from school and alone one afternoon, he became delirious, taking the house apart by kicking out windows and the like.

Jim's parents, William H. and Sarah Elizabeth Johnson, took him to the hospital, but he recalls being there for several days before exploratory surgery was performed. An enlarged limb was no great oddity at the time, Jim says.

"There were a lot of cases in those days when people's limbs would swell for reasons unknown," he explains. "They called it 'white swelling,' probably because the area often did not turn red, but white."

Upon opening the leg, the surgeons discovered that Jim was suffering from osteomyelitis, infectious inflammation of the bone marrow; infection and lack of circulation were the causes of many amputations in those days. Fragmented pieces of bone implicated the previous injury.

For the next two months the leg was elevated by a rack over Jim's bed, drainage and irrigation being the essential part of treatment in the days before antibiotics. Changing the dressing was excruciating to Jim and it took three nurses to hold him down during the process. He recalls the medical staff using an irrigant called Dakens' Solution, which had been widely utilized during World War I. Hot, moist dressings of mild antiseptic, such as boric acid, were also commonly applied.

It was all that could be done, and it was not enough. The only choice was amputation. "My reaction when I found out I was going to lose my leg?" Jim reflects. "Well, I didn't go 'Hip, hip, hooray' by any means, but I was sick, very sick, worn down and weak. I just looked at it as a choice between taking off my leg and living or I was going to die. Here I was, a 14-year-old kid, and I couldn't even get off my back."

The actual process of removing a limb in 1919 was not much different than it is today; even the instruments -- the rongeur, bone curette, bone forceps, saw and rasp file -- looked much the same as mod-em-day equipment. By the 20th century, surgical instruments were fashioned all of metal and could be sterilized, a simple process the lack of which had cost many lives during the Civil War.

Young Jim Johnson.


What early medicine lacked in finesse, it made up in personal attention. Jim's surgeon, Dr. H.A. "Arch" Lowe, a former Drury College football teammate of Jim's oldest brother Bill, went far beyond the call of duty in his care of the young boy. Jim had a nearly reverent attitude toward the doctor, he says, and credits him with saving his life.

"Dr. Lowe would come by my room at the hospital every day after my surgery, changing the dressings himself, and each time took 15 or 20 minutes," he says. "He was a very caring and concerned doctor.

"Even after I went home, he'd stop by the house often to check on me, although we lived out on what was then considered the edge of town."

Jim left the hospital on Christmas Eve 1919 in an ambulance; he wanted to be home for the holidays. Three months later he had to return for a second amputation, however. The leg was not healing, and several more inches had to be removed.

Spring turned to summer. Jim was anxious to be out of bed, and two friends took him to the James River on his birthday, laying him on a blanket on the bank so he could watch them fish; pain and lack of use had left his remaining leg drawn up in a permanently bent position which kept him from even attempting to walk with crutches. The "use it or lose it" approach of modern physical therapy was not yet in existence.

It was a costly outing, however, for the jolting ride in a truck with solid tires over unpaved roads caused an infection in the hip above the leg.

Because Jim was too weak to withstand surgery, the family doctor, a prosperous German by the name of William Reinhoff, treated the new infection with hypodermic painkillers and an intensive bout of oral medicine -- an ordeal that still makes Jim's face pucker when he talks about it. "I had to drink a whole glass of that stuff every two hours," Jim remembers. "I thought I wasn't going to be able to do it, but I wanted to get well more." The infection abated, but the hip remained stiff and inflexible and was to be a problem to Jim the rest of his life.

To address the problem of the bent leg, Dr. Reinhoff employed a device made of two boards, hinged in the middle, set above another board drilled with holes into which a pin could be set and moved downward, allowing the boards above to flatten. He strapped the leg, which was initially bent at a nearly 90 degree angle, to the upper part and instructed Jim's mother in his heavy accent to move the pin down a notch every day, thereby allowing the leg to straighten under its own weight. "My heel, resting on that board, burned like fire," Jim remembers. "Mother and Sis would work their fingers under my heel to get the circulation going. By accident, they worked that pin out, which caused me considerable pain, but I had a mostly straight leg in a few days." It was four months from the ill-fated fishing trip until Jim could stand. While recuperating, he amused himself by reading books, playing cards (particularly special kinds of solitaire), making toys for neighborhood children and knitting -- a skill his mother taught him during that time.

The whole Johnson family played an active role in Jim's recovery, both in the hospital and at home. Not a large woman, his mother still managed to carry him down 17 stair steps every morning so that she could tend to his needs in the day. Jim's father and older brother Gene carded him back upstairs at night. By that time, Jim weighed only 60 to 70 pounds, due to the effects of his illness and the lost weight of the amputated leg. He was 6'2."

"When I finally got up and around, people would stare at me because I was so thin and pale," Jim says. "I never will forget the day I walked on crutches the two blocks to the end of the [East] Elm streetcar line and rode into town to go to the theater. My left hip joint had about half normal action, and it was very painful when in use."

Jim's parents were also his only instructors in learning to walk on his artificial leg, a process which took some three months. The family's finances had been hard hit by his illness and Jim was getting around quite well on crutches, so he did not receive the prosthesis until he was a high school senior.

Jim Johnson, in one of the several john boats he built.


"It wasn't necessary," he says. "Just walking on crutches was like taking bonds off of me. Besides, you just don't start walking on an artificial limb easily after an above-the-knee amputation." The number of amputations performed during World War I had made artificial limbs more easily obtainable -- Jim's first one cost $150 -- but an amputation high on the thigh typically made fitting a problem. Compared to the lighter-weight, mostly plastic models of today, with an average price of $6,000, prostheses at the early part of the century were cumbersome and often downright inconvenient. Jim's was fashioned to fit his stump and cut from a solid block of wood, a process called "pulling a socket." Two-inch leather straps, attached to a heavy cloth harness, went over both shoulders under his clothes, chafing the skin and securing the limb none too tightly; Jim says they often slipped off his shoulders when he stood up. The leg was worn with a soft woolen sock slipped over the stump on the inside to absorb perspiration and cushion the impact of the stump against the socket. The knee joint was metal, and there was padding around the foot to deaden the sound when walking.

While those early prostheses clearly had their drawbacks, Jim remembers that they were in many respects easier to use than their modem suction-type counterparts, particularly for an amputee with a short stump. Again, it was Jim's determination to be able to walk without crutches, when it suited him, that took him where he wanted to go.

"At first, the doctors said there wasn't enough of my leg left to hold [an artificial limb with straps] in alignment, but I did," he says. "In later years, when suction limbs were developed, they said there wasn't enough of my limb left for suction, but I managed that, too."

Jim's great love of the outdoors -- a Johnson family trait -- also played a large part in his recuperation. In the earliest days of his recovery, he remembers his mother pulling him outside, seated on a rug, down the front stairs of the house so that he could just run his hands through the grass, a memory he recalls with great emotion. Once he was finally out of bed, she lent him her physical assistance in building a johnboat, one of 20 or so he has crafted in his lifetime He altered his favorite activities to accommodate his disability and was able to continue hunting, fishing and floating, keeping up with his friends without much difficulty. Generally, he found it easier to get around on crutches on those outings, and participated often enough to have trouble finding shirts to fit his overly muscled arms that developed as a result.

"You'd think I'd have been scared about getting hurt again, but I didn't worry about that," Jim says. "After you've been in bed the better part of two years, you're so glad to be up and about that everything else is of minor consequence." His excursions included numerous trips down the James and White Rivers and their tributaries. Hunting, too, remained a source of enjoyment. Once, only two years after his amputation, after falling three times before dawn on a four-mile winter trek over icy, rutted roads to the old Fin and Feather Lake (which was then a mile south of what is now the federal prison hospital), Jim flipped his canoe in strong winds while duck hunting -- the one and only time he ever turned over a canoe or boat, he makes a point of saying.

"My canoe was a Detroit, very tippy, narrow and short," he remembers. "The wind was out of the southeast and I was going almost due south, and trying to hold it into the wind. To make matters worse, I was loaded down with a boot, winter underwear, two sweaters, my hunting coat, two boxes of shells and my lunch. It's the nearest I ever came to drowning.

"I had to make a quick and right decision: swim north, across the lake, or swim to the south shore, about 50 yards away, where I could touch bottom and safely swim along the earthen dam to the boat dock, a process that would probably take a half an hour in freezing water."

Luckily, he never had to make the choice because the clubhouse caretaker came out and heard his Jim's Whoop, which he says "must have echoed for miles." Coming close to losing his life, Jim still ponders over the loss of the gun.


To address the problem of the bent leg, Dr. Reinhoff employed a device made of two boards, hinged in the middle, set above another board drilled with holes into which a pin could be set allowing the boards above to flatten. He strapped the leg.... to the upper part and instructed Jim's mother.., to move the pin down a notch every day.


"The next afternoon, after the wind laid, I went gun hunting," Jim says. "I had the clubhouse caretaker row me over to where I had capsized, and tried raking the bottom. I finally found something that gave consistent encouragement, so I peeled off my clothes and dove in, but it turned out to be a ledge of rock.

"The gun, so far as I know, was never found. It was only for duck hunting, with a 32-inch barrel on it, almost long enough to reach out and hit the duck with."

Still, Jim wanted a life outside of outdoors, and that was where yet another doctor played an important role in his life. Through mutual friends, he became acquainted with M.L. Kleinfelder, a noted surgeon working out of the Missouri Baptist Sanatorium in St. Louis. One of few orthopedic surgeons in those days, Dr. Kleinfelder specialized in hips and was interested in getting Jim's stiff left hip mobile again. Over a period of years, he took numerous x-rays and operated twice, but would never send Jim a bill. It was Dr. Klienfelder's contribution to his personal life for which Jim will always be most grateful, however, for it was inadvertently through him that Jim met his future wife, then a nurse at the Sanatorium.

"The first time I saw her, she came to my room to take my temperature," he remembers. "After she left, my Aunt Kitty, who was visiting me, commented, 'What a raving beauty.'

"And I said to myself, 'I'm going to marry that girl.'

"It was wild speculation on my part, since I had one leg off and the other was being worked on, but it was to come true."

Anna Petersen, or "Pete," as Jim affectionately came to call her, was engaged at the time to her childhood sweetheart, a professor at Washington University, but Jim won her heart. After only three dates over the course of three months, the couple married. Anna was 23 and Jim, 25.

The Depression and its attendant lack of materials for civilian use ended Jim's bookkeeping job in his brother Bill's construction company. Two years later found Jim managing the Springfield Airport, living with Anna and their two young children in the administration building his brother Gene had designed. The terms were decent for the times: $100 a month and a place to stay.

At the outbreak of World War II, Jim organized and began operating the Springfield Flying Service out of the airport, training pilots for the army and navy, through Southwest State and Drury Colleges. It was a time he remembers as "tremendously exciting.''

After the war ended, however, such operations nationwide were folding "like frostbitten flowers," Jim says. The loss of his leg disqualified him for a commercial pilot's license, so he decided to return to his brother's now-booming business, developing land first in Springfield and then in the Ozarks following Jim and Anna's move to Hollister some 10 years later

The couple shared 62 years, two children and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren before Anna's passing in 1992. Jim continues to live alone at their hilltop home, in a subdivision he developed overlooking Tablerock Lake. In 1991, residents renamed the hill's main road Johnson Lane.

In the final analysis, medicine could only save Jim Johnson's life. It has been his own gritty determination and unflinching lack of self-pity that forged its quality. One of only a handful of licensed hummingbird banders in the country --a pursuit which involves live-trapping, banding and collecting data on the tiny migratory birds -- he continues with customary stalwartness to hang out his hummingbird feeders each summer, in a ritual heralding of the season.

"I have had many interesting experiences in my life--some would think surprising experiences for a man with only one natural leg," Jim says. "I have hunted and fished most of my childhood and all through my adult life, floating these Missouri and Arkansas rivers hundreds of times. I believe most people can do about anything they want to do, if they put their mind to it."

Jim Johnson at Belanca Aircraft plant.


Copyright -- OzarksWatch 

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