Saturday, January 22, 2011

Exeter's Country Doctor

The latest "Historically Speaking" column will appear in the January 25th issue of the Exeter News-Letter.

by Barbara Rimkunas

When Dr. William G. Perry opened his office in 1847 in Exeter, he knew he had stiff competition. His father, also named Dr. William Perry, had been practicing medicine in town since 1814 and showed no signs of slowing down. The two men, designated “Old Dr. Perry” and “Young Dr. Perry,” worked in town together for the next 40 years, each serving his own patients but overlapping with great frequency.

“Old” Dr. Perry was not a native of Exeter. Born in 1788 in Norton, Massachusetts, he was a farmer’s son. His father sent his two older brothers to college but had to be coerced into doing the same for his third. It seems he hoped that William would be the one to inherit the farm, but the boy had other ideas. He headed to Union College in New York in 1807, but quickly decided to transfer to Harvard. On the trip home, he just happened to come upon a new-fangled invention called a steamship that was making on if its first voyages down the Hudson River. Hopping aboard, William became one of the first people in America to ride on Robert Fulton’s steamship.

In 1814, in the same year Perry earned his M.D. from Harvard Medical School, the town of Exeter found itself in need of a new – younger- physician. According the Exeter News-Letter, “About this time the people of Exeter were in want of a doctor. Some of the resident physicians were getting old and others lacked moral standing. A number of leading citizens wrote therefore to Dr. Warren, asking him to recommend a young man of promise to fill the vacancy. He at once selected Dr. Perry.” With his mentor’s approval, Perry set up his practice in February of 1814.He would remain in practice until shortly before his death, at the age of 98, in 1887.
He soon proved himself to be an excellent physician and surgeon. In the early years of his practice, doctors performed operations without the benefit of anesthesia, which was frightening for both doctor and patient. The News-Letter would say of Perry, “He was not a rash practitioner, but he could be heroic when heroism was required. A grateful patient whose life was saved by amputation performed when the sufferer was apparently at the last extremity, remarked that his own pain was half forgotten – this was before chloroform was known – when he saw the big drops of sweat upon the surgeon’s brow.”

Doctors in the nineteenth century had to be made of tough stuff. They ministered to all people at all times of day or night, frequently for little or no payment. He wisely allowed himself to be vaccinated for small pox even when advised that the disease was dying out. The advice didn’t seem to apply to Exeter, as small pox was still seen in the town, “he had abundance of work in this line, however. He attended numberless cases, sometimes burying with his own hand, those, who having died of the worst forms of the disease, had been abandoned by their terror-stricken friends.” Such was the life of a village doctor.

Perry didn’t confine himself to the study of medicine; he was also interested in the mechanics of the industrial revolution that came to town in the form of textile mills. Finding that the materials used for sizing cotton fabrics had to be imported from England, he devised a way to make the same type of starch from potatoes. His potato starch mill on the Exeter River just above the Great Bridge operated for several decades, providing sizing for the mills in Lowell. Burned twice, the mill finally was put out of business by its own success. Dr. Perry, had forgotten to patent his discovery and lost customers when a competitor stole his process and set up his own potato starch mill.

Perry also dabbled in dentistry, carving replacement teeth from hippopotamus tusks. He filled cavities with such skill that local dentists remarked on their durability. It may have been his work in dentistry that led him to invent a simplified packing for the treatment of nosebleeds. Exeter’s cotton mill provided the cotton wadding and strong thread that Perry used to pack the nose and later extract the wadding easily – without the use of damaging instruments. It was a simple solution for a difficult problem.

Dr. Perry continued to practice well into his eighties, performing three delicate hernia operations at the age of 87.His skill was such that the News-Letter noted, “a fourth time, when ninety-two, he was equally successful” with another hernia repair. It speaks well of his abilities that his patients harbored no reservations about letting him operate at such an advanced age.

At the time of his death, Perry was the oldest resident of the town of Exeter. “Few men will be more missed by all classes in our community than Dr. Perry,” the News-Letter wrote in his obituary, “He was firm, and sometimes blunt even to roughness, with hypochondriacal patients or those he believed to be shamming. Toward real sufferers he was as gentle and sympathetic as a woman.”

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