The fast lane has by-passed Bailey, North Carolina, but if you get off Highway 264 just 36 miles east of Raleigh, you can find it. Bailey is the home of the Country Doctor Museum.
Small places always have stories to tell. Bailey is also where Julius Peppers, bone-crusher for the Chicago Bears, played high school football, rushing for 3,500 yards and scoring 46 touchdowns. In 1980, Bailey hosted a documentary reenactment of a medicine show with performers who 50 years earlier had actually been the attraction in traveling medicine shows. The 58-minute video of this of this event is worth watching.
The Country Doctor Museum, unrelated to medicine shows, of course, has grown from a nostalgic collection of memorabilia into an extensive documentary record of the pre-big business era of medical care. This was a time when a little bit of science was mixed with a lot of hope and faith. The whole doctor did the best he knew for the whole person, and did it without filtering the insured from the uninsured. On display is one doctor’s account ledger listing monetary payments as well as bartered payments such as chickens or hours of labor.
In this time before specialization, doctors could actually make their own pills. The museum displays an apparatus for doctors to combine ingredients and compress them into pill form.
To see the collection of medical devices and procedures is a little humbling as it reminds us that what has credibility as a cure one day can be dismissed later as unhelpful or even harmful. The practice of using leeches to suck from a patient whatever might be ailing him, was made more vivid by the large, decorative urn labeled “Leeches.” There are rumors of leeches making a comeback for some medical purposes, but I think I’ll pass on that if it’s ever offered.
And, always a bit shocking, is the sight of a field surgery tool kit with its gleaming stainless saw for severing limbs. It brings to mind visions of Stonewall Jackson being relieved of his left arm by Confederate surgeons, after being shot by his own soldiers, a North Carolina regiment. With friends like that, who needs enemies? Well, we should never have gone to war anyway.
I’m fond of visiting museums and collections, and this one has a particular appeal. My attention span is pretty short, and I can get bored easily, but it didn’t happen here. I had driven up to the main building of the three building campus late on a rainy afternoon and discovered that I was the only visitor there. I explained that I would return at another time, but Anne Anderson cordially insisted that it was no trouble to give me a solo tour.
Part of the staying power of this museum is that the founders, curators, and current proprietor (the East Carolina University Medical School) seem to have a passionate interest in the collection. They have pursued any thread of historical interest that has presented itself to the point where new donations to the collection are continually being received.
The antique vehicle collection has been authenticated as being used by particular rural doctors in in North Carolina who drove them on those legendary “house calls.” Lying in bed at home, weak and suffering, and having a doctor roll up to one’s front door has long been the stuff of old movies. However, I have such a memory as a child while having an asthma attack. My mother had called the doctor, and she said that I began breathing more easily when I heard his car stop in front of our house. In another instance of a house call, I remember overhearing a doctor reciting inspirational poetry to a despondent patient.
Several years ago I learned that there has been a revival of house calls. In 2005, a local medical practice sent an empathetic young doctor out to the bedside of my 100-year-old mother.
The short stories of local history are some of the best stories we can learn, and the Country Doctor Museum presented one of these gems of small town history that I had never heard. In 1946, an African-American doctor in Tarboro, Milton Quigless, needed a hospital for his patients since neither he nor his patients were allowed to use the local “white” hospital. Against all odds, he secured a loan and built his own hospital. His expertise and skill eventually drew patients (black and white) from a large surrounding area. Some months after visiting the museum, I was in Tarboro and took a photo of Dr. Quigless’ clinic which now stands as an historic monument.
More than just another history museum, the Country Doctor Museum made me reflect on the very personal nature of the patient/healer relationship. Something seems lost in our current high tech multi-layered health care system. I think of Dr. Peacock, who dressed like Mark Twain, in his folksy office in the back of a drug store in my grandparents home in Georgia. And, of Dr. London, who exuded warmth and confidence as he tossed the needle like a dart into my arm to relieve me of asthma. It was almost a shaman-like gift of health and spirit.
In this day when folks are “Googling” their own self-diagnoses and debating it with their doctors, that warm fuzzy trust and dependency is lost. Of course, if you read enough medical history, that may be a good thing, but in terms of feeling secure in a safe world, it isn’t. The Country Doctor Museum brings all these things to mind and is well worth the visit.