The Autobiography of Dr. J. T. French

Thanks to Scott Safe for sharing the Autobiography of Dr. J. T. French, Knoxville, Iowa, 19 November 1901 and giving me permission to publish it here. Dr. French (1823-1903) wrote this autobiography between November 19, 1901 and January 5, 1902 in Knoxville. I have made some minor changes, mainly in spelling and punctuation.

J. T. French was born April 23rd, 1823, in a house one mile out of Lebanon, Warren County, Ohio. When three months old, his parents moved with him to Shelby County, Indiana, and settled there on 160 acres of land. This land was heavily timbered as was all the land in that County, as well as all of the Eastern half of the state. Our nearest neighbor was eight miles away. On the farm I was raised and lived until I was nineteen years old.

On that farm I learned to do all kinds of farm labor. Clearing up heavy timberlands, rolling logs, and all kinds of farm work. During the same time, I learned the brick making, brick laying, stone mason, and plasters trade. My father being a master mechanic, I learned with him.

During these years, I attended the old fashioned subscription schools from four weeks to two months each winter. That constituted my only opportunity for an education. Up to this time I had not lost a day from hard labor except when in school or when I was sick.

When I was nineteen years and four months old, I commenced the study of medicine, an idea that came to me when I was fourteen years old, an idea which I never could get out of my mind. I had no money, no credit, and no influence as far as I know.

Without consulting anyone, neither my father nor mother, I went three miles to St. Omer in Decatur County, Indiana. I consulted with Dr. G. C. Paramore, and made arrangements with him for the use of his medical library and instructions. I took the books necessary home with me and went into my room and commenced reading. I told my father and mother that I was going to study medicine and make a doctor if possible. My parents offered no objections so I continued to read for three months. I went three miles every week to recite my lessons and to receive any instructions my preceptor might see fit to give. At the end of this time, my father said to me that it would be necessary for me to pay board. Well, I had nothing to pay board with and it became necessary to make some new arrangements. I conceived the idea of teaching school. I went about nine miles from home and entered into a contract to teach a three months school at ten dollars per month and board, provided I could pass the necessary examinations and get a certificate.

I went down to Greensburg the County seat and went before the Board of Examiners, who were all strangers to me. The Board was composed of a minister, a lawyer, and a doctor. The result of said examination was that they granted me a certificate. I went home a happy man.

I took charge of my school and taught three months to the satisfaction of the directors and myself. I kept up with my study of medicine while teaching.

At the close of this, my first school, I had an attack of measles. On my way home, I took a severe cold and immediately came down with them. Not knowing that I had been exposed to the measles until they came out on me, I came very near losing my life.

In April 1843, just as I was recovering from the measles, my father was taken sick with a disease called Black Tongue, in those days, from which he died. My uncle and Aunt both died as did every other person who had the disease up to this time. The day after my father was buried, I was taken down with the same disease. I was very low for three weeks, but finally recovered. I was the only person who had the disease that recovered.

In the following May, there was a family composed of fourteen persons, taken down with the same disease. The doctor, who had them in charge, requested me to go and stay with them until they all got well or died. As I had no school on hand at the time, I consented to go and render what services I could.

The first evening after my arrival, the father of the family died. About one hour after I got there, I took hold. The first thing that I did was to shave and prepare him for burial. The next morning the doctor came. He took me to one side and said to me, "I want you to take charge of this family. Prescribe for them just what you think best for them." He said, "I would rather risk your judgment than my own since you have had the experience of having had the disease, which gives you the advantage over me." I promised him that I would take charge of all the cases, provided he would visit them every day and watch clearly what I was doing, and, if in his opinion, he thought I was doing anything that he could do better, he would say so. Under that promise on the part of the doctor, I took charge of the family.

The thirteen all had the disease which was then called Black Tongue. One of them died, but the other twelve got well. This was my first experience of playing Doctor. This took place during the months of May and June 1843. I then had been studying medicine about ten months. I continued the studying while out of school.

The following August, just at the close of my services with the family of fourteen, I got a contract for another three months school at Two Dollars per scholar and boarding with the scholars. The proceeds of this school amounted to about Fifty Dollars and board. The first of the following December I contracted to teach another three months school at ten dollars per month and board.

On the 19th day of the same month, namely December 19, 1843, I was guilty of the same act that most boys are guilty of. I got married. I was teaching at this time. I adjourned school one week, got married, went on a wedding tour and the next Monday morning returned to my school. This school wound up my teaching. This school was ten miles from home. I came home every Friday night and returned to my school before day on Monday morning of each week.

Two weeks before time for my school to expire, I gave up teaching and commenced housekeeping on a little farm of 57 acres, which I had come in possession of. It was all timber land. I went to work on the same, cleared it up, built a comfortable little house on the same and lived there for five years. I labored very hard improving the land, making brick, and laying brick.

In April 1844, my wife united with the old School Presbyterian Church, the same church [of] which I had been a member for some four years. We remained members of the church until April 1849 when we asked for our letters, which were granted us.

On the 5th day of May 1849, we started for Iowa. We landed in Bellfountain on the Des Moines river on the 28th day of May 1849. We had three children when we came to this country. My wife and three children were all taken sick the first three days after we landed in Bellfountain. We only lived in Bellfountain eleven days. They all being sick, I moved them out two miles West where Capt. Ridlen had a cabin that was only partly finished.

He said that I could move into it. Only half of the roof was on. There was no chinking or daubing in the cracks. The logs were cut out for the fireplace but the chimney was not built. Half of the floor was laid with puncheons. In fact it was but a little better than living out doors. My family were all sick when I moved them into the cabin and immediately after we got settled in our new quarters, I was taken sick.

I was unable to sit up. Wife, children, and myself, no one able to give the other a drink of water. We all remained sick for two months. When I got a cabin built on my own farm and then moved into it. The trouble that prevailed in that vicinity was that they were all newcomers and nearly all were sick, like ourselves, and one not able to help the other.

One circumstance that occurred while I was sick and living in the cabin, I will relate. It occurred when I had been sick about three days. A man came to my door, or the hole that had been cut out of the logs for a door. He wore a coon-skin cap, a calfskin vest, and buckskin pants, with a gun on his shoulder. He looked around the cabin and saw that we were all sick. He said, "You look like you were in a pretty bad fix." I told [him], yes, that we were. He asked us if we had anything to eat. I told him no. He then asked if we would eat anything if we had it. I said if I had something to make soup out of, my wife might drink some. I was then looking for her to die every hour. Without saying another word, he turned around and walked away. I thought to myself, "You are a singular fellow." About three hours thereafter, he returned and laid down two half-grown chickens, and the ham of a fawn which he had just killed. He then said, "If your wife and children can eat any of that, I hope it will do them good." I asked him what the price was. He said, "Nothing," and that if any of us could eat any of it, that would be all the pay he wanted. I thanked him for his kindness. The name of that man was Colonel Doud, one of the first settlers in Marion County, Iowa. The Colonel was a rough uncouth man, but one of the best neighbors I ever found in this country.

We were always intimate friends. As long as he lived there never has been a day since I made Colonel Doud's acquaintance that I would not fight for him. I was his family physician for ten years after this occurrence, when the Colonel moved from this Marion County. He had been dead now for some twenty years and passed to his reward in that world beyond where the Grand Master of the universe presides.

We were all sick all the time the first Summer and Fall that we were in Marion County, with malaria fever, which continued up to January 1850. When I was able, I was engaged in the practice of my profession, cutting wood, and making rails in the timber and hauling them out on the prairie.

My practice continued to increase every month, so that at the end of the two years, I was compelled to leave the farm. The field over which I rode was 30 miles East and West and 25 miles North and South. In October 1851, I moved into the town of Hamilton, Marion County, Iowa, where I lived and practised my profession for six years. I had nearly the exclusive practice in the above named territory for the term of six years.

My first experience in the treatment of Typhoid fever was in 1856, when I treated 53 cases. All recovered except one, only. It was fifty days and nights from the time I commenced to treat the first case until I discharged the last one. They were nearly all on hand at the same time. When I commenced the treatment of these cases, I did not know anything about the treatment of typhoid fever. I had never seen a case. I had read the books on the treatment of this terrible fever, but they, at that time, did not know anything about the treatment of that fever. There were no doctors in this country that had ever treated a case of typhoid fever successfully. I was successful in all my cases except the one, and that one was the only case that I had ever lost from that day to the present.

The year before, 1855, the typhoid fever prevailed in Knoxville, Oskaloosa, Eddyville, Albia, and Chariton. I did not hear of a single case that recovered in any of these towns. There was not a case in my field of practise that year. My remedy was my own invention. I have always talked freely with my medical brothers in regard to my manner of treatment. There is nothing secret from the profession in regard to my treatment.

I traveled eighty miles in order that I might visit all my patients. I visited them every 48 hours. I traveled night and day, never took my clothes off to go to bed in the whole 50 days and nights. In visiting these patients, I often traveled a hundred miles to see them and this traveling was all done on horseback. This was the hardest siege that has ever occurred in my practice. At that time there were no buggies in Marion County, Iowa, and no roads, no bridges. We had to swim the streams when they were up.

During this siege, I was living in Hamilton, Marion County, Iowa. In 1857 on the 21st day of June, we moved to Knoxville, Iowa. On the first day of August, I opened a drugstore on the East side of the public square in Knoxville and ran the same for 27 years.

During all these years, I was actively engaged in the practise of medicine. While I was selling Drugs, my practise extended further North and West, the Des Moines river being the North line of my field up to the Northwest corner township in Marion County, west of Knoxville, taking in Franklin, Pleasant Grove, and Dallas townships.

In 1859 the Diphtheria broke out in Knoxville and surrounding country. There were no doctors in Marion County or the State of Iowa, who had ever seen a case of Diphtheria At this time there were no medical literature or books that treated on the disease. The consequence was that 11 of the cases that occurred in the city and surrounding country proved fatal. Hundreds of cases died during that Winter. We all lost all of our cases and one could not laugh at the other as we all had the same luck. All of the doctors that lived in Marion County at that time were sorry that they bore the name of doctor. Of course, we were all simply beaten. We all studied and investigated but as a rule to no purpose.

After some eighteen months, I succeeded in discovering a remedy which proved to be entirely successful. Sometime in the year of 1860, I made my discovery. The first case in which I tried my remedy and depended entirely on the remedy was the worse case I ever had seen. It proved successful in that and the lady fully recovered. From that day to the present, I have used my remedy entirely and to the exclusion of all other remedies without the loss of a single case. For the first 15 years after I made my discovery, I treated more cases of Diphtheria than all of the doctors in Marion County combined. Of late years there has been but few cases in this country, but all have recovered that used my remedy. This grand success has given me much pleasure. I have treated hundreds of cases without a failure. Of course, I have a right to feel happy, and I do.

One other thing which occurred in my practise which has afforded me much pleasure, namely, the second day after I landed in Bellfountain, I was called to attend a lady in her confinement, the first case I had been called to attend in Iowa. It was the worst case I have ever attended. I called for counsel. The doctor came. He was a man of large experience. He learned that I had just located and was expecting to make the practise of medicine by business. He had been here some five years before me. He thought that he would pursue a course in the case that would forever kill me. After he did what he supposed would effectively settle the case for me, he, being acquainted with all the ladies present, turned around to them and acclaimed that all the doctors this side of hell could not save her, picked up his pill bags and left. This was about eight o'clock A. M. I stayed with her for twenty consecutive hours without leaving for more than five minutes at a time. In about fifteen hours after the doctor had left, reaction commenced. She began to rally and I worked with her and did all I knew to do for her. In thirty hours after the doctor had left, she was fairly on the road to recovery. She finally made a good recovery, also the child lived and did well, living to be a grown woman. There were some eight or ten ladies present, all the doctor's friends, and when the doctor's prediction failed to come true, they left that doctor's side of the case and turned to me. From that day to this, my success in obstetrical practise has been all that I could desire.

I have attended thirteen hundred and twenty three cases of obstetrics without the loss of a single lady in fifty two years and six months. No physician now living can show so good a record. The secret of my success, in my opinion, is this. I allow nature to be the doctor and I simply assist nature. I have had all kinds of difficult cases and succeeded in all of them. Typhoid fever, malignant diphtheria, and obstetrical practise have been the cause of my success in my practice.

The first Winter I was in Marion County I had been informed that Winters were very cold and hard to endure. The winter of 1848, the year before I came to this Country, was the hardest Winter that had ever been since the Country had been settled. The snow came early and remained on all Winter. What corn was gathered was carried out of the fields in baskets and sacks, the snow being so deep that you could not get into the fields with a team.

I felt it my duty to prepare for the Winter of `849, it being the first Winter in the Country. I prepared by wood-cutting and hauling every day that I had time when I was able to work or was not riding. I spent the entire Winter preparing for the cold Winter that I expected and looked for, but as it happened it did not come. It was the mildest Winter I have ever experienced in this country for 52 years. I had wood cut and hauled up and piled up around my cabin, enough to last me for two years. But the Winter of 50 proved to be cold enough to consume my large woodpile.

The Winter of 49 and 50 I worked making rails, cutting and hauling wood and rails out on the prairie, all the time I had to spare from my practise. I never was idle a single day during the Winters of 49 and 50. I attended strictly to my professional duties. My practise [was] gradually increasing increasing and extending over a larger territory until my time was entirely taken up with my practise.

In the Fall of 1851, I left the farm and moved to Hamilton. It is located near the Southeast corner of Marion County. I then remained for six years, giving my whole time to the practise of my profession.

During all these eight years, there was not a bridge in Marion County. When I wanted to cross any one of the streams in my territory, when it was high, I would swim across and go wherever duty called regardless of the consequences.

I will here relate a circumstance that occurred in July 1851. That year is remembered by the old settlers of Marion County as the wet season. It was the wettest season that has ever been since the State was settled. The rain commenced to fall on the 8th day of May and it rained almost every day until the 2nd day of July. The water courses were full from bank to bank, no difference how wide. Between the Bluffs the land was all covered with water for those two months. The corn that was planted before the 5th of May was all washed out of the ground. The prospect for corn was very slim. We could not plant before the last days of July and that was too late for corn to mature.

I conceived an idea that if we could get buckwheat, [there] was yet time to raise a crop of buckwheat. There was no buckwheat on the South side of the Des Moines River but I had heard there was buckwheat over at Pella, but the trouble was to get across the river, it being high.

The water extended from bluff to bluff. My neighbor Wm. Ridlen and I concluded that we would try and cross the river and get some of that buckwheat for seed. We each took a horse and a two bushel sack and we started for Pella. We rode across the prairie to the mouth of English [Creek]. There we found three canoes. We tied up our horses and selected what we thought was the best craft, though neither of us knew anything about the management of a canoe. We got in and started up the stream, hugging the shore for half a mile when it became necessary for us to cross the main river. We made the crossing all right until we got to the timber on the other side.

It was about [a] fourth of a mile until we got out of the timber. While we were making that fourth of a mile, it was the hardest work either of us ever did in our lives. The currents of water running between trees made strong currents. It would sometimes strike the bow of our boat and turn the bow downstream and it would take fifteen minutes to regain what we had lost. After about three hours of hard labor, we succeeded in making the landing on the Pella side of the Des Moines river.

We took our empty sacks and walked four miles to Pella. We succeeded in purchasing one bushel of buckwheat each, that amount being all they would sell us. We then threw the buckwheat over our shoulders and walked four miles to the river where we had tied up our canoe. It appeared to us that a bushel of buckwheat weighed about a ton before we got back to the river but we felt happy since we had something that we might eat next winter. We got into our canoe and started down the river. We rowed three miles down the river to where we wanted to land--where we had left our horses.

When attempting to land, we had to cross the mouth of English [Creek] where it emptied into the Des Moines river. The current coming out of English [Creek] struck the bow of our canoe and drove us down the Des Moines river about forty rods before we could check speed. We then rounded to and came back up the stream to the place where we first attempted to land. This time we succeeded in making the landing. Ridlen held the boat up to the shore while I picked my sack up and carried it out on the shore. I laid it down and held the boat for Ridlen to come with his. He picked his sack up, threw it onto his shoulder. In doing so he lost his balance and fell out into the river. Ridlen, buckwheat, and all went to the bottom of the river. The water was about twenty feet deep at that place. He was gone so long before he made his appearance that I thought he had passed under the canoe. But after a long time Ridlen bobbed up hanging onto his sack with one hand and grabbing the boat with the other. He made at least half a dozen attempts to throw his buckwheat into the canoe before he succeeded. He had no foundation for his feet. There are but few men that could throw a bushel of grain up into a canoe under the same circumstances.

We finally got out all right, got our horses, and made home the same night without any other bad luck. We sowed our buckwheat on some new land that I had broken out that spring and raised a first class crop. We had enough buckwheat to supply all the neighbors. We divided it freely among them without money and without price. That was the way we did in those early days in this country. If one had something that his neighbor did not have we divided with each other. There was more sociability between us in those early times in Marion County by far than [in] recent years.

As a consequence of the sufferings, we were called upon to pass through during the early history of this country, there was a friendship that sprang up between us that lasted until death separated us. This is only one circumstance that I have related among many that I might relate that had a tendency to cement the old settlers in the bonds of friendship that never left us. It is not fifty two and a half years since those things took place with us and yet they are fresh in our memory.

I have often thought that if we could have the friendship and sociability that existed in those early days when we were all poor alike, how pleasant it would be now when we have all got away from those trying times. We might certainly enjoy life better than we do. It seems that as we become independent in our circumstances, we are disposed to forget those early days when we were all equal with one another.

There is now not to exceed one in fifty living who settled in Marion County, Iowa in 1849, the year I came there. I refer to the heads of families. We are passing away one by one. We die and pass into that other country from whence no traveler has ever returned but where the Grand Master of the universe presides.

There is one other circumstance that I will relate took place in 1851 during the two months wet season. I was the only one living in my neighborhood that did not have to pound corn in a mortar to make bread, and yet I was the only one that did not have to eat a meal without bread. We had a water mill at Marysville and one at Haymakers on the Cedars. They were all the mills South of the Des Moines river as far as the line of the state South and East. It was a hundred miles to the first mill, which was all there in the state at that time. It was called the Bonapart Mill. I had the advantage of my neighbors from the fact that I owned a mare that I taught to swim.

I swam her across Honey Creek and North Cedar to Marysville to try to get some meal. The water fell on this day so that they were only able to run the stones about two hours. I got one bushel of meal and paid a dollar for it and started home a happy man. I had something for wife and children to eat. When I got within a hundred yards of my cabin, I had to swim Honey Creek. I took my bushel of meal up on my shoulder and started in. It was about fifty yards across the stream. When about in the middle of the stream, the mare reared up and fell over burying myself and bushel of meal and her on top of us. She finally straightened up and struck for the shore. I held onto my sack of meal with one hand and caught the mare by the tail with the other hand. She pulled us to shore all right, except we were slightly wet.

We had meal that lasted just twenty-four hours. The second day we had meal for breakfast and it was all gone. It was divided among the neighbors. Another time I went to Haymakers Mill when the water had fallen a little so that the wheel could turn. I got two bushels this time for which I paid two dollars and got home safe with it. Those two times were all the times that the mills could grind for two months.

There are many circumstances that I might relate but these will suffice to show how we lived in those early days in Marion County, Iowa. When my wife and I settled here in May 1849, we had three children: Elizabeth Delcina, Caroline Acenath, and Parthena Jane. Parthena Jane died on September 2nd, 1849 at the age of 10 months and 16 days.

On the fifth day of August 1851, James Allen was born on the old farm that we first bought in Marion County and about the middle of October 1851, we moved to Hamilton, Marion County, Iowa. My wife was a weak frail woman weighing about 75 pounds, but very industrious and always at hard work. She gave me all the assistance in her power.

On the 3rd day of July 1854, George Albert was born. William Alfred was born December 16th, 1856. On the 21st day of June 1857, we moved to Knoxville.

Mary Alice was born February 9th, 1859. Amy May was born August 13th, 1861. Pauliena Jane was born October the 17th, 1848. Our Babe was born April 16th, 1865. Our Babe died April 25th, 1865 at the age of 9 days.

William Alfred died on the 16th of October 1858. Caroline Acenath Stone died on November 11th, 1867.

Nine children were born to us. In the month of November 1876, my wife got a fall and fractured the surgical neck of the right femur within the capular ligament which never united. She received this injury 25 years before her death. She never was able to walk without the assistance of a cane or crutch after she received the injury. After having suffered for twenty five years, she passed away on the fourth day of June 1900. She was a quiet peaceful woman, one of deep thought and sincere in her views in regard to religious matters. Two days before her death, she said to her pastor, Rev. Wm. Sloan, that she had made her peace with her God and was willing to die. I have no doubt but she is now happy in the company of her Savior and her numerous friends that have passed over the river of death before her, where she is at perfect rest for ever and ever.

J. T. French
January 5, 1902

NOTE: You can read a biography of J. T. French published in the History of Marion County, Iowa by Wright and Young (1915) and posted on the Iowa Biography Project.

Transcribed by Greta Thompson, February 2005. Reformatted by Al Hibbard 5 Oct 2013