Keeping the “Death Angels” from the Door: Healthcare in New Mexico Territory, 1909

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The digital edition of Territorial Papers of the United States, 1764-1953, features a great deal of material by and about famous and influential people struggling to extend the structures of federal government to the Western frontier. At the margins of that endeavor the researcher often encounters pioneers in desperately humble circumstances struggling to stay alive.

Such was the case in Doris, New Mexico Territory, in 1909, as described in a lengthy series of letters relating to the medical practice of James R. Franz, whose services were much in demand by the poor persons of that rural place. Doris was more of a mining settlement than a town, in Quay County, New Mexico, on the Texas border near Tucumcari. Doris was in a rugged and arid region known as the Llano Estacado, the Staked (or Palisaded) Plains. It was so small that it does not appear on this 1910 mineral survey map of the area from the Readex digital edition of the U.S. Congressional Serial Set, 1817-1994.

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Doris might not have attracted any notice at all but for letters such as the following [excerpted; original in six pages]:

Doris, N. Mex., June 14, 1909

Mrs. President W.H. Taft

Washington, D.C.

Dear Lady and friend,

In the matter in hand I know of no better way to reach a desired end than by asking you for a favor.

Will you kindly ask the President, your husband to grant Dr. J.R. Franz a permit to practice in the territory of N.Mex.

Oh it would be such a grand favor to us Mothers. There has been Mothers here have given up their Darling babes just because they had no physical aid. They would go to Dr. J.R. Franz and weep for him to go and raise their darling child from the death angels, and he could not go, for they Doctors at Tucumcari would prosicute [sic] him. One Mother I know of have begged and weeped to him to go and treat her Daughter and he told her he could not go. Now Dear Mrs. Taft we are all poor people here in N.Mex. holding down our claims, and it is all we can do to support our little family, and when we get a Doctor from Town we have to pay from ($50.00) fifty dollars to ($75.00) seventy five dollars and we can’t do it here for we are too poor. And they don’t cure any one when they do come from town. There was one Mother at Quay, N.Mex. got a Doctor from town, and the death angels taken her from six little children.

Dr. J.R. Franz could not practice then.

I am not asking you this favor for Dr. J.R. Franz’s benefit, it is our benefit I am asking the favor of you. Now Dear Mrs. Taft you are a Dear Mother, and have your Darling Children and you do any thing in this world to keep them from the hands of death, and I know you are too good a Lady to turn us [down on any thing you can help us].

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The above entreaty was addressed to the First Lady by Mrs. Dora Parsons, wife of the Postmaster of Doris, New Mexico, and was echoed in a number of similar letters which followed it. In a model of government compassion and efficiency, Mrs. Parsons’ letter was received after five days, and answered in seven:

June 21, 1909

Mrs. Dora Parsons,

Doris, New Mexico.

Madam,

I am in receipt, by reference from the President, of your letter of the 14th instant, calling attention to the charges exacted by physicians for services rendered in Clay [sic] County, New Mexico, and suggesting that the Territorial Board be required to permit Dr. J.R. Franz to take the examination for admission to practice in order that the community may have medical attention at reasonable prices.

In response thereto I have to state that a similar communication was received from Mr. Clarence Branigan of Dodson, New Mexico, which was referred to the Governor for consideration, who among other things stated in reporting upon the matter that–

I understand that Dr. Franz is the only physician in the vicinity of Doris and, if within my power to do so, I would gladly grant him a permit to practice until he could appear before the Board for examination, and I hope some arrangement can be made whereby the situation at Doris can be relieved.

It is suggested that Dr. Franz make an effort to comply with the Territorial law regulating the practice of medicine and that thereafter you call the attention of the Honorable George Curry, Governor of the Territory at Santa Fe, to the matter.

Very respectfully,

[Frank Pierce]

First Assistant Secretary.

 

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Consider: Mr. Pierce replied to Mrs. Parsons with the authority of the Department of the Interior, on behalf of the First Lady and President Taft, citing a relevant request from the Governor of New Mexico Territory, within a week from the original handwritten missive from a desperate mother living in a frontier town which does not appear on a government map, and this 109 years ago. Even today with the Internet, a robust postal service, the interstate highway system and New Mexico a state, obtaining such attention from the government can be an exercise in magical thinking. The level of solicitude shown Mrs. Parsons and her neighbors is truly extraordinary.

Alas, Dr. Franz apparently was unable to furnish the New Mexico Territorial Board of Medical Examiners with credentials sufficient to warrant his professional practice in that place.

Frank W. Clancy

Attorney General

Territory of New Mexico

Office of the Attorney General

Santa Fe

June 17, 1909.

Hon. George Curry,

Governor of New Mexico,

Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Dear Sir:–

Referring to the matter of the letter from Mr. P.P. Parsons, postmaster at Doris, New Mexico, I am unable to see how it will be possible under the law to do anything to make it possible for Dr. Franz to lawfully practice medicine in New Mexico, although it is altogether probable from what Mr. Parsons writes that Dr. Franz is really a desirable man to have in the medical profession. The statute appears to provide for the licensing by the New Mexico Board of Health, without examination, of any reputable person, who is a graduate of a medical college in good standing as defined in the statute. Dr. Franz clearly does not come under this heading from what Mr. Parsons says. The next section of law provides for the licensing of persons who must be examined, and is limited to reputable graduates of colleges other than those referred to in the preceding section, but they must be of good moral and professional character and conduct, and have served an internship in a good hospital, or have taken a six months post-graduate course in some institution having ample clinical facilities, or have had three years or more of actual practice since graduation....

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The record here does not show what became of Dr. Franz, or of Doris, New Mexico, but it is well to remember that the word story is encompassed in history; the digital edition of the Territorial Papers of the United States, 1764-1953, is replete with such stories as that related above. That history is rich with drama and issues of vital human interest raised by persons distinguished primarily through their endurance and hope, writing from places unknown to the cartographer. Readex can take you there.

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