a doctor was a lot easier in the day of the frontier, when people weren’t as picky
as about their health care plans as they are now. You could call yourself a doctor
and if your first consideration was to cause no real physical harm to the patient,
other people would probably call you a doctor too. |
“Dr.” John F. Webber
was a case in point. Born in Vermont and a veteran of the War of 1812, Webber
had settled in Austin’s colony by 1826 and received a headright in present day
Travis County in 1832. Webberville, which was called Webber’s Prairie in the community’s
early days, was named for him and was, by most accounts, a rowdy place.
Along with Noah Smithwick and two other men, Webber was part of a tobacco-smuggling
operation to Mexico in the
1820s. Webber wasn’t a real doctor but he played one in Mexico
in order to avoid answering a lot of bothersome questions about what he was doing
in that country. Posing as a doctor was easier than explaining his presence in
the country with 1,000 pounds of leaf tobacco, which had to be sold in small packages
to avoid arousing suspicion.
The four men split up into two groups. Smithwick
and Webber set up shop in San Fernando, where Webber advertised his services as
a doctor. Smithwick spoke better Spanish than Webber and accompanied him as he
tended to patients. Smithwick later wrote of Webber: “With an air of importance
that would have done credit to a professional, Webber noted the symptoms, shaking
his head, knitting his brows, and otherwise impressing the patient with the seriousness
of his condition.”
Smithwick and Webber had brought along a supply of
medicine for their own use, mostly calomel, quinine and tartar emetic, a poisonous
compound that was used to induce vomiting; it made Webber’s patients feel different,
if not better. “The doctor’s fame went abroad and he soon had a large practice,
same as imposters of the present day,” Smithwick wrote.
knew the inventor Gail Borden
before Borden patented the process for making condensed milk and became known
as “Dairyman to the World.” They knew each other first in San
Felipe and later in Burnet County, where Smithwick operated a mill.
was looking for gold on Sandy Creek and also advertising himself as a doctor when
he stayed a few days in Burnet County with Smithwick. He described how he practiced
medicine. “It is no use to be a doctor unless you put on the airs of one,” Borden
said. “Nine times out of ten sickness is caused by overeating, or eating unwholesome
food, but a patient gets angry if you tell him so; you must humor him.”
humored his patients by administering tiny bits of calomel with enough starch
to turn it into a pellet which was glazed with sugar, like a doughnut, to help
the medicine go down. In prescribing his little white pills, Borden cautioned
his patients to be careful about what they ate and to eschew unhealthy foods.
“Well, the result is he abstains from hurtful articles of food, which
is all he needs to do anyway,” Borden said.
Webber and Borden’s lives
took different turns. Webber settled in the community named for him and married
one of his slaves, Silvia Hector. They had eight children. The early settlers
perhaps had too much on their collective mind to care who Webber married, but
later arrivals from the Deep South were not so open-minded about such matters
and Webber eventually moved his family to South
Texas, near Donna, in 1851
to escape threats of violence from his neighbors.
application for a patent on condensed milk was turned down in 1853 but later approved
in 1856. Borden’s invention
came at a time when most people had their own dairy cows, and the world wasn’t
yet ready to beat a path to his door. Not long after he visited with Smithwick
for the last time, Borden left
for New York to concentrate on producing and selling his condensed milk.
business almost went under but the Army ordered 500 pounds of his condensed milk
when the Civil War started in 1861. Eventually, the order was for all the condensed
milk that Borden could produce,
and Borden returned to Texas
a wealthy and respected man. The town of Borden
in Colorado County, where he settled after he returned to Texas, is named for
him, as is Gail, the county seat. Not
bad for a self-educated inventor and frontier doctor.
"Letters from Central
October 15, 2010 Column