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Old Cohasset Doctors

Oliver H. Howe, M.D.

Reproduced, with permission, from Treasury of Cohasset History, ed. J. M. Dormitzer (Town of Cohasset, Mass., 2005), pp. 96-103.

Traditions usually consist of memories passed on from one generation to another. They reveal something of the character, spirit, and customs of the past. They show the quaint mental processes of our ancestors and the ways in which they met primitive conditions. They are often spiced with humor. We cannot neglect traditions if we wish to understand the old-time simple life with its hardy virtues and thrilling adventures . . . A few of the traditions I shall mention were told me by eye-witnesses, but most of them have passed through several “tellings” of different generations. I have refrained from making alterations, but of course cannot in every case vouch for absolute truth . . .

The history and traditions of my predecessors in Cohasset are of particular interest to me. Dr. Ezekiel Pratt was born in Cohasset on May 20, 1780, and died here October 9, 1860 . . . The life of the physician, always arduous and exacting, must have been much more so in those early years of the nineteenth century, with poor roads, scattered population, poverty, and primitive manner of living. Some years before my settling in Cohasset, I became acquainted with Peter Kimball, the pioneer hotel man of Cohasset. He told me a story about a young doctor who was contemplating settling in the town of Hull. Asking advice of a Hingham doctor as to whether he could make a living there, he got this reply: “Well, if you can get the high school to teach in the winter and go lobstering in the summer, you may be able to make a go of it.”

Dr. Ezekiel Pratt’s charge per visit was twenty-five cents. He never kept a horse, as it was customary for . . . families to “go and fetch the doctor” and take him home again. He had one resource, however. A neighbor across the street (probably Jerome Lincoln) had an old white horse which the doctor was welcome to use for arduous and unexpected trips. When he had to harness “old Whitey” and go long distances, often at night, he charged fifty cents for the visit. It is a wonder that he was able to bring up his family of eight children with such meager resources.

Dr. Pratt’s youngest son, Francis L. Pratt, wrote an account of his seafaring life entitled “Life of a Sailor Boy,” a typewritten copy of which has generously been presented to our [Historical] Society by his grandson, Joseph N. Willcutt. In this account he states that in his boyhood [his] family [was] very poor and lacked the resources of ordinary decent living. When he was eight years old, his father told him: “I can’t have you gnawing on my ribs any longer.” Young Francis then went to sea on a schooner bound for Bangor, Maine, himself as cook! . . . He continued to follow the sea for sixteen years on coastwise, fishing, and foreign voyages.

In spite of poverty and privation, Dr. Pratt was reputed to be very kind to the deserving poor. One poor widow struggling to bring up a large family was much distressed about her bill, which she had not received but was sure it must be enormous. After repeated requests to have the bill, one day Dr. Pratt came in and said, “Mary, I have been up to your barn and taken the hog trough, which you do not use, and now we are square.”

As he was the only doctor in Cohasset, he had no competition and often became independent and arbitrary. With his hardships, it was no wonder that his temper got the best of him. Soon after [I had settled] here, an old white-bearded man told me one of his experiences, when as a small boy he went in the night to summon Dr. Pratt. The doctor put his head out of the window and the boy said, “Father wants you to come right up.”
Dr. Pratt replied, “Won’t go a step.”
“But grandfather is very sick.”
“Don’t make any difference. He ought to have died long ago.”
“But father says you must come.”
“Well, if I’ve got to go, I’ve got to go.”

Herbs and other household remedies were extensively used by the people, and many minor complaints which doctors now see and treat did not exist in those days of rough and ready living. The minds of doctors were centered upon the desperate cases—not only those that died but, as the old nurses expressed it, “like to died.” Slight ailments did not interest the doctor and were often regarded as needless intrusions on his time. Such an instance is related of old Dr. Pratt, who received a summons to go to a patient at Scituate Harbor late one afternoon. He took his cane and walked the six miles, and the patient met him at the door and said, “Doctor, I’ve got the itch. What shall I do?” Dr. Pratt said, “Damn it, scratch,” and turned on his heel and walked home.

One incident shows Dr. Pratt’s resolute character and determination. At one time he took to drinking and lost many patients to a young doctor who had come into town. The doctor had carried his jug and got it filled with rum. While [he was] sitting in the tavern, the young doctor came in, pointed to the jug, and said, “If it wasn’t for that jug, I should not be here.” The old doctor raised his fist, brought it down on the stopper of the jug, driving it even with the neck, and said, “There, that stopper will never come out till I’ve driven you out of town.” It turned out as he said.

In early times Cohasset was a fishing and seafaring community, busy with its local trades and handicrafts, but after a time its cool breezes and scenic shore began to attract summer visitors, who were a little different in their manners from the natives. There had to be a transition, and the following incident well illustrates it. An anxious mother called Dr. Pratt to see her young son and spoke as follows: “Doctor, Edward isn’t feeling just right and we wondered if you would be willing to look him over and see what is wrong and prescribe whatever treatment you find necessary.”

Dr. Pratt was not accustomed to being addressed in this polite language, but he examined the patient and dealt out medicine, administering a liberal dose to start with. [As he was] buttoning up his coat to go, the mother said, “Doctor, you will be in again tomorrow, will you not?”
“No, it will not be necessary.”
The mother replied, “Well, Doctor, if you do not think it necessary to come again, if you will kindly tell us the amount of your bill, we will pay you now and it will relieve you of the trouble of sending a bill.”
The doctor straightened up and said, “Waal, guess he’s took ‘bout a quarter of a dollar’s wurth.”

Dr. Ezekiel Pratt had no son to follow him in the medical profession, but his son Francis L., as has been already said, went to sea in early life and later worked as a carpenter. Francis L. had a son, Gustavus Percival Pratt, who was born on February 12, 1841, and graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1863. In the same year he became surgeon of the Nineteenth Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment in the Civil War and served till the war was ended. He then began practice in Cohasset and continued until his death in 1887.

It was through the friendship of Dr. Gustavus P. Pratt and that of his family that I received an invitation to come to Cohasset. I came here soon after Dr. Pratt’s death . . . [He] was a blunt, plainspoken man of somewhat rough exterior but with a very kind heart. He was of a jovial disposition and was original in his makeup. He manifested many eccentricities and prided himself on them. I believe he considered them a prerogative derived from his grandfather and a link of connection with him.

He attended closely to his profession and never took a vacation, but was very fond of gunning and of watching the farming upon his land, of which he had various lots taken for debt. He whiled away many lonesome hours in driving by, singing as he drove. I visited him the year before he died and while [I was] sitting by his side in the buggy, he frequently turned from conversation to singing.

It is related that he was once driving up Main Street singing “Nearer My God to Thee.” He stopped abruptly in front of his own house and called out for his wife: “Mirandy, Mirandy, Mirandy, O where in hell are you, Mirandy?” Receiving no response, he drove on, resuming his singing of “Nearer My God to Thee.”

In the course of my visit, in making a call he opened an abscess, which he accomplished with one stroke of the knife. His hand trembled with agitation, and on completion of the incision, he turned and rushed to the outside door for a breath of air. I could not reconcile this with his surgical army service, but judged that his sympathy while inflicting pain on a friend had caused faintness.

He was not fond of bookkeeping and was reluctant about sending bills. On being asked, he would sometimes say, “How much was it last year?”
“Ten dollars.”
“That’s all right.”

On one occasion in a carpenter’s shop, he was asked for a bill and said, “Charlie, let’s chalk.” Each then took a piece of chalk and set down on opposite ends of the bench what each thought the bill ought to be. The difference was then split and the bill was paid. He took many things for his bills besides money: hens, geese, live lobsters, and occasionally a calf. A calf is not the easiest thing to bring home in a buggy, but with the legs well tied together, it can be done. Once he got safely as far as the entrance to his driveway. The turn and jolt at that place caused the string to untie, and it was apparent that the animal had four legs. His reins were not buckled together, and losing one rein, Dr. Pratt found himself pulling on the other one, with the horse going around in circles on the lawn. His wife came out to the back step, and every time the horse circled, the doctor shouted, “Ketch her, Mirandy, Ketch her, Mirandy.” Charlie Wilson worked for the doctor at that time and is said to have gotten quite a side ache from laughing.

His love for gunning was overpowering. No trembling of his hand then. One day he was called to a house on King Street near the pond. On sitting down by a window, he saw a flock of ducks. Forgetting about any patient, he shouted, “Give me your gun.” They replied that they had none. “Ain’t got no gun! This is a hell of a place! I’m going home to get my gun.”

One incident shows that his marksmanship served a good professional purpose. A woman was under treatment by another doctor. Dr. Pratt from time to time heard stray bits of information about her condition and doubtless formed an opinion about her. One day the family got discouraged with the other doctor, dismissed him, and called Dr. Pratt. After tying his horse, he saw a flock of birds fly up. The husband, much agitated, opened the door wide to greet Dr. Pratt, but the latter said, “Charlie, give me your gun.”
“Gun! I thought you came to see my wife.”
“That’s all right. Charlie. Give me your gun.”

Dr. Pratt maneuvered quietly behind a fence and, with a well-directed shot, brought down a bird. Taking the gun in one hand and the bird in the other, he marched upstairs to the side room. After asking a few questions, he held out the bird and said, “Charlie, dress this bird and split it open, broil it, and let her have half of it.” Although the family was astounded, they did as Dr. Pratt said, and that proved to be the first food that the patient had retained on her stomach for many days. Years afterward I had the opportunity to talk with this patient, and she confirmed the incident in every detail.

Dr. Pratt was as restive as his grandfather in the presence of light complaints. As he was driving along the street, a man stopped him and said, “Doctor, my stomach feels awful bad.” Not wishing to be detained, Dr. Pratt brusquely said, “There’s nothing the matter with you. All you need is a good scouring out.” He then drove on, as he was in a hurry. Meeting the man several weeks later, he inquired as to his health, and the man said, “I think, Doctor, your treatment was effective, but it was pretty severe.”
“How’s that—what do you mean?”
“Well, Doctor, you said I needed a good scouring out, and so I went home and took soft-soap and sand.”

Another tradition that would emphasize the fact that Cohasset people live a long time and also [illustrate] the abrupt change that constitutes the crisis of pneumonia is as follows: Dr. Pratt was treating an old man on King Street who had developed pneumonia and had been unconscious for several days. He told the nurse that the patient would not live through the night and, on reflection, said he would not come on the following day as the patient would not be alive.

It happened, however, that as he was passing through King Street the next day, he thought he would make a call and find at what time he had died. Making his way into the house and up into the sick room, as doctors often did, he found the bed empty and said, “Poor old man. He is at rest.” He did not understand, however, why the house appeared to be deserted, and was about to leave with the mystery unsolved when he happened to see the cellar door ajar. Going down into the cellar, he found the old man with his hat on, repacking his pork.

It is interesting that Dr. Pratt’s only son, Ezekiel Pratt, a namesake of his great-grandfather, is now a physician in Arlington, Massachusetts.

Dr. Fordyce Foster practiced here from 1847 to 1863. He is said to have been a stout and genial man and much beloved by his patient. I have been unable to find any traditions relating to him.

I came early enough to sympathize with these old doctors in their struggles, although I count my experience as luxury compared with the hardships they endured. It is only through the sacrificing efforts of these old pioneer doctors that the humanitarian spirit of the profession has been developed and perpetuated.

From Oliver H. Howe, “Old Cohasset Doctors as Tradition Tells,” paper read to the Cohasset Historical Society, October 9, 1934, and reprinted in the Cohasset Cottager, November 30, 1934.