Few people in 2005 can remember any family connection to one of those early physicians known as 'country doctors'. Men who learned the art of medicine, when science was in its infancy, contrasted to standards of the 21st century, were few and far between.
John Bruner Colwell was my wife's great uncle and my nominal employer in 1958 when I came to work for his nephew, RF Colwell, then his managing partner in a small publishing firm in Champaign, IL.
You will find John's autobiography almost as interesting as his fine ability to witness nature and capture its essence in poetry.
Reading the collection of J.B. Colwell's poetry is to take a trip through a time in history when most of nature was undisturbed as the population of humanity had not caused very many places to lose their connection to the past.
It was a kinder and gentler time in American history in many ways, although hard work and hardship were very much more common than is the case in this century.
Therefore reading this collection is a delight to those who appreciate nature and the quieter time in which these poems were drafted by a man of peace, who loved nature and the idea of serving his fellow man as a medical doctor.
I only had the privilege of spending a few hours with him, most of them near the end of his life; and I was privileged to enjoy the same connection to his aged wife who lived until Dec. 7, 1981, some twenty years after his passing.
A lovely memorial prayer chapel given by the two of them still serves many visitors of patients at the famous Carle Hospital in Urbana, IL.
They managed a lot of travel in their lives and I was able to listen to them report on some of these trips and no doubt found as a result, reason to emulate their quest for knowledge through travel.
AN AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH
John Bruner Colwell was born on February 24, 1873, in Harristown, Illinois, a few miles west of Decatur. He was one of the sons of Rev. John Bennett Colwell and his wife, Mrs. Charlotte Ijams Colwell. His father was a Methodist preacher of the group popularly called “Circuit Riders” because they served several locations at the same time, and usually rode “horse-back” to and from their country appointments because of poor roads. These locations were often several miles apart. Generally the preaching was done in a country school-house, as country churches were very rare in those days, and often the sermon, where there was no school-house, was delivered in some farmer’s home. Rev. Colwell was a member of the “Illinois Conference” for more than forty years. Mrs. Colwell was the mother of eight children, three of whom died in infancy. The Colwell children who reached adult age were Lewis, Mary Ella, Arthur, John, and Clyde. Of this list only two are living at this date, 1956. The two survivors are John, the author of this sketch, and Clyde, a practicing lawyer, located in Chicago.
John graduated from the Virden, Illinois High School in 1892. Following this he taught school in the Country Schools of McLean County, Illinois, for two years. The first of these two schools was located a considerable distance from any town, but he found a farmer’s home not far from the school where the people agreed to board him for the time he would be engaged at the school. In this home the family were adults with college experience, which provided not only the physical things that made for comfort, but a mental intelligence of wide awake people. In short, it was an excellent place to board. The school itself was small, as I recall, it consisted of about twenty children between the ages of seven and fifteen years. At this particular school, previous to my engagement two or three years, there had been two or three pupils, almost young men, who had been very difficult to manage. Their behavior gave the teacher a lot of trouble, and the school a reputation of being a “tough” school. After these young fellows stopped their schooling, there was a different spirit in the school. John had no trouble whatsoever. The children were very obedient and respectful. The County Superintendent visited this school early in the fall after school opened. He was amazed at the excellent way the school behaved. Having known of it as a “tough” school, he told someone, who relayed his saying to me, “Colwell has sure straightened out that school”. This made Colwell laugh. He has always thought the above incident prompted the Superintendent to help him get a better paying school, the second year of his teaching.
This second school was two miles out from a nice little town where John found a comfortable place to board. He planned to walk every school day, out and back from school. and in fact did so. Here he also acted as janitor of the school building, sweeping it in the evening after school was dismissed, and dusting in the morning before the children arrived. His pupils at this school were largely of German parentage. Most of the farms in that vicinity were owned by members of a German religious sect. The children were well behaved and intelligent. Their parents wanted their children to learn to speak and to write English as well as German, which was used in the homes, and the children themselves desired to speak the English language.
Teaching in these two schools seemed to stimulate John’s desire for more advanced learning. After he had given considerable thought to it, he decided to apply for entrance into the Illinois Wesleyan University located in Bloomington, Illinois. He made application for admission in the fall of l~94 and was admitted to the Freshman Class of that year. He continued with his class through four years, and graduated with it in the spring of 1898. During his time at the Wesleyan, he had taken a considerable amount of chemistry training, and this pointed him toward medicine. At the Wesleyan he was invited to join the Sigma Chi Fraternity, and become a Sig, which he did.
Deciding to study for an M.D. degree, John went to Chicago and entered Rush Medical College. He was most fortunate here, to enlist the attention of one of the prominent professors of this school, who became a helpful friend in many ways. At Rush, John was elected the “poet” of his class. He produced a poem which he read at a meeting of the class. It recounted many of the events which had particularly interested his class, hut would be of no interest to others. He has forgotten exactly the number of Rush graduates there were in his class, but it was more than one hundred. In a communication from a member of this class some time during the past year, this fellow classman stated that there were more than fifty of the 1902 class of Rush Medical still living. This is the class with whom CoIwell received his M.D. degree, some 54 years ago.
Soon after this graduation in “Medicine”, John entered a written competitive examination given by the Cook County Board of Examiners for the position of Assistant Warden, at the Cook County Hospital. As this hospital is one of the large hospitals in the United States, such a position as it offered was a real plum to a young doctor. John received the highest grade of those who took this examination, and in due order was appointed to the office of Assistant to the Warden of Cook County Hospital in Chicago, Illinois. He held this position for about seven and a half years, living in the hospital, which at that time had some 1,900 patients. It is probably much larger than that now, and still having to reject patients for lack of room. It was a wonderful experience for a young physician who is still very grateful for what he learned there.
After leaving the hospital John was married to Blanche Martin, who had been the head nurse in the Children’s Department of the Cook County Hospital. John and his wife attempted to start practice in one of the suburbs of Chicago, but the money ran out and they soon decided they must find a place that really needed a physician. Both of us having been born in Illinois, and knowing rural life in Illinois, we looked for a place to live in rural Illinois. We wanted a place that had no doctor, but that wanted one, and that could, and would pay for service. We were most happy to find such a place in Illinois, in the northwest corner of Champaign County. They were ready to receive us. and as time went on we were so glad we were there, and not in the Chicago suburbs. We did not have time to wait, nor did we have to wait. Very soon there was a mild epidemic of Typhoid Fever and plenty of distance calls to be made. We soon learned to love those people. They were simple and direct, honest and intelligent. They loved us and were proud to have us a part of their community. The president of the local bank of the village, came to me and handed me a bankbook, saying he thought perhaps I might need a little money to help out in settling down, and I could draw on the bank when I needed it. Did any of you readers ever have such an experience as that? Do you wonder why I loved that man?
From the very beginning of our location, we were busy. I bought a nice team of driving horses, which were very gentle, and became a real help in making country calls. When the springtime mud appeared, I had to use my team, for that Illinois mud doesn’t believe in automobile travel, at least it did not at that time. Night calls to long distances had to be honored, and I equipped my buggy with a cylinder of gas, and a light fixture on the buggy top at the right side. With this I could send the light about a mile down the road ahead, on the darkest nights. Sometimes the darkness was so intense, one could not see the intersecting road, without light, and one always had to be careful the horses did not turn a corner at the wrong place.
One frosty night, when the road was frozen, after a snow which the wind had blown about, into drifts and bare roads, my team capered along on the bare roads very nicely. But presently the team had run in- to a drift some five or six feet deep. The horses were lunging, and I feared they might break the buggy tongue, or injure themselves. So I quickly jumped out of the buggy and rushed to the horses and quieted them, unhooked them from the buggy, and led them into the field at the side of the road, and tied them to the fence. Then I brought my horse blankets from the buggy, and put them over my horses – returned to my buggy which was deep into the drift, got my medical bags, and set out to follow the fence to a house which I reached rather promptly. It proved to be the home of the people who had called me. They sent their men down to get the horses. which they did, putting them in their barn out of the wind and cold, and removing the harness from the horses.
When the men returned to the house, I had already looked over the patient, and left medicine. But it was quite late and everyone went to bed including myself. Next morning the men went to pull my buggy out of the drift and bring it up to the barnyard. After breakfast my team and buggy awaited me, and I got in the buggy and drove hack home in the light of day. This story I relate to show the great kindness that pervades country people, as a general rule.
Mrs. Colwell, with her rich knowledge of nursing was able to insist upon helping out on many occasions. She was particularly appreciated in surgical cases that had to have bandaging and sterile dressings.
While living in this rural home we had great satisfaction with the simplicity of life, and the dependence of the people who were our neighbors. There seemed no reason to lock doors, or to hide one’s valuables. We enjoyed “Imogene” thoroughly, so much, even our good neighbor friends poked fun at us about her. Imogene was a beautiful Jersey heifer, which a friend of mine who was enjoying his farming interests some 50 to 75 miles south of our location, shipped up to us without writing or notifying us, he was sending her. Imogene was a beautiful calf about 3 or 4 months old, when she came unexpectedly by Express. She was very scared when we uncrated her, got away from us, and started back, to where she came from. Someone headed her off and brought her back. We got a halter on her, and from then on, she became our devoted friend. Soon she was following me all about the village. If I mowed the yard grass, Imogene was back and forth, with me. If I went to the barn, so went Imogene. If a neighbor’s dog attempted to attract my interest, Imogene interposed and gave the dog a rough time. Of course as she grew older she had to be denied too much freedom, but even after she became a mature cow, in the pasture, and I appeared at the pasture gate, Imogene would come galloping to me, and follow me without rope or halter, a block or more to the barn. And so, in a few words, we loved our manner of life.
However, all that happened there, with our family was not good. My trained nurse wife was taken sick with a desperate disease which took her life. I have expressed my feelings in this happening, by the poem entitled, “For She Is Gone”. I could no longer be happy, where everything I saw brought our life together into my mind, so I moved into Champaign where new experiences could fill my life.
In Champaign, John opened an office in the First National Bank building for the practice of medicine. He found a living room at the Elks Quarters, and secured his meals at a local hoarding house. He spent most of his daytime hours in his office. Some of his patients that he had cared for in the country continued to come to him occasionally, but on the whole his practice was very small. This gave him much time to think, and his mind seemed to return many times to his country experiences. He wondered especially how the great mass of country practitioners kept their financial records, and this returned to his mind, day after day, until he worked out a system that he thought was simple and plain. This he incorporated into a book that furnished a space for the record of one year’s financial entries.
As the entries in this book were simple and easily made like the entries made on a ship’s Log, very brief and to the point, John named the book which cares for one year’s records The Physician’s Daily Log.
His idea to publish this account book was in his mind but it was a considerable time before this was done. In the meantime he began to gain friends, to attend church, and to teach a class in the Sunday School, and to feel himself a part of the city of Champaign. During some of these activities he met Pauline Groves and fell in love with her, and persuaded her to marry him. Pauline was employed as a secretary to her father who had an established business in relation to school teachers. She retained her place when we established our new home. Being trained in business, Pauline was more active in getting things done than I. She soon began to plan getting the Physician’s Daily Log published. We established The Colwell Publishing Co., and secured R. F. Colwell, my nephew, to work with us. Pauline gave up her position in her father’s office, and gave her time and knowledge to the Colwell Publishing Co. After some years we were glad to install R. F. Colwell as a partner and manager of the business. The Physician’s Daily Log is renewed each year and thousands of physicians in the U. S. depend upon its recording space for their financial records.
Not having any children in our home was a great cross to us, so we decided to take Velda Budd into our hearts and home. She was about thirteen years of age when she came to us, and it was very easy to love her and care for her. She is now Mrs. Clifford Routh, and has two daughters, both old enough to go to school.
I shall hope, with all my heart, that those who elect to purchase this book will enjoy its contents, both this brief record of my life and the poems. All of this has been possible only because of my wise and helpful wife, whose care for me is so great. To her I give all the glory, if there be any.
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