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Dr. Thomas Rogers

Dr. Thomas Rogers (1812-1899)

Author: Hannah Johnson, 2015


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No matter one’s opinion regarding Dr. Thomas Pierce Rogers’s professional practice or political leanings, one cannot refute that Rogers was a “man who did things.” Though born a frontiersman, through a mixture of farming, medicine, land holding, and political prowess, Rogers garnered a reputation that extended beyond the early prairie days of McLean County.

Born on December 4, 1812 in Fairfield Township in Columbiana County, Ohio, Rogers was one of 11 children born to parents Alexander and Catherine (Wallahan) Rogers. Both parents were of Northern Irish descent. Rogers’s paternal grandfather, George Augustus Rogers, first came to the United States as a Colonel in the British Army under General Braddock during the Seven Year’s War. After the fighting ceased and peace was declared, Rogers’s grandfather resigned his commission and returned to the U.S. to settle in Frederick County, Maryland. From Maryland, the family moved to Fayette County, Pennsylvania, before permanently establishing themselves in the frontier of the Northwestern Territory (modern day Ohio).

Rogers began school at the age of four but his early education was minimal. From the ages of 10 to 17, Rogers assisted with the tasks of the family farm before his “ambition to become something more than a plodder” took hold and he made the decision to pursue a career in medicine. Of the 11 Rogers children, the four youngest (Thomas included) made their careers in medicine. At the age of 17, Rogers took a hiatus from farm life, first to work for two years at a flour mill, then to further his studies. At this time, Rogers studied one year at a ‘select school’ in Lisbon and just over one year at Salem Academy, both in Ohio. Afterward Rogers did return to the farm but only for a brief repose before beginning his medical studies under Doctor Lewis in Tuscarora County, Ohio. In order to pay for this apprenticeship, Rogers taught in the winter months and carried on his own studies in the summer months. In 1837 Rogers completed his medical training with a course at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. From Philadelphia Rogers returned to Tuscarora County as a trained physician and started to practice medicine with his former mentor.

In the year that he was in practice with Dr. Lewis, Rogers—with a little help from a successful attempt at land speculation—was able to acquire enough money to pay off his course dues, finance a move westward, and still retain $100 cash. With that $100 in his pocket, Rogers traveled to Marshall County, Illinois on horseback in the spring of 1838, planning to reside in Decatur in Macon County. On his way to Decatur, Rogers passed through Bloomington and met Judge David Davis, Jesse and Kersey Fell, Abram Brokaw, James Allin, Asahel Gridley, and others. These associations would prove advantageous for Rogers after his relocation to Bloomington in 1849.

Prior to establishing residence in McLean County Rogers spent four years in Macon County—first practicing medicine with Dr. Thomas H. Reed and then forming a practice with Dr. King, both of Decatur. He then spent the next seven years in Washington, Illinois practicing medicine in partnership with Dr. G.P. Wood. Hearsay has it that Rogers was passing through Washington when he stopped to attend to a case of scarlet fever. The resident doctor (Dr. Wood) was so impressed that he offered Rogers a partnership on the spot. Washington was the last place that Rogers resided prior to moving to Bloomington. He claimed this move resulted from a recommendation of U.S. Senator Stephen A. Douglas in March of 1849. Douglas assured Rogers that the Illinois Central Railroad would soon become a permanent fixture in Bloomington, bringing with it guaranteed growth and prosperity. The doctor took Douglas at his word since Douglas was the principle sponsor of the legislation which underlay the financial plan for the railroad. Rogers was present to see the railroad reach Bloomington in 1853 and made the city his home for the last 50 years of his life.

Rogers was an allopathic physician. That is, he used medicines in the modern sense of the word. A practitioner in mostly “internal medicine,” Rogers regularly prescribed a combination of remedies to treat such ailments as fever, infections of the chest, and gastrointestinal issues. Ingredients in the remedies and medicines he mixed and prescribed included anything from senna, castor oil, camphor, and antimony, to cream of tartar, to opiates. Rogers also relied on a combination of laxatives, emetics, and bloodletting to restore the “humoral balance” of his patients. In addition to his treatment of internal medical matters, Rogers was also accustomed to treating skin diseases, pulling teeth, and delivering babies when the opportunities arose. From 1839-1854 Rogers and his various partners kept detailed day books recording information pertaining to his practices that included the names, gender, and ages of patients; the remedies and services the doctor provided; and the fees that he charged. Though the particular symptoms of the patients and the doctor’s final diagnoses were not always indicated, these day books provide insight into the day-to-day activities of Rogers and the individuals whom he treated—not to mention the general practices of other doctors of the era. Possibly speaking to the doctor’s “locality,” but more than likely evincing the standards and necessities of the day, Rogers spent much of his time en route to visit patients at their homes. According to Lucinda Beier, Rogers’s usual pattern was to visit patients at least once a day over the course of their illness.

As for fees, one must keep in mind that doctoring in the nineteenth century was not the lucrative career path that professionals enjoy in this new millennium. Rogers’s fees were moderate and patients with lingering illnesses were allowed to charge their expenses to a tab that Rogers would collect on monthly. Rogers’s regular book keeping suggests that the doctor charged $1.00 for house calls, $0.50 for a routine dental extraction, and $5.00 to deliver a baby.

Despite minimal monetary compensation, medical practice was fraught with hazards not exclusively limited to the actual treatment of disease. Apart from the exhaustive nature of the profession and the obvious danger of exposing oneself to potential contagions while in the process of treating a patient, doctors had to travel great distances through rough terrain and unpredictable weather to reach those in need of medical attention. In an 1899 interview with Madame Annette for the Daily Bulletin, Rogers recalled that after tending to a man who had suffered a concussion in the middle of the night, he left the home of the patient at 3 a.m. in order to ensure that he would make it on time to the residence of another patient he was scheduled to meet that day. As told by Rogers,

“The snow was six inches deep and it was a bitter cold night, and out on the prairie I was overhauled by a pack of wolves. My horse was a fine traveler and an exceptionally tall beast, and by keeping my feet well up on his body—you can imagine the comfortable position I had to maintain—I was comparatively free from danger. I was followed ten miles by the wolves, and those were exciting miles, I assure you. I was in hopes that when I reached the Mackinaw, which was then very deep, that the water would herd them off, but not so, they displayed their persistency by crossing the stream and following me until we reached the settlement.”

In his interview with Madame Annette, Rogers also described the more prosaic details of his work. Though sure to compare his experiences to those of the “doctors of today, in their comfortable…heated offices, with only city practice,” Rogers made mention that his usual “daily routine, extended over a circumference of only twelve miles”—thus implying that his day-to-day experiences were not always epic in proportions. The doctor kept four horses, “using two a day and alternating the next.” From 8 a.m. to midnight, Rogers would visit and tend to patients. Long hours and difficult diagnoses still inspired the doctor to say that “…we labored—that is the only word that expresses the practice.” But, in the professional opinion of Rogers, “people were not so sickly in those days, and seldom humored themselves in the ills that people nowadays are so prone to call a physician for.” Rogers maintained that, though a doctor’s life was far from “a bed of roses,” physicians were “an optimistic class of men [who] greeted the thorns because they had roses, rather than growling as the pessimistic ones of today because the roses have thorns.”

Over the course of his medical career, Rogers served three times as delegate to the National Medical Convention, twice as delegate to the State Medical Convention, and was one of 14 charter members of the McLean County Medical Society founded in 1854. Rogers served as the Society’s first Treasurer and then as President in 1857.

As mentioned earlier about the doctor’s dabbling in land speculation, Rogers’s professional aspirations were not limited to those of a medical professional. In addition to doctoring and land sales (the latter by which Rogers was able to accumulate most of his personal funds), Rogers was extensively involved in the political work of the day. Throughout his career, and following his retirement from medicine in 1867, political matters commanded Rogers’s attention. Beginning in Decatur, Rogers, a staunch Democrat, served for two years as postmaster before he tired of holding office under a Whig administration. He served as a delegate to every state Democratic convention from 1844 to 1874 with the exception of only one, served for 18 years as chairman of the Democratic Central Committee of McLean County, and from 1872 to 1880 served in the Illinois General Assembly. As a legislator, Roger is said to have been “one of the most active and far-sighted of the members.” Roger's enjoyed debate but remained “cool...and always clear headed.” Rogers also participated in four national conventions, including the 1860 Democratic National Convention in Baltimore, Maryland, at which his “good friend” Stephen Douglas was selected as the party’s nominee for President. In 1848 and in 1862, Rogers was selected by his party to run for state senator but was defeated on both occasions. Isaac Funk defeated the doctor in the 1862 race. An uncompromising Republican by political affiliation, Funk did not welcome Rogers’s seemingly “Copperheaded” ways. According to one account, Funk was once so aggravated by Rogers’s “disparaging” comments about the state of the war effort following a Confederate victory that the state senator attempted to “[raise] a crowd with the avowed intention of hanging Dr. Rogers.” Fortunately for Rogers, Funks’s words did not translate into action.

As has been implied, Rogers’s own actions throughout his life were consistently guided by his political leanings. At times it seems that Rogers was equal parts doctor and political advocate. In short, Dr. Rogers’s life was a “composite one.” On one particular occasion, however, the doctor was required to set aside any political affiliation in order to preserve his career in medicine.

In October of 1855 the city of Bloomington suffered a great fire (not its last) during which the entire south-side block of the courthouse square was more or less destroyed, leaving only the McLean County Bank and a lone hardware store. The fire began the night of October 16 and continued into the early morning of the following day. Beginning in the livery stable behind the Morgan House, a popular hotel, the fire spread to subsequent buildings before firefighters managed to quell the flames amidst the large crowd of anxious citizens that had been attracted to the scene. If the one fatality, that of drayman William Green, and estimated property damages amounting to $150,000, were not sufficient to ensure that the Bloomington fire of 1855 would be remembered, the two broken legs of carpenter Samuel G. Fleming have proved useful in that respect.

Fleming had suffered potentially crippling injuries to his two legs when the chimney of the Morgan House collapsed as the fire raged. Local physicians Dr. Jacob R. Freese, Dr. Thomas Rogers, and Dr. Eli Crothers each assisted that evening in treating Fleming’s injuries. Dr. Freese tended to the left leg, while Drs. Rogers and Crothers set a fractured bone in the right leg. The doctors were hesitant to promise a full recovery, but observations during regular check-ups over the course of the 14 days following the incident indicated that the limb appeared “right.” Within the following week, however, Fleming began to experience pain near the point of the fracture. The bandages were removed and ‘the displacement of the fracture was observed.’ Fleming’s right leg had healed crooked.

In order to rectify the problem, the consulting doctors suggested that the leg be broken a second time and reset. Fleming agreed to the procedure. Dr. Freese administered chloroform, as Drs. Rogers and Crothers prepared to break the limb. The doctors were stopped short of completion when Fleming (apparently not greatly affected by the effects of the chloroform) complained that the pain was too great. Dr. Crothers reportedly explained to Fleming that, should they fail to complete the procedure, the leg would always be crooked and may not bear his weight. The doctor also made it clear that “‘he would not be responsible for the result.’”

Despite the doctor’s warning, and after hiring an impressive team of lawyers—consisting of Asahel Gridley, William H. Hanna, William W. Orme, John M. Scott, Leonard Swett, and John H. Wickizer—Fleming issued a lawsuit on March 28, 1856 accusing Drs. Rogers and Crothers of failing to use “‘due and proper care, skill, or diligence.’” Fleming’s asking price for damages was $10,000. In response to the suit, Rogers and Crothers engaged four Bloomington lawyers, as well as Abraham Lincoln and his former partner, John T. Stuart, to serve for the defense. According to one account, the defendants were forced to telegraph Lincoln in order to secure his services before Fleming could contact him in Springfield by train.

Following a series of continuances that resulted in a yearlong delay in taking the case to trial, the case of Fleming vs. Rogers and Crothers commenced in April 1857. Every doctor in Bloomington was called to testify either for the prosecution or the defense. The prosecution alone called 15 doctors and 21 other witnesses. After hearing one week of testimony, the jury deliberated for 18 hours but was unable to reach a decision. As a result, the case was continued to a special term in June. At that time, the case was then continued to the September term before being continued to December—at which point a change of venue was called for by representatives for the defense. Before the case could be tried in March, 1858 under the Logan Circuit Court at Lincoln, IL, an agreement was reached that the case should be dismissed. Doctor Rogers and his fellow defendant agreed to cover any medical fees incurred by the plaintiff.

Though the case was eventually dismissed without a decision by the jury, Lincoln’s closing remarks to the jury provide historical significance to this case, which is thought to have been one of the first medical malpractice lawsuits in Illinois. In an attempt to illustrate to Lincoln the scientific explanation for Fleming’s right leg healing as it did, Dr. Crothers provided the lawyer with two chicken bones—one of which was from a young chicken and one of which was from a chicken far more advanced in age. The purpose behind the visual aid was to make clear the decreased capacity for older bones to regenerate properly after withstanding severe trauma. Though the details related to biological chemistry may have escaped Lincoln when he adopted the doctor’s approach in his address to the jury, the point was clear: the defense could not be held responsible for Fleming’s agedness, only for their attempts to provide the patient with proper medical care in the hopes that his legs would heal as well as possible considering his current stage in life. When Fleming admitted to Lincoln that he was able to walk with a limp, the lawyer reportedly advised the prosecution to “‘get down on your knees and thank your Heavenly Father, and also these two Doctors [Rogers and Crothers] that you have any legs to stand on at all.’”

Research does not indicate that this lawsuit against Drs. Rogers and Crothers had any ill effect on the reputation and continued careers of the individuals involved. Rogers’s clientele was described as “large and loyal.”

Despite his Democratic convictions, and the fact that within three years of the Fleming incident Rogers would serve on the convention that nominated Douglas to run for President, the doctor was still willing to rely on the legal expertise of the renowned Abraham Lincoln. When asked his opinion of the man, Rogers once described Lincoln as a “course man in some respects with all due reverence to his memory, strong-minded, correct in morals and upright in his intercourse with man kind.” On a separate occasion, however, Rogers’s words evidence his wavering attitudes toward activity within the political milieu, as he described “Old Abe Lincoln” as an “infernal, perjured old rascal.” Like many Americans at the time of the U.S. Civil War, Rogers appears to have struggled to reconcile some of his thoughts and opinions about the state of the nation. A Northerner with Southern sympathies, Rogers’s tendency to vacillate should not be surprising. As one acquaintance once phrased it, “…I have always been friendly with Dr. Rogers, and believe him an honorable man and honest, yet he is a politician.”

Despite devoting much of his energies to the public sphere, Rogers had a private life as well. The doctor was married twice. In June 1840 he married Harriet Wilcox of North Bergen, New York. The couple had one daughter, Harriet Julia, who died at the age of nine months. The younger Harriet was followed by her mother in death only four years after she and Rogers had wed. Two years later in 1846, Rogers married Minerva Burhance, a widow with one daughter. Minerva, along with her daughter, her daughter’s husband J.H. Humphreys, and their two sons—Edward and Howard, called Rogers’s “commodious red brick house” at 306 East Washington Street home. Rogers, being an avid gardener, the “well kept lawn…extended from Gridley to Prairie Street;” and a vegetable garden and an “occasional clump of peonies” are known to have graced the landscape. He was also a member and “liberal supporter” of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church.

On August 5, 1899, white haired and “worn out,” Dr. Rogers died at the age of 91 in the house that he called home since his arrival in Bloomington in 1849. The doctor had taken ill months before and his death was expected. At the time of his passing Rogers was the oldest physician in Central Illinois. It was said that Rogers “belonged to two periods in the life of Bloomington,” and that “his passing away remove[d] a link between the pioneer past and the enterprising present.” “Blessed with a wonderful memory,” Rogers could recall stories of his pioneering past until his dying day and was known to regale an audience with tales of world events that he remembered from when he was young. Dr. Thomas P. Rogers is buried at Evergreen Memorial Cemetery in Bloomington.