Historian Annette Vance Dorey speaks about Dr. Lucy Hibbard during Dorey’s talk at the Auburn Public Library on Friday morning on health care in Auburn from the mid-1800s to the 1920s. Behind her is a photo of Hibbard’s gravestone. (Sun Journal photo by Andree Kehn)

AUBURN — For at least the first few decades after Auburn became a city in 1869, it’s safe to say that getting sick wasn’t a good idea.

It was an era when pretty much anyone could assume the identity of a doctor, take out an advertisement in the newspaper and start treating anyone foolish or ill enough to seek help.

Like every state, Maine had no medical regulations so there were, not surprisingly, many “doctors.” It didn’t matter if they’d gone to Harvard or some fly-by-night institution or never had any academic training at all.

How many of them could do anything to heal an ailing patient is hard to say. What we do know is that people as a whole didn’t live long.

Central Maine General Hospital postcard, 1908.

But out of that free-for-all era described in a talk Friday about “Early Health Care Options in Auburn and Lewiston” by Annette Vance Dorey at Auburn’s library arose a solid medical establishment centered around two major hospitals that care for thousands of people a year in the Twin Cities.

Dorey, who has written a couple of history books about early female physicians in Maine, said people today can be “kind of thankful we didn’t live in that era” given all of the advances in medicine in the past century.

But, she said, sometimes when she’s telling all sorts of personal information to a large staff in the reception room of a doctor’s office she wishes she could go back in time to an era when a physician would come to your home in a horse and buggy, check out your symptoms in your own room and talk for as long as it took.

True, doctors “were lucky to get paid” in those days, she said, but they had the right spirit.

“They were there to care for people as best they could,” Dorey said.

Dorey said the area’s first doctor was Dr. Jesse Rice of Yarmouth, who saw patients in Minot.

She didn’t mention it, but he lost three of his own children to scarlet fever during the next five years, according to the 1881 Gazetteer of the State of Maine. That was enough for him to quit medicine entirely.

In his wake, though, came an ever-growing tide of doctors, some early devotees of medicine, others solidly in thrall to homeopathy and quite a few practicing ridiculous quackery.

Dorey cited Dr. Richmond Bradford, born in Turner, who studied medicine in Brunswick and Minot before collecting a degree from Bowdoin College in Brunswick in 1829, according to a volume devoted to Bowdoin graduates of the era.

Bradford practiced in Lewiston, lived in Auburn and wound up as “a highly esteemed physician” until his 1874 death. One of his sons became a doctor in New York, but his oldest son died at age 23.

Dorey gave an account of a few female doctors in the area between Bradford’s day and the advent of modern medicine that came into its own following the flu epidemic of 1918.

Among them, she said, were Lydia Bartlett, a contemporary of Bradford’s who practiced in Turner, and Lucy Hibbard, who graduated from a female medical college in Boston in 1850 and focused mainly on midwifery and childbirth.

May 14, 1861 advertisement in the Lewiston Daily Evening Journal.

Dorey said female patients of that time, like many today, “were often not comfortable going to a male physician so they often just didn’t go” if they couldn’t find a woman.

In an 1861 newspaper ad, Hibbard offered her services “to the ladies of Lewiston as a physician” who would give particular attention to “diseases of ladies and children.”

She was ready, she said, to attend all calls as a midwife, too.

Through the latter half of the 19th century, establishment physicians connected to the Maine Medical Association struggled to push out devotees of homeopathy, which has no proven medical value, and other fields that flourished at the time.

In its second annual meeting in 1854, the association called homeopathy “unworthy of the notice” of serious doctors. It threw out several who continued to espouse the practice.

Even so, the association continued to clash with doctors touting homeopathy and other alternatives to traditional Western medicine for many more years.

It was a time when Dr. J.F. True of Auburn could peddle his patent medicine and an 1871 ad in a Lewiston newspaper could assert that one doctor could help cure people with “trance seances.”

“The competition was really great,” Dorey said, but ordinary people “didn’t really listen to all that propaganda” and went to whomever they liked.

“It’s just so different from what we think of today,” she told the small audience in Auburn.

Dr. Alonzo Garcelon, 1893

There was even a medical college of sorts in Lewiston at one point.

From 1881 to 1887, the Eclectic Medical College, in a building at Lisbon and Chestnut streets, offered degrees. It turned out, however, it was handing them out so liberally that state lawmakers shut it down as a diploma mill.

The first hospital in the Twin Cities opened in 1880 as a 20-room medical infirmary in Lewiston. Despite its electromagnetic baths, it didn’t last.

But what became St. Mary’s opened in 1888 with Dr. Alonzo Garcelon at the helm, a former mayor and governor with a good reputation.

His partner, Dr. Edward Hill, opened Central Maine General Hospital not long after that, Dorey said. The hospital has grown into a large regional medical center, as well.

Auburn had “two forgotten small ones” that didn’t last, Dorey said.

Dr. Cobb’s Private Hospital, Auburn

One was Dr. Anson Cobb’s Private Hospital at 243 Main St. that attracted patients from across New England, Dorey said.

The other was Hillcrest Hospital on Prospect Hill that served patients from 1880 to 1919. Its owner offered to sell the hospital to Auburn as an emergency facility, but the city rejected the deal, so it closed.

The price of a private room with nursing care at Hillcrest a century ago was no more than $2.50 a day. Even taking inflation into account, that’s $25 in today’s cash.

For more information on early female doctors, see Dorey’s book, Maine’s First Female Doctors.

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