Dr. Reginald Fulton Johnston, "Dr. Johnny"

Age: 76

Interviewed May 15, 1978

Concord Oral History Program
Patience MacPherson, Interviewer; Transcript edited by Renee Garrelick.

Dr. Johnston retired from practice in Concord in 1964, is now living at 103 Concord Road in Acton.

When I came to Concord on the 15th of August, 1929, I took a room at Mary Cook's, 5 Sudbury Road, an office downstairs, and an upstairs living room as I was unmarried at that time. I saw my first patient who was Miss Lucy Fosdick, an aunt of Dr. William Barclay, about 83 years old. She was a lady who crossed the United States in a covered wagon during the gold rush times. She was not really ill but liked medical attention.

Peg and I were married on February 28, 1931, and we rented a house at One Thoreau Street, home of Mrs. Bush, and we practiced there for the next two years. We later bought 8 Sudbury Road and built on a new office at that house. In 1946 we bought 63 Main Street and had an office space there.

My practice grew gradually. When Dr. Hutchinson died in 1934 I took over 75 or 80% of his practice, including Middlesex School, Concord Academy and the Fenn School.

I had graduated from Brunswick High School, and in 1920 I entered Bowdoin College, planning to go to Bowdoin Medical School, but in 1921, the Medical School closed so I continued Bowdoin one more year through 1923, when I was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and was accepted at Harvard Medical School for the class of 1923. I interned at Boston City Hospital on the fifth surgical service which was a Harvard teaching service and at Boston Lying-In Hospital. I took my state medical exams in July 1929.

During the summer of '29 all the doctors in Concord took a vacation at the same time, and two people died at that time. There were no medical attendants available, so a committee was formed with Wells Blanchard as chairman to find a new doctor. I was referred to him by a classmate of his from Harvard with whom I had trained at City Hospital.

When I came to Concord in '29 Dr. Charles Hutchinson and Dr. Dennis Sheehan, Dr. Henry Walcott, Dr. Stanton Garfield, Dr. Ross Whitten were practicing in Concord and Dr. Isaac Pickard in West Concord, and Dr. Chamberlain were retired physicians and Dr. William Bartlett was practicing in Boston but living in Concord. It was a matter of common courtesy at that time to make calls on all the doctors in town when you first came to town, so I first saw Dr. Walcott and then Dr. Hutchinson and both made me very unwelcome so I stopped making courtesy calls. Dr. Whitten took me under his wing and Dr. Wentworth was very kind to me, he and Mrs. Winthrop had me for dinner very frequently, and many bridge games, and in about two months I was admitted to Emerson Hospital staff. Later I became very friendly with Dr. Hutchinson, and I took care of his patients during the summer when he took a vacation.

When I first came in, the hospital had between 45 and 50 beds and the doctors on the staff were Dr. Sheehan, Dr. Garfield, Dr. Hutchinson, Dr. Walcott, Dr. Whitten from Concord, and Hooper, Ryan, Flaherty, and Addis from Maynard, Royal from Harvard, Dr. 0. Clark Middleton from Acton. From that group about eight were active. There was one doctor in Bedford, I can't remember his name. The present entrance building had the downstairs, the main surgery room, and the emergency room. The x-ray room was on that floor plus two wards and the kitchen, utility, and dining room. The obstetrics floor was upstairs with perhaps 15 or 16 beds plus delivery and waiting rooms. Across the breezeway was the new annex building with perhaps 16 beds downstairs and upstairs plus a large sunporch which could take beds during the summer. Edna Price was superintendent and did an exceptionally good job during her stay being especially adept at hiring good substitute nurses. They had excellent nurses at Emerson during my entire connection with the hospital. The ward rates were $3.50 daily, rooms $5.50 - $6.50, house calls $3.00 and $4.00, office calls $2.00 and $3.00, hospital calls $3.00, delivery $45 and $50, appendices $75 to $125. Quite different from the present-time charges.

During the late and middle '40's a new room was built across the breezeway on the left, and the utility room on the right side was changed into a single bedroom. Those were the highest priced rooms in the hospital during the 40's -- about $7.00 a day. During World War II there were no doctors in Carlisle, Wayland, Sudbury, Stow, Bedford, or Lincoln. There were three in Maynard, one in Acton, three and one-half in Concord, with Dr. Robinson working only part-time, and one in West Concord. We had to cover all of those towns, and it was quite a job to take care of all those patients. After the war the East Wing was built and prior to this Miss Price was replaced by Miss Snow, who was also a most efficient administrator and was present during all the newly built additions to the hospital up until about 4 years ago. She also had the ability to choose good nurses for the wards and also got along equally well with the doctors, nurses, board of trustees and townspeople in general.

Dr. Piper and Dr. DeForest came in 1934, both very well trained young doctors -- Dr. DeForest from Yale and Dr. Piper from Harvard. Dr. Lord came in the middle 30's. Dr. Berger came to West Concord in the early 40's. Dr. Garfield and Dr. Sheehan both left town during the 40's. Dr. Hutchinson died in 1934. I think that takes care of all the new doctors up to after the war.

I was the first trained obstetrician to come to Concord, so I rapidly built up a heavy practice in that line -- doing all of the 2500 deliveries without losing a mother, which I am very proud. I started the use of twilight sleep when I came which helped ease the pain and memory of childbirth. I had one patient from England and one from Montana, St. Louis, -- even Newton, Melrose, quite a few of them -- Harvard Graduate School, the delivery was in Concord which was much less expensive than in Boston. During the 1940's I had 146 deliveries in one year.

During the 21 years I attended Middlesex football games six or seven Saturday afternoons each fall while I was practicing, and I did not have one baby come during the football games. One came 15 minutes before, and one Saturday I left with one patient in the hospital and came back to find another waiting. I delivered many Emersons seven to one family who came from Connecticut for the babies each time.

When I first came to Concord nobody in Concord could do a blood transfusion and I had learned how to do that in the City Hospital, so I had Miss Price buy a Scannel outfit with which we could do direct transfusions. It worked beautifully until the modern transfusion methods came along. I worked with Dr. Robert Cochran in 1929 to 1946 as a consultant surgeon with very good results, as we had over 100 consecutive major cases in the 30's with no deaths. We had especially good results with thyroid patients. Later I used Gordon Donaldson and Richard Austin -- I did appendectomies, T & A's, and Caesareans myself but referred the most serious cases to MGH, N.E. Baptist and Lahey Clinic, Dr. Arthur Allen at the Massachusetts General and Dr. Cochran at the New England Baptist. I used Dr. Francis Weille, he was an ear, nose & throat consultant, and he saw thousands of Concord patients during my years in practice. Dr. T.K. Richards then Paul Norton did my fracture work. All these men became consultants to the Emerson Hospital along with several interns such as Dr. Horner.

I only lost one appendix patient who was an 83 year old diabetic who refused to have a specialist and would not go to Massachusetts General, so I had to operate on her. She died 10 days later of diabetic complications. I also lost one middle-aged tonsil patient on the operating room table, and I had one young 21 year old girl dying of general peritonitis after a ruptured appendix, temperature of 103, and going down hill very rapidly. It was about that time aureomycin came on the market so I started giving her intravenous aureomycin every four hours. The next day her temperature was normal. She survived and is still living, healthy and well, in Acton. It really saved her life, she just came out of it absolutely normal.

When I came to Concord we did most of all the bone work, most of the fractures except fractured hips -- we did all of the wrist fractures, arm fractures. We did all the minor accident work, cuts and bruises and things of that sort.

The Academy didn't have many accidents but Middlesex had nothing but accidents all the time -- cuts, bruises, football injuries, falls, broken bones. When I retired in June 1964, Middlesex School gave me a gold football dated 1934-1964 and a Middlesex sweater with a Middlesex letter on it.

When I first came to Concord I gave anesthesia at various operations, mostly for Dr. Hooper from Maynard who was doing most of the surgery at that time, a job which I thoroughly detested.

There were five types of patients in Concord when I came -- the WASP (the white Anglo-Saxon protestants), Italians, Irish, Swedish and Norwegian, later Conantum. They were a wonderful group of people, friendly, appreciative, loyal, and I don't believe they could be equalled anywhere in the United States. The WASPs were old generation Concordians, mostly employed in Boston, very attractive families with fine homes, many of them like the Berkley Wheelers, Edgartons fathers and sons, Blanchards, and the Smiths, I had as patients from the beginning. I had four generations of many families and very many families of three generations in 1964.

The Italians were a very fine group of people who kept me supplied with various fruits and vegetables for many years. Many had home deliveries my first few years in Concord. My first contact with Italians came in the fall of '29 when a woman on Grant Street went into a diabetic coma. The family called the regular MD who did not make a correct diagnosis, and I was called about 7:00 am and made the correct diagnosis and sent her to the Joslin Clinic in Boston for treatment. After that I had 90% of Italians as patients for years.

The Irish families were also a very fine, interesting group. One of my favorite patients of all time being Edward McKenna who I felt had one of the best brains in Concord -- self-educated, but highly intelligent and a diligent reader of good books. He always called me "Father," and once when I had been ill, wept when I went to see him for the first time. The Swedish-Norwegian group thought that my last name was Johnson, so I assume I had all of them as patients as they believed me also to be Swedish instead of Scotch. The Conantum group, most of the group of MIT and Harvard educators came to Concord (in the early 1950s) and they were also a most interesting group.

I also did many housecalls, did home deliveries and took care of the whole family -- babies to grandparents. The summers were hot, winters cold and snowy. One winter I skated from Hutchins on Monument Street to Fred Lovejoy's at the Carlisle line when his first wife was ill. There had been a deep drifting snow and Monument Street was closed to traffic for a week. I covered Concord, West Concord, Maynard, Littleton, Stow, Sudbury, Harvard, Carlisle, Lincoln, Bedford, and Lexington. I had obstetrical patients from all over.

Edward James was a highly educated member of the famous James family who claimed two professors at Harvard. He didn't have quite the brains as his distinguished relatives. He believed in more or less socialized things while we charged him more for calling -- I was charging him by the hour. And then we have your father, Bebe Hosmer was a man who was a very highly intelligent person who liked to wear odd costumes and was really a town character in his own right. John Metcalf, president of Carter's Ink, was another odd man always rode around town with a big Newfoundland dog in the front seat with him. He had to have a car specially made to hold the dog upright. Leif Nash, president of the Dovre Ski Binding was another character who had many hospital trips for various reasons, and each time he left the hospital he gave me money to give presents to the hospital -- things for the blood lab and various instruments for testing various diseases. The last gift was ten sheepskin rugs for people to lie on who couldn't find a bed over several weeks, as it kept the skin from breaking down and causing bed sores.

Some interesting cases I had were two cases of pellagra, one lived on Thoreau Street who lived on cake and bread. She had a real bad case of pellagra which I tried to have diagnosed at the Massachusetts General, Peter Bent Brigham Hospital, but she finally broke out in a rash and I knew what she did have so she was recovered rapidly on a proper diet. Another patient on Nashawtuc Hill had a maid and a cook and was wealthy, but she still had pellagra. I had one man with adult scurvy and one baby with scurvy. I had five patients with diphtheria, two patients with typhoid fever. The most tragic cases were four cases of influenza meningitis from Carlisle with two deaths and many pneumonia cases which had no cure until 1939. It was very difficult to manage. One elderly patient with pneumonia was being cared for by another local doctor. He gave her up for dead one evening and her sister called me down to see her. I gave her huge doses of penicillin, and she recovered and lived seven or eight more years.

My brother-in-law called from Maine one night at midnight. He said two doctors had just left the house saying that my 53 year old sister would be dead by morning of a strep throat. I went to Maine immediately and hardly recognized her when I saw her. I went down to Brunswick Hospital and bought some penicillin and started giving it, intravenous penicillin, until an ambulance could come down from Lewiston to take her to the hospital there. She survived and lived to be age 86.

I had a tremendous number of people in Concord in those days who lacked vitamins before all these nice new vitamins came. Feeding a baby was a problem in those days. They didn't have any of these nice made-up diets. You had to take milk, add sugar to it and things like that -- it was a hell of a job to raise a baby. Now all you do is buy a can and feed him like you do a dog -- nothing to it, with all the vitamins in it.

After I came to Concord I joined the Concord Country Club, it had been less than a year. There was a 9-hole course at that time which the next year became an 18-hole course. The best players at that time were Chick Edgarton, Berkley Wheeler, Sally Foot, Wendall Raymond, Harry Snelling and Gerald Henderson. There were probably 150 average players. Most of the time I played with Dr. Spencer, Chick Raymond, later Rev. Edward Daniels, Dr. Flavin, Mr. Dawson of Middlesex, John Codding. In the mid '40's I joined Musketaquid Fishing Club and played poker there, and at the Rod & Gun Club on Wednesday afternoons during the '40's and '50's.

In 1950 I was elected to the Social Circle. At that time all 25 members were patients of mine, and even though it was the Concord Social Circle we had three members who had been born in Maine, including myself. Several of the members were descendents of former members, sometimes four generations back. That was the people who had done services for the town, selectmen, and any kind of public service that helped the town keep progressing. I attended opening day at the Fenn School in 1929, met Mr. (Roger) Fenn there for the first time and David Baldwin for the first time.

In 1955 when I stopped doing obstetrics some of the former patients collected pictures of all my previous babies they could find and locate, and they had two volumes made up, also raised some money and bought equipment for the hospital and gave me a silver lovingcup. When I retired in 1964 some of the tennis club members gave me a dinner and raised about $3,000 in gifts, gifts for the hospital, also, and gave me a plaque, and gave Mrs. Johnston a present. That year I was elected Concord Rotary Man-of-the-Year.

The mothers gave me two books of baby pictures, two large volumes, and I guess there must be 1500 pictures at least in the books, and I have letters from all kinds of mothers in appreciation of what was done. One of them had a Caesarean here, then she went to New York and had the next baby there, and she practically died. She wrote that she wished that I had been in New York to take care of her. All the doctor in New York tried to do was to exercise his ego all the time, show what a great doctor he was. Meanwhile she was practically died from lack of attention. One family sent me pictures from Algeria of their children.

I looked all over Massachusetts to try to find a place to practice. I wanted a place that had a hospital. There has been nothing but happy associations. I couldn't ask for a better town to live in. Loyal patients all of them. I went on vacation one time and came back and found Miss Brooke Stevens waiting a week with a broken ankle for me to take care of. She wouldn't go to anybody else. It was absolutely stupid, you know. I came back another time and Mrs. Henry Hosmer had fallen on the ice and hit her head. She waited 5 days to see me. She wouldn't have anybody. She had a crack all across her skull.

I was sick over and over again and they'd still be waiting when I came back. I would have those damn dizzy spells all the time in 1931 on, deafness in 1937 on. I have seen 107 people in one day, if you want to believe it. Now you see 50 people today routinely.

I just wish I could have kept on practicing until I was 75 as I had hoped to do.

Text mounted 12th December 2012. RCWH.